Lighten up!

Dyeing your hair blond may seem thoroughly superfcial. But in Israel, it can often signal a deeper societal identity crisis.

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
August 2, 2007 14:34
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Though not widely recognized for her profound cultural insights, overexposed hotel heiress Paris Hilton was nevertheless on to something last summer when she told The Times of London, "Every decade has an iconic blond... and right now, I'm that blond." The Western world's fascination with light-haired women is a phenomenon going back millennia, ever since the ancient Greeks began depicting Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as a voluptuous Mediterranean blond born in a puff of sea foam. Competing ideas about blonds have proliferated over the intervening centuries, with some stereotypes remaining intact and others fading away with the speed and inevitability of a cheap dye job. Images of the blond continue to abound, of course, ranging from the wholesome young blond virgin (Doris Day; Mary, mother of Jesus) to the oversexed blond vixen (Jean Harlow, Jenna Jameson), from the coy blond ditz (Marilyn Monroe) to the not-to-be-underestimated blond achiever (the Melanie Griffith character in Working Girl).

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  • As a key to survival Also familiar are the adolescent blond nymphet (Nabokov's Lolita, Britney Spears in her heyday) and the top-heavy blond bombshell (Jayne Mansfield, Anna Nicole Smith). Star-making Hollywood roles have included Basic Instinct's seductive blond killer (Sharon Stone) and, by way of contrast, an unlikely Harvard law student who earns the distinction of graduating "legally blond" (Reese Witherspoon). In the real world, there are the skilled, savvy practitioners of blond ambition (Madonna, Hillary Clinton), not to mention a new addition to the category: the recently reformed blond party girl, humbled and wiser after a short stint in prison (Paris Hilton again). Missing from all these stereotypes, perhaps for good reason, is another key figure in Western memory - the Jewish woman, as well as her male counterparts. So it's presumably a surprise for many visitors to arrive in Israel and find themselves in a country populated in no small part by blonds, who dominate billboards and beaches and play an increasingly ubiquitous role in national life. From TV screens to the Knesset, restaurants to the country's top stages, blond hair has become an impossible-to-miss feature of the contemporary Israeli. Models and actresses like Pnina Rosenblum and Yael Bar-Zohar have forged careers based to a significant degree on their famed blond locks, while respected singers like Riki Gal have adopted blond as their signature look. At the 2005 edition of Eurovision, the international song contest famed for its political undertones, the country was represented by the pop star Shiri Maimon, a 24-year-old blond whose hair made almost as much of a visual impression as her eye-poppingly low-cut dress. And when our own answer to Britney Spears debuted on music store shelves early the previous year, she naturally took the form of another blond - this one named Roni Superstar (nee Douani), a bubbly young singer whose success derived at least as much from her looks as her music. And the trend is by no means limited to entertainers. Women in undeniably cerebral professions - wielding real political, financial and cultural influence - also regularly go blond here, most visible among them Miki Haimovich, the highly paid Channel 10 news anchor considered a pioneer among the country's female broadcasters. Veteran journalist Avirama Golan, a Ha'aretz editorial board member and author, is well-known for her platinum blond locks, and Shari Arison, the country's wealthiest resident, also occasionally appears with golden hair. In the political sphere, three of the four largest parties count a blond among their Knesset members, including Nadia Hilu, an Arab legislator from Labor. (Shas, the third largest, doesn't have any blonds - or any women - among its MKs.) Blond hair, in other words, has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon, crossing boundaries of socioeconomic status, age and ethnicity as few other trends have. A recent TV documentary on the topic, the succinctly named Blond, concluded after an investigation of Internet dating sites that Israeli gentlemen do indeed prefer blonds, while interviews at local sperm banks suggest that the country's prospective mothers favor donations that may result in blond babies. Where, one might reasonably ask, does such a fascination come from, particularly in a place where so few residents are naturally blond? (Statistics haven't been collected on the topic, but in interviews, hairdressers and one of the country's leading modeling agents estimate that blonds - both natural and chemically-aided - make up almost one-third of the female population, a proportion in line with the