Victorian children may have had to stand on stools wearing tall, pointy dunce caps in the classroom, but the Hebrew “fool’s hat,” or kova tembel, is a symbol not of failure in class but of the pioneering spirit of the founders of the modern State of Israel.
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The person most responsible for giving such an outsize role to a multi-paneled dome-shaped cloth hat that shielded many an early Israeli head from the sun was the Hungarian-born Israeli cartoonist Kariel Gardosh, best known simply as Dosh, the nickname with which he signed his cartoons.
Along with shorts and sandals, the kova tembel was an integral part of the iconic sabra look embodied by Srulik, Dosh’s stand-in for the average Israeli. The hat is closely associated with kibbutz life, representing the new Jews who tilled and tamed the soil with their own hands, and was also worn by members of the Palmach pre-state militia.
The word tembel may have entered Hebrew from Turkish, during the Ottoman era, with the Turkish word tembel meaning “lazy” or “idle” and the Arabic word tambal or tanbal meaning, as in Hebrew, “stupid person” or “fool.”
Some have speculated that tembel comes from an Arabic mispronunciation of Temple that connects the hat to the German Templers who built colonies in pre-state Israel, and others have suggested a link to the sort of similar-sounding English word “dumbbell,” but these explanations appear to be no more than folk etymologies.
Whether or not he’s wearing a hat, a tembel might be an idiot, but he’s usually not ill-intentioned, as per the popular 1990s Arkadi Duchin song “Tembel,” which begins: “He was good-hearted, but a bit of a tembel.”
As for why the hat – which isn’t commonly worn anymore – is named for a fool's headgear, the shape may have evoked that Victorian-era dunce cap, though that is pure speculation. Maybe people just thought it made its wearers look a little silly.
Israeli sociologist and historian Oz Almog quotes Yigal Allon, a Palmach commander who became a prominent Labor Party minister, as unfavorably comparing the cheap, popular and efficient kova tembel – sometimes called a kova hamikva’i, after Israel’s first agricultural school, Mikveh Yisrael – to the more expensive Australian bush hat, which offered better sun protection and seems to have struck Allon’s fancy.
“The Australian hat turns every tembel into a hero,” Allon reportedly said, “while the kova hamikva’i turns every hero into a tembel.”
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