Holy Tembel: Iconic Israeli Hat, Now Recognized by MoMA

The 'kova tembel' hat was once a symbol of hard-working, Zionist Israel, but disappeared in the 80s. Now it’s staging an unlikely comeback in a fashion exhibit at the Museum of Mordern Art in New York

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Yes, it looks silly on you. Two young members of 'Hashomer Hazair' in 1949.
Yes, it looks silly on you. Two young members of 'Hashomer Hazair' in 1949.Credit: GPO / Teddy Brauner
Shira Pur
Shira Pur
Shira Pur
Shira Pur

Is fashion Modern? That’s the big question in the annual fashion exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, which opens in New York this October. The 111 items that have survived from different cultures, contexts and times, from legendary companies and brands that are still active, will try to answer this question. The immediate suspects include Chanel’s little black dress, a Rolex watch, a red Revlon lipstick, Hanes’ eternal white T-shirt, Levi’s 501 jeans, Nike Air Force I shoes, the Burberry trench coat and the wrap dress introduced by Diane von Furstenberg.

Among the 111 items are Chanel’s little black dress, a Rolex watch, Levi’s 501 jeans, Nike Air Force I shoes, the Burberry trench coat – and a 1950s Israeli khaki, kova tembel (or “fool’s hat”)

Alongside them will be other residents of the collective closet, such as a sari, hijab, kippa and kaffiyeh, as well as one uniquely Israeli representative that is unaccustomed to such status: a 1950s khaki, kova tembel (or “fool’s hat”), manufactured by ATA, preserved like new, and in the exhibit called a “bucket hat.”

There are several reasons for the museum’s interest in the Zionist creation that became extinct as a fashion item 50 years ago – until its recent revival. One is the growing interest in work clothes and army uniforms as a major source of inspiration in the fashion world. In that context, the kova tembel has also been rescued from the attic by local designer Roni Bar, among others, and is the subject of renewed legitimacy.

Another international phenomenon that may have reinforced the choice of ATA is the revival of iconic fashion houses that had died. In Eastern Europe, for example, a wave of footwear companies that make work shoes and rubber shoes have resumed manufacturing, such as the Slovakian firm Novesta or the Czech firm Komrads, which also provides a fashionable interpretation of sneakers and combat boots. However, the most significant reason is probably the human element.

The Tembel hat, by Israeli firm ATA, next to a Kangol bucket hat, at the MoMA.Credit: Yael Shenberger

Fashion researcher Yaara Keydar, who lives in New York, was the one who introduced ATA to the exhibit curators, who had asked her for advice regarding Israeli objects or items of clothing she deems relevant. Designer Yael Shenberger, who was put in charge of the design team when the ATA brand was reestablished about 18 months ago, says that after lengthy conversations, the hat somehow made it onto the list.

“It began with the fact that they wanted us to send them an old hat in mint condition, and we didn’t have one,” she recounts. “It was a funny task: I went crazy trying to find old-style ATA hats. They wanted a hat they could keep, so that meant I couldn’t ask collectors. I used my connections in the flea market and, luckily, found people who didn’t realize what they had in their possession. The moment people realize, they aren’t willing to part with the item – for sentimental rather than financial reasons – and I have a policy of not trying to convince people.

David Ben Gurion in Hatzor, 1958.Credit: Moshe Pridan/GPO
The kova tembel by ATA.Credit: Sam Itzhakov

“I found five hats from different periods, all khaki-colored and in mint condition. When you have a few, you can compare and understand which decade each one comes from. The older ones were significantly better made in terms of the quality of the stitching and the lining than the later ones. The contempt [for consumers] increased over the years.”

Turkish-Japanese genes

ATA, the Hebrew acronym for Textiles Made in Our land (Arigim Totzeret Artzeinu), was revived by the entrepreneur, adman and restaurateur Shahar Segal. The original company started making kova tembels when it was first established in 1934, only stopping when it eventually closed in 1985. At the reincarnated ATA, Shenberger worked on a large number of up-to-date adaptations of the original model, but eventually returned to the source and only updated the conservative color palette with millennial pink.