percentage of natural and dyed blonds in Europe.) Jews' recent history with blond hair is by no means an easy one, and for many Israelis it only became more complicated after the creation of the state. "They are even ashamed of their country," said the third-century church leader Tertullian, remarking on the women of his time who dyed their hair blond. "[They are] sorry that they were not born in Germany or in Gaul! Thus, as far as their hair is concerned, they give up their country." Nearly 2,000 years later, beauty ideals continue to play no less a role in identity politics, inspiring, among other examples, the "Black Is Beautiful" movement and "Jewfro" hairstyle of 1960s and '70s America. The decision to go blond still has the power to inspire anger and resentment - witness the backlash in the Spanish-speaking world earlier this decade when Shakira, the Colombian pop star, lightened her hair as part of an ultimately successful English-language crossover attempt. South American fans accused the singer of literally betraying her roots, and the issue applies no less to 21st-century Israeli Jews, finally gathered in a state of their own. Are they sorry, as Tertullian might suggest, that they too weren't born in Germany or in Gaul? THE TEMPTATION to go blond is neither new nor limited to Israelis, of course, going back much farther than even Tertullian. At the same time the ancient Greeks were worshiping images of a blond Aphrodite, the society's upper class women were lightening their hair with saffron and more complicated Old World concoctions. Their successors in the Roman Empire pursued the same goal more ruthlessly, covering their heads in pigeon dung to exploit the natural bleaching powers of its ammonia. (Rome's wealthiest women also took advantage of a second, more morally problematic technique, reports Times of London journalist Joanna Pitman. In On Blondes, her popular history of hair color, Pitman notes that northern Europe was wracked for a period by kidnappings of its blond men and women, whose hair was later forcibly shorn to make wigs for the Roman nobility.) A thousand years later, the women of Renaissance Italy were demonstrating no less a devotion to the pursuit of blond hair, rinsing their scalps in horse urine to achieve the desired golden effect. And the drive for light hair has by no means been restricted to Europe, with accounts of fake blonds in the Middle East also stretching back millennia. In addition to the occasional Egyptian hieroglyphic depicting figures with yellow or orange hair, the ancient Persians and Assyrians also maintained an interest in light locks, alternately lacing gold threads into their beards and dusting their hair with gold powder. In the Land of Israel, blonds probably didn't arrive en masse until the Crusades, when "lovely Frankish women... all licentious harlots," began landing on Middle Eastern shores to "give support" to Christian warriors, according to a 12th-century Arab historian quoted by Pitman. Theories abound about the appeal of light hair, with explanations ranging from the cultural to the evolutionary. Some suggest that the rarity of natural blonds is alone sufficient to explain their powers of attraction, while others attribute blond hair's appeal to culturally-reinforced associations between light and goodness (an argument that goes a long way toward explaining the halos of angels and the blondness of figures like the Virgin Mary, a Jewish woman from the ancient Middle East, in much of Christian art). Biologists have suggested an evolutionary basis for a preference for blonds, arguing that light hair mirrors the temporary fairness of babies and young children, a feature that in turn seems to indicate youth and reproductive health. And from a social standpoint, it's often no problem when the color comes artificially - be it from Clairol, gold powder or kidnapped northern Europeans. Wherever it originates, fake blondness can be read as a signal of wealth, representing in visual terms the financial means and leisure time required for a dye job or wig. (This last argument has weakened over time, however, with Pitman reporting that blond hair temporarily fell out of fashion in Europe as early as the 17th century, when the falling price of dyeing materials allowed the look to become widespread. In some quarters, in other words, blond hair was already being dismissed 400 years ago as looking "cheap.") AS WITH the rise of the earliest land animals, it's difficult to pinpoint the precise origins of the Jewish blond. Though the Bible features attractive characters, including a Jewish woman made royalty for her beauty (Purim's Queen Esther) and a young man seduced by the wife of a powerful Egyptian (Joseph), the text is consistently unspecific about hair color, perhaps because that aspect of physical appearance could be more or less taken for granted as dark. Some scholars note that the name of Adam, the progenitor of all mankind, shares a root with the Hebrew word "red," inferring that he