I was in 10th or 11th grade at the Yeshivah, Rabbi David Eliach, the austere principal who was then about mid-way through his 43-year tenure, called a few of us from the religious honors class into his office. (The grade was segregated along the lines of religious/non-religious, Syrian-Sephardic/Ashkenazic, and honors/non-honors—aka “stupid.”) Rabbi Eliach told us that the high hopes he had had for our class were nowhere close to being realized. After all, even for an honors class ours was particularly gifted—what with a son of the legendary teaching pair Rabbi Amnon and Dina Haramati, the son of the beloved English teacher Rona Bar-Chama, and Rabbi Eliach’s own daughter—and these were not even among the top three in our class (neither was I). It seemed that Rabbi Eliach had hoped that we would somehow inspire the whole grade of 180 students to dedicate themselves to doing mitzvot, studying Torah, and performing acts of lovingkindess. I remember that I was able to pinpoint our predicament for Rabbi Eliach: “It’s not cool to be religious,” I said.
Ah yes, Judaism and the coolness problem. Fast-forwarding to my life here, I had thought that in the Jewish State, where it is in fact cool to be Jewish, that it would also be cool to be a religious Jew. I’m afraid that the truth is that while there are certainly plenty of cool religious Jews here, ultimately it is always going to be cooler not to be a religious Jew. This of course is as it should be. Whatever else religion is, it also should stand as an unwavering beacon of justice, goodness, and righteousness against which societies and people may check themselves.
Ultimately the Sabbath and the kashrut laws put a break on your coolness potential. At a certain point, just like outside of Israel, a person must decide what is most important to them: being cool or being a religious Jew. In Israel, those who prefer not to advertise their decision sometimes go “transparent.” For the most part, a “shakoof” religious person refers to a man who breaks with the normal Jewish religious practice of covering one’s head (it’s easier for women to be transparent). While Israel is the only place in the world where the kipa marks a person as a religious Jew (outside of Israel its main signifier is plain old Jewishness), some experience this as unnecessarily setting themselves apart. The solution for these people is to either always walk around with some kind of hat (typically a beret), or to completely dispense with any head gear. A man I know goes bareheaded and yet walks around with his tzitzit sticking out from beneath his shirt. Though the tzitizit clearly mark him as a religious Jew, he obviously feels that it is less objectionable than a kipa.
Once an Israeli has taken the plunge and decided that they are religious and to heck with coolness maximization, the Hebrew language comes to their aide and offers up a wonderful coolness consolation prize. Whereas the word “religious” is quite an uncool mouthful, its Hebrew equivalent, dati, is fun and friendly. Indeed, “dati” is kind of the mirror image of “teddy,” and according to my wife one of the things that I stand for is friendliness (and she is right). So while a religious Jew in Israel is not quite as cool as their non-religious doppelganger, if you’re going to be religious, it’s a huge advantage to be dati here.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religous studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.