Between Rock 'N' Roll and the Rebbe

The story of Yuval Dayan and Noa Yaron is that of two talented secular people who found religion and became followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Now they bring their tale to television.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

One night 20 years ago, on a secluded beach in Sinai, Yuval Dayan experienced a life-changing moment. He and his girlfriend Noa, later his wife, had gone there to be alone, “to get away from it all,” after being confused and alienated. Dayan was already a professional spiritual seeker: At age 25, he had already managed to be a shaven-headed Buddhist in India, had adopted, and practiced for some time, the Shinto spirituality of Japan and also Christianity, had worn a variety of different ritual clothes. But in the dim light of the candle by which he was reading a book at the time, he said, “something hit me.” What was it?

“There was this moment when you know. You know and know, and you know that you know, more and more, it’s something on the mystical level, not the cognitive one. There was something there that I wanted to explore and I didn’t care that this something wears a skullcap.”

That formative moment Dayan describes was immortalized in the autobiographical novel “Mekimi” that Noa Yaron-Dayan wrote in 2007, and it is also described in a television series of the same name, created by Ram Nahari and Tamar Merom, which premiered this past Wednesday on cable television’s Channel 3. But even beforehand, it led the couple into a tailspin, into a completely different lifestyle, which today includes seven children and a home in ultra-Orthodox Ramat Beit Shemesh.

They were not the only ones affected by that moment on the beach: It has also had a long-term effect and continues to touch many readers and disciples of Dayan, newly religious people whose lives likewise got spun around. Twenty years later, Dayan is very well known among certain publics, a spiritual guide for the newly religious and the curious, some of them familiar figures from the cultural and art worlds. The guy who had “turned on, tuned in and dropped out,” as he puts it, until he became part of the big back-to-religion movement of the 1990s, became a prominent figure in the community of Bratslav believers known as Na-Nachs ‏(whose members are famous for their custom of dancing in the streets, among many other things‏), a particular draw among those dubbed “the transparent skullcaps” − people who observe only part of the religious dictates.

Dayan is 45, tall and good-looking. Long sideburns adorn his temples, an enormous skullcap covers his head and he dressed perennially in a white gown with three buttons that resembles a dress. Nevertheless, it is easy to see in his figure the rebellious Tel Avivian character he once was. It is evident in his fervor, in the language he uses and in the tendency, evidently conscious, to recount occasionally with a devilish look decidedly unholy anecdotes from his past.

His late father, Kobi, was the brother of the actress Tiki Dayan. He and Yael, Yuval’s late mother, were “two freaks, hippies,” who reared him and his two sisters in the Sinai dunes, in the settlement of Dikla in the Rafah junction area. This was during the years when Israel occupied the peninsula. “When we lived there,” says Dayan, “there were 15 hovels on the beach. It was the farthest away you could get. Noa says this, and I reiterate, I have within my soul a need for open space that cannot be satisfied. My soul is composed of white dunes.”

When Dayan was 11 or 12, the family returned to Ramat Gan. He was enclosed within the walls of a three-room apartment and attended Blich High School, where he was a social star. Some of the kids in the group that surrounded him, for example in the Scouts, or when they became a group of surfers from Tel Aviv − wound up becoming well known years later ‏(for example, the musician Adi Ran, who also became religious and remains a close friend to this day‏).

“There were always lots of people around me, there was always something going on,” Dayan recalls, “but for many years I was unable to bring myself to be a part, I wasn’t in the scene. The sense of destruction, of pointlessness, was too powerful to really laugh and have fun. I was a very successful kid, even though I never studied. My entire life was spent at the beach. I had no father and mother, it was Yael and Kobi and the commune. I was a bit alienated and the entire concept of family was constantly lacking. Nothing would fill me, certainly not fame.”

At first Noa Yaron did not interest him particularly, either. They met when they rented space in the same apartment, and she was already known as a broadcaster on Army Radio and on “Friday Live” on the then-recently established Channel 2, a rising star on children’s television. Her circle received Dayan tartly: He was “Noa’s antisocial friend,” so he and others relate. When they started becoming religious, the news aroused genuine sorrow among their friends, perhaps because Yaron and Dayan became religious at the same time as, and in certain cases together with, a large group of well-known figures ‏(Shuli Rand, Rama Burstein, Nati Ravitz, Gili Shoshan‏). That was the wave of religious “return” that occurred some two decades ago, which in hindsight seems like a resounding event.