may have had hair or skin of that color. Later in the Bible, the famously abundant hair of the vengeful Esau is believed to have been red, while the Book of Samuel describes the future King David as "handsome and ruddy," an appraisal also believed to denote red locks. In a region of scorching sunlight, fair features may have been coveted during the biblical period as an alluring sign of wealth - of not needing to labor outdoors - which helps to explain the theory that the sometimes troublesome beauty of Sarah, wife of the first Jew, derived from a light complexion. (It may also account for the self-description, bordering on an apology, by the female voice at the start of the Song of Songs, in which she tells her lover, "I am black, but comely." The woman, possibly the daughter of a pharaoh, later directs her partner, "Look not upon me, that I am swarthy, that the sun hath tanned me.") Some of the surnames of later generations of Jews are believed to have reflected physical qualities of their bearers, but suggested nothing about the existence of Jewish blonds. The Ashkenazi last name Roth, for example, was likely an appellation for a red-haired man (derived from the Middle High German rot), though etymologists note that the name appears more frequently than red hair itself among Jews of European descent. The common Mizrahi surname Elbaz, meanwhile, means "falcon" in Arabic, but while the bird is often a gold color in the regions of North Africa where Elbaz families originate, any connection to hair is a tenuous one. Most telling of all may be the absence of any native Hebrew word for blond. "Blondini" and "blondinit," the Israeli terms for men and women sporting the color, arrived in Hebrew from English, which itself probably took the word from Frankish, a Germanic language originally spoken in what's now northern France and the Low Countries. The artificiality of the Hebrew word is mirrored nicely in the slang term sh'chordinit, an expression often used less than charitably for a woman whose black (shachor) roots have grown in beneath the dyed blond layer of her hair. But whenever and however they emerged, blond Jews have certainly long existed, attracting scholarly attention since at least the mid-19th century, the start of the eugenics movement, precisely because they so defied stereotypes. In 1861, two years after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, John Beddoe, an English academic writing "On the Physical Characteristics of the Jews" for the Ethnological Society of London, listed a series of other writers who'd noticed the "frequency of blond hair" among the Jewish women of Algeria and Tunisia, though he noted the claim of another writer that "he never saw a Jewess who was not dark" west of Algiers. ("Xanthous," or yellow, Jews, were also to be found in Egypt and Syria, Beddoe wrote in the piece. A statistical chart at the end of the essay, meanwhile, claimed there to be no fair-haired Jews in either Vienna or Prague.) Ten years later, Pitman notes, a report of the German Anthropological Society noted that Jewish blonds did indeed exist in the newly unified Deutschland, while the author of a 1903 article in Biblical World (later The Journal of Religion, published by the University of Chicago Press) notes that the "typical Sephardi," though usually endowed with "dark hair and eyes," is also "not uncommonly reddish blond." BUT THE type of physical description that would ultimately exert the greatest influence on Israeli beauty standards comes later in the Biblical World essay, datelined, notably, from "Jerusalem, Syria." In contrast to the generally attractive Jews of North Africa and the Orient - Yemenite Jews more than any others may "resemble their forefathers of the Exodus," the article contends - the "Ashkenaz Jew" is an object of pity: "undersized, anemic, unwashed, uncombed," an unappealing reflection of "what 'Christian' Europe has made him by long centuries of harassing persecutions." And with no letup to those "harassing persecutions" in sight, it probably isn't surprising that many Jews had internalized, at least unconsciously, the stereotypes being wielded against them. In a 1903 essay published by American Anthropologist, the influential Russian-born Jewish academic Maurice Fishberg bluntly declared that "[t]he type of the Jew is dark," observing elsewhere in the piece that American Jewesses have darker skin than their male counterparts. (In Poland, he wrote, the relationship was reversed.) Many Jews of the period saw their salvation, or at least an opportunity to minimize anti-Semitism, in assimilation - the successful renunciation of their beliefs and the adoption of the majority modes of dress and appearance. A second, less widely embraced tactic emerged in the form of Zionism, which envisioned as a solution a new type of empowerment, the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish homeland in Palestine. But revolutionary as Zionism was in its refusal to accept anti-Semitism as an inescapable