A Zany Israeli Television Drama Explores the World of Hip, Mizraḥi Yeshiva Students

Jan. 29 2018

The Israeli television series Shababnikim follows three students of Mizraḥi (i.e., Middle Eastern or North African) origin at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. Shai Secunda writes in his review:

Shababnikim gets its name from the modern Hebrew slang term for yeshiva boys on the margins. The word’s etymology—from the Arabic shabab (“youth”) capped by the Yiddish suffix -nik—hints at the charged hybridity of Mizraḥi yeshiva students in Ashkenazi institutions, and the show mines this tension for dramatic effect. For example, despite his best efforts to adopt the dress and diction of Ashkenazi ḥaredi culture, [one of the students], Meir, is demeaned by yeshiva officials and matchmakers for his North African roots. When his hardscrabble Mizraḥi neighborhood welcomes him home as a rock star—drinking in his Torah lessons and eagerly accepting his fertility blessings—Meir is awakened to his own Sephardi sexiness. As one neighbor observes, he looks like a cross between Marlon Brando and the equally stylish former chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.

To its credit, Shababnikim explores the fault lines between secular and ḥaredi [Israelis] with a successful combination of seriousness and silliness. Avinoam wants nothing more than to be part of broader, secular Israeli society. He buys his dark suits at Zara and takes pride in winning a football match—without realizing that though they may shop at Zara, secular Israelis dress casually and know nothing about American football. . . .

Contrary to popular conception, top ḥaredi institutions, like the Jerusalem-based Hebron yeshiva (“the Harvard of yeshivas,” as the show puts it), house stylish, relatively worldly yeshiva students who, alongside a steady diet of Lithuanian [talmudic erudition], enjoy short espressos, long secular novels, and Van Damme action movies. Perhaps most shocking to viewers are the scenes of our shababnikim casually studying late at night in their underwear, to the strains of Israeli soft rock and the sweet drag of a cigarette. . . . [T]heir remarkable comfort in their own skins and willingness to flirt with hedonism and heresy is a legacy of East European yeshiva life, . . . where some students imagined themselves philosopher princes who should dress smartly and not fret about excessive pieties.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Haredim, Israeli society, Mizrahi Jewry, Television, Yeshiva

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays