The smart sabra blond

Just how deeply has the blond penetrated Israeli culture? If a society reveals itself in its jokes, the answer is fairly deeply. In a special spread in its weekend magazine earlier this year, Ma'ariv invited people representing different communities and social archetypes to tell a joke about their constituency. There was the politician, the professional athlete and the Arab, as well as jokes about different subsections of the Jewish population: the overly devout haredi, the overly educated German, the overly neurotic Polish woman, the overly money-conscious Iranian. (No one said the section was in good taste.) Also appearing among the joke-tellers was Pnina Rosenblum, who over nearly four decades of celebrity has converted her signature blond look into activities ranging from a brief Knesset tenure to running a multimillion dollar company. But despite her accomplishments, Rosenblum provided one of the most predictable contributions of the bunch, a run-of-the-mill "dumb blond" effort about a young woman who faints at her hair salon after the stylist removes the pair of headphones she keeps studiously attached to her ears. (Punch line: After the blond passes out, the stylist listens to the recording, which simply repeats, "Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale." Lenny Bruce, your legacy is safe.) But while Israelis are certainly familiar with the stereotype of the dumb blond - a stereotype created and perpetuated, some critics say, by intimidated men - the idea is hardly the only one in circulation. "Blond," after all, is a relative term, as anyone familiar with what counts as blondini can attest. For some, in fact, light hair has even represented education and intelligence - characteristics traditionally more associated with the country's Ashkenazim, generally lighter than its Mizrahim. In the past, says Adva Rahamim, a 29-year-old of Moroccan and Iraqi background, "you might have seen an Ashkenazi and thought, 'He's better educated, better looking.' It isn't necessarily like that anymore, but I do think there are still stereotypes about Ashkenazim and Mizrahim." "If you want to blur the issue," she goes on, "you can do something like dye your hair blond." Raised in Kiryat Malachi, a small town in the northern Negev that started as a "transit camp" for refugees from the Arab world and Iran, Rahamim did exactly that about four years ago - going blond for the first time while studying for her bachelor's degree at Ben-Gurion University. The idea, she says, came from the mother of an Ashkenazi boyfriend. "On the one hand," she recalls, "I was initially offended. Not exactly offended, but I understood that she wanted her son going out with someone different, Ashkenazi. On the other hand, I recognized it as an opportunity to try something new, to become someone different." The look, it turned out, proved a hit, and Rahamim says she's "received more, achieved more," since lightening her hair. "There's a perception that blond hair is prettier, cleaner, more aesthetically appealing," she says. "Outside Israel, blonds are tall, they're beautiful... Because you live in a society where everyone has dark hair and dark eyes, you want something different, something distinctive. People always say that if someone has dark hair, she needs to be truly beautiful to attract attention." Not all the reactions have been positive, she notes, recalling a university lecturer whose opinion of her diminished, she felt, once she turned up as a blond. "Some people will be turned off, will treat you differently, if they see that you're concerned with appearance," she says. "But they're few and far between. The majority of people understand you better if they see that you take care of yourself, and with them, being blond is clearly preferable." Regarding that other damaging stereotype - the one about the libidinous young blond - she says she isn't concerned, though not because portions of the male population haven't bought into it. "If [a man] is looking to establish a home, a family, he'll look for someone with dark hair," she says. "If he's looking for a one-night stand, he'll look for a blond." And that doesn't bother her? She laughs momentarily - her husband wants her to return to her natural hair color, she admits - but continues: "Listen, I know how to deal with this. If someone is after me for that purpose, I'll figure out a way that he's no longer anywhere near me. If [a woman] isn't interested, it won't get anywhere." She sees her hair as a conscious choice - "It was my decision to do this" - and views it as a form of self-expression, even empowerment. Blond hair looks "natural" on her, she contends, though she says the color may be held against "someone with dark skin who clearly dyes her hair." (Rahamim's sisters, who both have darker complexions, don't lighten their hair.) With two degrees under her belt and a Ph.D. now in progress, Rahamim says perceptions of blonds ultimately depend on "how they speak, behave, even stand." "People who hear me speak know I'm not a frecha," she says, using the pejorative slang term for loud, suggestively dressed women. "There can even be natural blonds who, once someone hears them talk, will be considered frechot." In both Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relations and more generally, she says, the key issue is making sure each head of hair looks good. "There's blond hair that looks great," she concludes, "and blond hair that's, you know, oy va voy!"