fact of life, the movement itself was also profoundly infected by the anti-Jewish stereotypes of the period, including the physical, and arguably most dehumanizing, among them. "Our starting point," said Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the right-wing Zionist hero and champion of the Hebrew language, "is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite... because the Yid is ugly, sick and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty." Jabotinsky's way of thinking, honored most visibly today in the form of streets across the country bearing his name, was widely influential during his own lifetime as well. And when it came to the human body, he was joined by the Zionist movement more broadly in focusing attention on the redemption of the male form, rejecting the stereotype of the bookish, bullied Jewish weakling in favor of the New Jew, a man equal parts athlete, fighter and worker of the land. But while some Zionists imagined residents of the new Jewish state conforming to a mythic vision of the biblical past, others seemed to believe - with unpleasant irony, in historical hindsight - that the New Jew would actually look rather more "Aryan," adorned with fair if tanned skin and plenty of blond hair. The Jews' transformation into a proud and independent people, Zionist promotional materials and art implied, would be mirrored physically, with posters and paintings of the period depicting male and female laborers, always strong and often blond, contentedly working away in the fields and orchards of their land. Following a visit to the newly born State of Israel in 1952, the thoughtful, otherwise sympathetic Middle East scholar Emile Marmorstein boiled down the visual statement in a speech at Chatham House, the London home of the Royal Institute for International Affairs. Describing a metaphorical Zionist poster in terms only slightly more exaggerated than the reality, Marmorstein told his audience, "On one side... one sees [the non-Israeli Jew] before treatment, a swarthy, hook-nosed, shifty, cringing Oriental, terrified of his own shadow. On the other side, we find him transformed into a muscular, blond giant, straight in body and mind, facing the world confidently and defiantly." Eight years after his speech, United Artists released Exodus, Hollywood's adaptation of the Leon Uris novel about Israel's creation. "It is significant," Jewish studies scholar Jonathan Boyarin wrote three decades later, "[that] the hero of the Exodus film, the 'New Jew,' the product of liberation [via] Zionism, is blond and blue-eyed Paul Newman." Jabotinsky and his contemporaries never had the chance to work as Hollywood casting directors, but it's not unlikely that they would have been pleased by the choice. THE HISTORICAL reality, of course, didn't exactly match the image of Israel presented in the movie. Newman's Exodus co-star, the platinum blond Eva Marie Saint (a Christian nurse in the film), was nowhere to be found; in her place were several hundred thousand refugees and Holocaust survivors, as well as Jews recently expelled from the Arab world, which seethed on Israel's sides with all-too-credible threats against the state's existence. "Over a million Jews are now cooped up in a small country," Marmorstein commented in 1952. "There are few recent immigrants who do not feel that someone is discriminating against them and many older residents have similar suspicions." Tensions between the different communities simmered at fluctuating heats but were held in check by external pressures on the impoverished young country, whose very survival still represented a question of immediate relevance. Making matters worse from a psychological standpoint, Marmorstein said, was the fact that many of the new Israelis - recent refugees and death camp inmates - believed on some level that their situation, miserable as it was, was probably what they deserved. "Within this crowd... there are a number who have in the past digested immense quantities of anti-Semitic literature," he said. "The insults directed against them have pervaded their subconscious minds. They are now part of their literary condition and, when they are aroused, they find expression." This absorption of traditional anti-Semitism, appearing within such a small, interdependent population, played a negative role in the lives of nearly everyone, but served as a particularly destructive force for the Mizrahim, Jews arriving in Israel by the hundreds of thousands from across North Africa and the Middle East. Noting with relief that "the government does not share these prejudices," Marmorstein observed that "the very existence of a color prejudice is a significant fact." "There appears to be no precedent for it in Jewish history," he continued. "It must surely be attributed - at least in part - to the impact of racial theories and attitudes of Central and Eastern Europe, the persistent attempt to deny the value of Oriental achievements and... Oriental morals, habits and