“It was this crazy sort of wave, I can’t explain it,” Dayan says. “Deus ex machina − ‘so the Lord decided.’ I looked at the world and saw that something was happening in it. One day, Adi Ran arrives, all lit up with wild eyes, and sits down in front of us. We, a bunch of people, had encountered Reb Nachman and we were crazed, but still with tattoos and long hair, not dosim,” he says, using a slang term for religious Jews.

“Adi sits down and blurts out, ‘Something is happening in Tel Aviv!’ and we reply: ‘Yes, a return to faith.’ It really was, something happened there. There were loads of people who were touched in that period. Something happened.”

It aroused a panic of sorts. I remember sorrow in connection with Noa’s becoming religious. It was covered by the media with shock.

“I remember that too. I was the one who took the goose that lay the golden eggs, who lived off of her, and now was going to put her in the kitchen, shave off her hair. It was far from that. We weren’t aware of anything because we had cut ourselves off from everything, and it took us about 10 years to return to the world. We didn’t want to be ‘in touch,’ we wanted to get away from ‘vanities.’ Every few months, researchers for talk shows would call for Noa. Every few months, someone would remember and think, maybe we’ll interview her. There was complete silence on our part for years because there was nothing to say.”

Until “Mekimi”?

“Until ‘Mekimi.’ At that point, we already had something to say.”

Burning Tarot cards

Dayan and Yaron-Dayan gradually settled into their new lives. The jeans and CDs were given away to friends, and an amused Dayan recounts how one day, after they had encountered the verse “so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee” ‏(Deuteronomy 22:21), they built a bonfire in the yard and took pleasure in setting fire to the Tarot cards and sculptures they had collected during their world travels.

“There were moments when you’re not there. Something is going on and you’re not there,” he says. “A few years went by and you come to your senses, you have sideburns and a beard, a head covering and modesty and not one friend left. Now cope.”

In Dayan and Yaron-Dayan’s case, that period lasted about a decade. During that time, Dayan shut himself up in the beit midrash ‏(religious studies hall‏) and studied. Yaron-Dayan raised their children and lectured on the process she had undergone.

It was under the influence of Rabbi Erez Haim Doron that they became almost public figures. Like them, Doron was someone who had come to religion late in life, and it was his lectures that drew them in, too.

“When I was studying, I would get home on Friday and go back to my studies at the end of Shabbat,” Dayan says. “Home was on the benches in the synagogue with a bunch of people who had come together from the heart of the Tel Aviv scene. We put all our mess into our spiritual work. We would same craziness shouting at the hills in Samaria like fools, the idiocy of forest animals.”

That went on for about 12 years until they decided, out of a wish to share with others and bring them closer to Judaism, too, “to hightail it to Tel Aviv. I went back to the mess, to the anarchy, and that’s when something got started the results of which we see today: the Na-Nachs. We started off as 10 people, but it became a gigantic phenomenon.”

Bratslav Hasidim do not have a single rebbe or court, nor any organized institutions or pretenders to the crown; its streams and disciples multiply like the commentaries and freedom it permits those who evince an interest in it, to adopt only part or a smidgen of its thinking.

Tomer Persico, a scholar from Tel Aviv University’s comparative religion department, explains that “from the ‘90s to today, Bratslav provides an answer for people who are seeking a process of becoming religious that is more emotional and spiritual. Unlike the return to religion of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was more rational, based on persuasion that God exists and a decision to be as scrupulous regarding observance of a minor mitzvah as with a major one.

“Today, it is not [former film star and now Shas-affiliated] Uri Zohar’s return to faith, which cuts you off from your previous life. Here, the quest is different, a quest for emotion, experience and expression. For example, what characterizes those who become religious with Bratslav is that they go on creating. You don’t get here a total separation from general society and a move to Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak, but rather openness to the general public, to art, music and literature.”

The result in the case of Yuval Dayan, is the Hithavot ‏(“Formation”‏) center he runs in south Tel Aviv, where the student body includes famous artists such as Karolina, Natan Goshen, Kobi Aflalo, Linor Abargil and David Daor ‏(Dayan himself is circumspect when it comes to his famous disciples‏). He is also a sought-after group lecturer on diverse subjects, as is Noa Yaron-Dayan. All these, like the popularity of the stream they belong to, are related to “Mekimi.”

