In 1989, a song by musician Korin Alal jokingly called Israel a “small country with a mustache,” referencing the one belonging to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Much like Shamir himself, 74 at the time, his mustache was a remnant of an older Israel, traditional and decidedly un-trendy when it came to men’s looks. It was also an odd sight in Israeli politics; until very recently, mustaches and beards in Israel were associated, for the most part, with religious and ethnic minority groups.
“For a long time, the Israeli idea of a beard could go two ways,” said Jonathan Keren, founder of Maapilim, a new men’s grooming brand in Israel. “Obviously you had religious Jews growing beards, as they have for centuries, but you also had a sort of kibbutznik aesthetic, a very free-growing and free-flowing facial hair that didn’t get too much attention.” Other groups traditionally affiliated with facial hair included Israeli Arabs and the Druze, who make up about 2 percent of the Israeli population.
These days, however, facial hair in Israel is having a broad-based revival—free of previous associations. “The relationship Israeli men have with their facial hair has come a long way,” said Keren, whose company sells, among other products, beard oils, and pomades.
Maapilim launched in 2015, powered by popular demand and pioneering the beard grooming niche in Israel. “Now—and we’re part of this movement—men in Israel are increasingly giving themselves attention when it comes to grooming. Men want to look and feel good about themselves,” said Keren. While Maapilim recently forayed into shampoos and body creams, facial hair grooming was and remains its focus: “So many men grow facial hair for the style these days, but then don’t know exactly how to care for it to get the best result,” said Keren. “Men can be a little lost when it comes to their facial hair. So we thought that would be a good place to start.”
In the past couple years, Israeli cities have welcomed a new type of business, previously unknown to the Israeli consumer: stylish yet intentionally rugged men’s hair salons, which offer shaving and beard-shaping services in addition to haircuts. One such place is Barberia, a mini-chain of men’s salons with three locations in Tel Aviv and Haifa; its major draw is an expert team of beard trimmers, some of them sporting enviable beards themselves. “I was looking for a hair salon I’ll enjoy coming to, and there was none,” said founder and co-owner Asaf Gorelik, whose salons are decorated in deep-brown and beige hues, and serve complimentary local beer on tap. “No one knew how to treat beards, and the focus was female, with women’s magazines and an atmosphere that just didn’t make sense.”
While mom-and-pop barbershops in Jaffa and Jerusalem have trimmed traditional customers’ facial hair for years, the focus on beards is new for the modern Israeli salon landscape. “People have asked me why am I building a business on a trend, but in my opinion, it’s not a trend but a renaissance,” said Gorelik, whose own beard is 12 years old. He notices an influx in young, fashion-conscious clientele from all walks of life—“gay, straight, people in finance, army men, creatives, you name it”—who join in his clientele the longtime beard-wearers like up-to-date Breslov men and the occasional Orthodox businessman who opts for a stylish barber experience. “When you go certain restaurants in Tel Aviv, you can often see on the menu a carnivorous offering named something like ‘the hunter’s dish,’” he adds. “But no one’s a hunter or a gatherer anymore, it’s just a trick to make men feel manly. I think the beard serves the same purpose, providing men some primal comfort. Plus, it just doesn’t feel natural to shave clean every day.”
Psychologist Gabriel Bukobza, author the Israeli bestseller The Drama of the New Manhood, sees the recent Israeli beard wave as being powered by the global “lumbersexual” trend in men’s fashion. “You can’t separate the local movement from what’s going on in the world,” he said. Israel, however, has a special relationship with the beard: “Beards and mustaches were a part of the Jewish canon through history, from Rambam to Herzl,” he says. “But as the Israeli society evolved and modernized, especially as the metrosexual narrative took over, the classic Israeli man had to look clean-shaven, as facial hair was perceived as something ancient, traditional, patriarchal. The association with Arabs or religious groups also played a role in staying away from the beard.”
But these days, according to Bukobza, Israeli men, hipster and beyond, are striving to take old traditions and make them new again, or, as he puts it; “taking something old and unfashionable and making it work, because you’re young and handsome.” He added: “Men have always appreciated that unkempt, wild lifestyle of not cleaning up after themselves, eating like pigs.” The miluim—mandatory annual army-reserve duty for men who had served in IDF’s active divisions—is the perfect framework for such behavior, Bukobza said, and the unshaven look is a classic “back from miluim” feature for many Israeli men: “In the past though, you’d come home and shave right away, but now the beard allows you to continue symbolizing and experiencing that manly ethos in a more esthetic, user-friendly way.”
Furthermore, the newly celebrated beard is an easy addition to the already nonchalant, unbuttoned idea of Israeli manhood. “You don’t necessarily need to be clean-shaven for work here,” said Gorelik. “So why not have a beautiful beard while you’re at it?”
What about a mustache, alone? “That part of facial hair never took in Israel, for some reason,” Gorelik said. Bukobza, who grows out a mustache annually for Movember, said he “never got compliments about it,” and thinks it’s “still considered a part of old-school culture, but not the cool one.”
The return of the beard, and with it, of somewhat traditional masculinity, is powered, of course, by the larger trend of the “lumbersexual”—the rugged, plaid-wearing, storm-braving ideal of a man brought into popularity by the likes of Kinfolk magazine and the DIY movement in general. But, at least in the U.S., someone had mobilized beards as an aesthetic language long before straight man got the memo: bears, a subculture in the gay community cultivating a larger figure and abundant hairiness. “Of course the gays blaze the trail when it comes to hyper-masculinity,” said Bukobza. “And despite the fact that heterosexual man often feel superior, they embrace elements of that culture when they’re appealing.”
Just as facial beards started booming in Israel, Tel Aviv hosted its very first bear-community festival, Bearta, this past September. With parties, workshops, a picnic, and a Mr. Bear contest, the festival marked a new era of bear-awareness in Israel and brought together a number of party organizers and social-media activists representing the country’s bear community. “The core idea of a ‘bear’ is taking pride in your rugged appearance, which doesn’t comply to the extroverted, peacock-like chase after the perfect body and look,” said co-organizer Thomas Shemesh, in an interview for the website Mako. Not that the straight Israeli male has ever partaken in said chase, but now the celebrated rugged style is his to enjoy, along with grooming products, expert barbers, and a relaxation of tiresome old cultural connotations.
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.