looks, which seem to have penetrated some of the targets at which they were aimed." So pervasive was the rejection of both Jabotinsky's "ugly Yid" and the dark new Mizrahim that even hair became a meaningful trope in the developing social code. For men - still the focal point of Zionist concerns about appearance and identity - the blorit hairstyle reigned supreme, with the look, developed in the pre-state era, peaking in popularity in the first decade after Israel's establishment. The style, which required short, tidy sideburns and a small corona of hair brushed straight back on top, was both low-maintenance and intended to represent the pioneering discipline of the new Israeli, according to "From Blorit to Ponytail," sociologist Oz Almog's 2003 Israel Studies essay on the topic. But while not everyone wanted a blorit or had a sufficiently well-endowed scalp to pull it off - Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion being the most famous example - certain hairstyles were actively discouraged. While the blorit (which simply means "forelock") became the signature look of the sabra, pe'ot ("sideburns") were denigrated as an anachronism belonging to the religious, emasculated Jew of the Diaspora. At ma'abarot, the make-shift communities built for the incoming waves of Mizrahim, medical workers, welfare officials and even teachers applied "overt or covert pressure" to persuade immigrants to cut off their sidelocks, frequently citing ringworm and lice - genuine health threats that were indeed widespread within the camps - as the reason. But pressure to shear off pe'ot was perceived as anti-religious coercion by immigrants and politicians, Almog reports, and helped to fuel tensions between the country's religious and secular parties. The first government fell in large part because of those tensions; the debate over hair, he argues, played its own small but undeniable part. Early Israelis clearly had bigger issues to worry about than hair, but the cultural significance of the blorit - not to mention the controversy over pe'ot - revealed the degree to which questions of appearance remained a raw issue for citizens of the new state. The competing impulses personified by Jabotinsky are clearly identifiable in the new Israelis Marmorstein describes. "How can you have confidence," a Yiddish radio commentator sarcastically asks, "in a country which does not kick you around? How can you have respect for a regime which respects you and your accursed 'ugly Jewish face'?" It isn't hard to imagine the broadcaster's anger, directed at recent immigrants returning to life overseas, deriving at least in part from a familiar feeling of rejection - that the departing Jews, like so many gentiles before them, were disassociating themselves from the undesirables who remained behind. There is a "prevailing admiration within the state for attributes that are not 'Jewish,'" Marmorstein observed, noting earlier that "the gratification with which comments on the un-Jewish appearance of the children are welcomed is most revealing... The absence of Jewish characteristics is regarded as a highly desirable quality... a basic article of the Zionist creed." The specific, highly desirable quality he goes on to name - the one that instills pride in Israeli parents with children lucky enough to have it - is a head of "non-Jewish" blond hair. LIKE THE Greek goddess of love, Israel's own Aphrodite emerged from the water. Or at least from a "Queen of the Water" contest. Pnina Rosenblum, then a 16-year-old student and later a model, actress, failed singer, Knesset member and cosmetics mogul, emerged from a difficult Holon childhood in 1970, winning a life-altering beauty contest and embarking on what would become one of the country's most successful, and enduring, modeling careers. She would spend virtually all of it as a blond. The daughter of an Eastern European father and an Iraqi mother, Rosenblum, born in 1954, was both representative of and an exception to her generation of teenagers, the first to be born following the creation of the state. In a country still plagued by Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions, Rosenblum's "mixed" background stood out nearly as much as her platinum blond locks. But in her willingness and ability to toy with her hair's natural look, she would also prove more typical of her peers, who entered adolescence after the end of the tzena, or period of economic austerity, that followed the country's founding. Though her country was hardly experiencing the financial boom enjoyed by the US and Western Europe, ongoing economic stabilization, combined with greater exposure to Western culture, created a generation better equipped to experiment with appearance and attitudes about being Israeli. (In the same decade, singers Zohar Argov and Svika Pick offered new approaches to the male hairdo, with the former personifying the introduction of blow dryers and hair gel and the latter daringly growing his hair below his shoulders - a