Girl meets boy

It took only a few weeks for the novel Yaron-Dayan wrote in 2007 − with Dayan serving as her helpmeet − to conquer the best-seller lists, and once it got there, it stayed put for many months. It is an autobiographical story for the most part, although the names are fictional. A young lass, a successful TV presenter who suffers from a sense of emptiness, falls in love with a boy, and the two of them become religious together.

“Mekimi” (the title comes from the biblical verse, Psalms 113:7, “Who raiseth up [Mekimi] the poor out of the dust”) quickly became an initiation text, a touchstone for a young generation of newly religious. Its title became a concept: Among other things, it was adopted as the name of a chain of clothing stores for religiously observant women and Yaron-Dayan has a blog by the same name. There is also a lively online forum where countless discussions have dealt with the book, becoming religious, Yaron-Dayan and Dayan.

The extent to which other streams of Orthodox Judaism viewed the book as a threat when it came out was evident in the warning Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the leaders of religious Zionism, issued to his congregation, telling them not to read it because it was “immodest.” In the television adaptation, by the way, Dayan plays the role of the rabbi who led him to religious observance. The couple is played by Yael Poliakov and the singer Muki ‏(Daniel Niv‏).

Why did you agree to do the series? Does television speak to the hearts of people with an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle?

Yuval Dayan: “There wasn’t a reason. When the offer came along, we asked ourselves whether the work in general was something that belonged to us. We decided that we were in favor of setting it free and letting people do what they want with it. Even though we sometimes get into the gray, forbidden bits.”

The forbidden bits?

“There is a big debate over whether secular people should be drawn in or pushed farther away. It’s in plain sight all the time. We, Noa and I personally, and the newly religious public in general, are faced with a problem. There were years when we were designated eccentrics and mad, then druggies or criminals. In fact, we have something that nobody has − a particular and necessary way of seeing things that nobody else has, certainly in the era we are living in.

“We live between the worlds. I have secular parents and Haredi children. The whole people of Israel needs what I’ve got, I’m a bridge. It’s not agenda-dependent, but rather is in our very lives, it crosses over us. I have to explain to the kid that not everyone who travels on Shabbat is evil, and to his grandfather − that not everyone who doesn’t study the core curriculum is dumb. That is our job in everything and every day, that is ‘Mekimi,’ and the series is a side effect.”

Maybe what “Mekimi” did has to do with the emotional, unmediated, approach of Judaism that you represent. It’s no secret that people generally have to rely on sages to interpret it for them.

“There were several waves of returning to religion. We were part of an enormous wave. And our return was to the Orthodox: There wasn’t anything else. There weren’t any people like us to say, ‘Relax, it’ll be okay, you don’t need a shtreimel to be religious.’ I had to undergo ‘migration’ and repentance, two different things, because I didn’t know there was another way.”

Dayan interrupts his flow of words and explains: “We coined the term ‘transparent skullcap’ − transparent repentance. Today, there are loads of people with transparent skullcaps. We invented it. You can light Shabbat candles and then ride in a car. It is written in scripture, you will be rewarded for a mitzvah and punished for a violation, but they’re not connected to one another, they’re two separate accounts.”

When he talks ‏(and Dayan is a skilled talker, adept at whipping out sound bites and creating intimacy with his interlocutor‏), an image emerges of a pop-like, rock ‘n roll-ish, open and tolerant Judaism. Bucket loads of criticism were hurled at him from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox directions. He himself tells of having his car tires punctured on more than one occasion when visiting Haredi areas.

“One thing I am agog at,” he says fervently, “how is it that people can stand and argue over what the Holy One Blessed be He wears? What difference does it make, a shaven head or shtreimel? It’s subjective. I give you and everyone the respect to allow you to be himself. To believe in his beliefs, prefer his preferences. I do not permit or not permit − who made me ruler and judge? I don’t fight the fight of the Holy One Blessed be He, am not offended or angry on his behalf. None of us knows what he wears − although between us, he doesn’t wear anything. He is abstract. That is my urge, to go ahead and say that, and I am careful because we’re still seen as ... I am dressed differently, I look different.”

Do you understand why you are accused of a New Age-y approach to Judaism? Why you get called “the Tao of Nachman”?

“Yes. I manage to understand those 10 percent, but I don’t have time to deal with them. The vast majority of the people of Israel believe in simple faith. It doesn’t want to fight about what God wears, it’s got it in the heart simply. I never knew that. People who want to hear a simple word and cry over ‘A Star is Born.’ I want to be like that. That’s why we fled. We fled from cynicism to be simple human beings.”

