Letter From Israel

Elbaz Is in The Building!

(Photos By Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 7, 2005

JERUSALEM -- It's good to be Gad Elbaz, an ultra-Orthodox singer whose cool sound, stage swagger and good looks have won him legions of young fans. But it is also difficult, for reasons embodied by Etti and Rachel, two giggling teenagers who pressed up against the backstage gate at a concert here last week hoping to catch a glimpse of the 23-year-old pop idol.

"He is so handsome," gushes Etti, 17, whose ankle-length skirt and turtleneck sweater fit the modesty requirements of the ultra-Orthodox dress code while the pink accents and "Abercrombie" insignia suggest she is not immune to the dictates of fashion. "He's also good and sweet."

Rachel, 16, nods. The two, who didn't want to give their last names for fear of angering their parents, have driven two hours from the coastal city of Netanya to see Elbaz perform, and the barrier required at all ultra-Orthodox concerts to separate men and women could not keep them from reaching the male-only backstage area. Asked where their parents were as the two snaked past security guards, Rachel offers a nonchalant flip of her hand.

"Oh, we left them at the Western Wall," she says, referring to the holiest place where Jews pray.

There are thousands of Ettis and Rachels in Elbaz's life -- problematic if necessary elements of his unique stardom and of Israel's changing ultra-Orthodox society.

Elbaz appreciates the fans who made his recent album a top seller, attend his shows by the thousands and request his music with such frequency that his popularity has crossed into Israel's secular world, where religious devotion is generally considered uncool.

But the e-mails calling him a "world-class hunk," the frequent phone calls pledging love and the adoration visible at his shows have put Elbaz in hot water with some of Israel's most powerful rabbis. They fear the Elvis-like effect he is having on the young female portion of the highly traditional community, known as Haredi, where song is considered nearly as powerful as prayer.

The ultra-Orthodox establishment does not quite know what to make of Israel's first Haredi heartthrob. Is this happily married man who studies the Torah four hours a day a threat to their insular world? Or are his balladeer's voice, hip two-day beard, and pious lyrics a way to preserve Old World traditions in the age of Britney Spears?

"There is an audience and a crowd that will always stay the same and never change," Elbaz says after finishing a radio show in which every caller was a woman. "But I think it's all right to be modern, and that's what's happening in our world."

Elbaz is a compact, energetic presence. His olive skin and dark eyes reflect his family's North African roots. He wears a simple black kipah , the skullcap of religious Jews, and performs in black suits and white shirts open at the neck.

An estimated 700,000 of Israel's nearly 7 million people identify themselves as ultra-Orthodox, a fast-growing, mostly poor population that holds Jewish law above the secular state. As a result, many secular Israelis resent the benefits the Haredi community receives from the government, which include living stipends, tax breaks and exemptions from mandatory military service.

In recent years, Haredi rabbis have begun encouraging young men, many of them full-time yeshiva students, to enter the workforce to ease the financial strain on their traditionally large families. The community is gingerly engaging mainstream Israeli society, a dislocating trend of which Elbaz is a part. (The term Haredi refers to the entire ultra-Orthodox community, including Sephardic Jews of North African descent, like Elbaz. The Hasidim are a large segment within the Haredi that generally traces their roots to Eastern Europe.)

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