A Tembel hat. Will be featured at the MoMA.Credit: Avi Waldman

But the kova tembel was here long before ATA. Originally it was a Turkish hat, which shares its genetic heritage with a Japanese work hat, which is also made from five equal strips of fabric bordered by a thick brim. They began manufacturing it in British Mandatory Palestine in the mid-1930s, and it became popular among soldiers of the Israeli Palmach (the pre-state elite commando force) and Jewish laborers, thanks to its small size – which made it possible to fold and put into one’s pants pocket when the burning sun began to set. Its cheap price, due to the small quantity of fabric required, also made it preferable at the time to the expensive “Australian hat.”

And so, despite the fact it makes its wearers look foolish and provides limited protection from the sun, it climbed to the top of the clothing pyramid in Israel.

For a considerable amount of time, the kova tembel was the obvious answer to the question: what do you consider Israeli? It was identified with the image of the sabra (the native-born Israeli), who was shaped to a great extent in the pages of the mass-circulation daily Maariv by satirical cartoonist Dosh (Kariel Gardosh), whose drawings were published in the paper starting in 1953. The patriotic cartoon image of Srulik, who served as a mouthpiece for right-wing opinions and scorned the leftists, established the kova tembel as a mandatory Zionist item, alongside biblical sandals and baggy pants.

In war-ridden 1970s Israel, and later with the awakening of ethnic tensions, the image of the sabra was undermined, and the image of the kova tembel eroded along with it. From a practical item without any fashion pretensions that epitomized the idea of making do with little – a unifying, all-Israeli icon during a period that aimed at consensus – over the years the hat became the legacy of kibbutz members only, until it finally faded away as they too folded it into their pockets for the very last time.

Hats off to the kova tembel! Tourists arriving in Israel in 1976.Credit: Ya'akov Sa'ar/GPO

Since then, it has been equally scorned by one and all, not least because of its embarrassing name with its derogatory implications, which made it a victim of fashion bullying.

Old or old-fashioned

Attempts to identify the source of the disparaging name produces a large number of options. Some believe it came into Hebrew from the Turkish language, in which tembel means a lazy person. Others connect it to the English word “dumbbell,” meaning a silent bell. This explanation is reinforced by the hat’s similarity in shape to a bell that lacks a ringer. There’s also an urban legend that tells of lice-infested students from the first agricultural boarding school in Israel, Mikveh Israel, who were required to wear the hat to protect their closely cropped heads and were subsequently teased by Tel Aviv children whom they met during a visit to the theater. The hat was previously called “kova mikveh,” after the school where it was worn, so the truth may reside somewhere in the middle between the lazy Turk and Mikveh Israel.

Whatever the reason, in a different place and at a different time, and in a respectable fashion context, the new exhibit places the kova tembel alongside timeless designs from all over the world, showering it with a glory it never received at home.

Jerusalem Hills, 1969.Credit: COHEN FRITZ /GPO

“The question asked by the exhibit – “Items: Is fashion modern?” – is extremely relevant to what we are doing at ATA,” says Shenberger. “In order to produce clothing with a long life expectancy, you hold some kind of discussion with what is called ‘fashion,’ and ask whether if in order to be fashionable, a person has to wear fashionable clothing – and what that even means today.

“Fashion is the sum of your choices of clothing, and you can look up-to-date even with a wardrobe composed entirely of old items. There’s a difference between old-fashioned and old, and not every design needs a new twist.”

But is fashion modern? Shenberger admits that could be answered with an unequivocal yes or an unequivocal no. “You could say that fashion offers a large number of raw ingredients, and you can cook up something modern or something classic from that. It’s an open-ended question,” she says.

Pioneers modeling the kova tembel at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in 1943.Credit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO

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