The type of Judaism you offer is rock ‘n roll-ish, and a pop culture has grown up around it.

“Today, when a person tells me he wants to become religious, and asks which yeshiva he should go to, I tell him to sit at home. There is no other place. Teshuva [return, as in return to religion] involves you, not somewhere else. You, with the talents and ability and everything you’ve got to say to the world. Reb Nachman says, I won’t teach you what to be, but rather to be better.”

Is that the secret to the appeal of your attitude to religion?

“We have something no one else has: We’re not in this for ourselves. I am not a tzadik ‏(righteous person‏) and not a leader, and I am confused and a mess. I don’t tell you what to do. I leave you alone and respect you to the point where I leave you alone on every level, to dress as you like, to believe in whatever you believe. I love this and I don’t care. This Judaism must come from my mouth, I have no choice. In this sense, I really am a rock star − I finish a lesson and go home. They don’t come with me.”

Bratslavers have no master rabbi.

“There are pretenders to the crown, but the authentic Bratslav has none. We are not in favor of courts of any shape or form ... In contrast to the rest of the rabbis, sweetie, [I believe that] you and I are the same. I have weapons I learned over many years and I can teach them to you, and then you go on home. You want a rabbi? That isn’t me. People come to me after a year or two and say to me, ‘The next stage is for you to be my rabbi. I want to be give myself over to you’ − the newly religious are in search of someone who will tell them what to do. I tell them, ‘Thanks a lot, but Heaven forbid. Read and grow wise, don’t stop with me.’

“Maybe in this, there are new characteristics, rock ‘n roll-ish as you put it. Once upon a time, a person would draw another person to Judaism and make him his disciple, in order to score a budget off him from the Religious Affairs Ministry. But that system is passe. It’s over, done with.”

A quiet closeness

Dayan goes on to describe the revolution generated by the generation of newly religious he belongs to. The one that enabled a wave of quiet closeness to Judaism, with hardly any external features, to wash over many artists, but that, on the other hand, also created a resounding return to religion, with outsized skullcaps and long earlocks, but still did not prevent a man like actor and singer Shuli Rand from pursuing his art. It can be linked to the phenomenon of the Judaism-as-culture revolution − a concept that may sound negative to some, but translates nicely into the examination of ancient texts, projects that incorporate rock and liturgical music, and the like.

Can we call your movement the artists’ Shas?

“Yuck, don’t say that. We are both bigger than Shas − no way. There can be no hegemony over Bratslav. It is constantly in motion, there is no court, no one rabbi. There is a mysterious concept. Reb Nachman of Bratslav, who died at age 38, who laughed at the whole world, was the biggest anarchist there ever was, a revolutionary. Rock ‘n roll, you said: I identify with the point where you come, do your thing and don’t make yourself the main course.”

Could you have been the main course if you had wanted to be?

“I could have and still could, if I wanted to. I am not such a modest and humble man. [But,] I am not attracted to that. I teach spirituality, but don’t know how to tell people what they need to do with their lives. I could get thousands to follow me, but the basic truth is that I am not worthy of leading. I am going to say something that in certain publics would be considered shocking: No one is worthy of leading.”

Nevertheless, you are equated with a different approach to religiosity.

“If this generation needs us to rebrand the Torah, we will present it anew. It is the same good old Torah, a drop more laid-back, because they really took it, made it into a sword and hit everyone. Now the TV series is coming out, and I guess all the good souls will come along, not from the secular side − the self-righteous will come, it will happen.”

What will you say to them?

“Among the religious, there is something very cute, they use the word ‘lehitpa’el’ differently from the secular. Secular people give it a positive meaning [to be impressed or excited by]; religious people are referring to something that is being manipulated from outside. ‘Al titpa’el mimenu,’ don’t be manipulated externally by it. Don’t be. I do my bit and carry on walking without hearing those who are tut-tutting along the way. I haven’t the time.” 

Yuval Dayan. 'I could get thousands to follow me, but the basic truth is that I am not worthy of leading ... No one is.'Credit: Dudi Hasson
'Mekimi' characters from on and off the screen, from left: Muki, Yael Poliakov, Noa Yaron-Dayan and Yuval Dayan. 'One day,' says Dayan, 'I looked at the world and saw that something was happening in iCredit: Ohad Romano

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