laidback, shaggy look hard to imagine in the previous period.) During the 1980s, the country's improving economic fortunes sped the growth of consumer culture - and the rise of the blond. The phenomenon continued its acceleration over the following decade, when Rosenblum's blond crown - once a phenomenon nearly all its own - worked its way across the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi communities and made inroads into even the more recently arrived Ethiopian population. In teenage model Yael Bar-Zohar, the country found its own '90s equivalent of Pamela Anderson - a chemically-aided young blond with dubious acting skills but a clear gift for filling out a swimsuit. And on the other side of the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide, Miri Bohadana, a Miss Israel runner-up of Moroccan background, saw her modeling career take off after lightening her hair to a golden - occasionally bordering on white - halo. By this stage, the country was reaching what one might call hair maturity - an era in which appearance-as-ideology gave way to a less historically loaded understanding of beauty. Though unprecedented numbers of women were dyeing their hair, they were doing so less in reaction to the past or one another, and more as a consequence of a global culture seemingly ever more enamored of the blond. Hastening the change may have been the breakdown, by now several decades in the works, of the old Ashkenazi hegemony over political, social and cultural mores, a development that significantly weakened the traditional stigma against the "mixed" marriages from which Rosenblum was born. ISRAEL, CLEARLY, appreciates a beautiful blond as much as the next country, and certain local companies continue to believe that blond hair helps them sell. (Asked whether blond hair confers an advantage on models being hired by those companies, Shai Avital, an agent at Elite Models, one of the country's top firms, puts himself through a studious display of evasiveness before conceding that certain companies request a "European" or "American" look when auditioning models, a description that ultimately boils down to blond hair and fair skin.) But Israelis don't lighten their hair in a conscious effort to look more like Germans or Gauls, says Dani Rom, owner of Tel Aviv's Blondie hair salon. Whatever ancient stereotypes first inspired the practice, blond hair has taken on a dynamic life of its own, he says, with customers giving the trend little more thought than the purchase of a specific type of shoe or brand of jeans. (Rom says he decided to call his business Blondie - also the name of the American New Wave band and Hitler's German shepherd - not because of any inherent appeal in the look, but simply because of the word's predominant association with hair.) To a considerable degree, a person writing "On the Physical Characteristics of the Jews" today would need to describe just as many "types" as did the Biblical World article in 1903. The idea of a single "Jewish look" has always been illusory, as even the German Anthropological Society conceded two decades before Hitler's birth. At the same time, the creation of Israel has led to a situation unique since before the era of Tertullian. For the first time in 2,000 years, more than half the world's Jews are gathered in one place, bringing together sizable ancient communities from Africa, the Arab world, Europe and Iran, as well as more recently established populations from the western hemisphere. Widespread immigration and the breakdown of intercommunal tensions has led over time if not to a uniquely "Israeli look," then to a more heterogeneous gene pool than perhaps at any time in Jewish history. "Everyone's marrying everyone," says Galit Gutman, one of the country's highest paid models and for much of her career a bottle blond. "Twenty years ago, it was very clear whether someone was Polish, Moroccan, Yemenite - it was very obvious. Children now are a mix, and they look like it." The host of Hadugmaniot, the country's version of America's Next Top Model, Gutman says Israelis recognize beauty without regard to a person's ethnic or religious background. She points out that TV viewers chose as the most recent winner of her program Niral Karantinji, a Muslim Arab from Haifa, and that the runner-up, Mimi Tadesa, immigrated from Ethiopia. (Tadesa, notably, wore her hair bleach-blond on the show.) It's been a decade since Gutman, 34, first went blond, but the model, who in a commercial once paid homage to Marilyn Monroe's famous skirt-fluttering scene in The Seven Year Itch, notes that she's also done work over the years in a variety of other hair colors. When she goes abroad, she says, people often wonder whether she's "Romanian or Dutch." And what does Gutman, the descendant of Jewish refugees from Europe, tell them? She expresses mild surprise at the question, so obvious does this blond find the answer. "I say that I'm Israeli," she says.


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