American readers of a certain age will no doubt have come across this phenomenon at the time of the ‘flower children’, and it still may be possible to find it in enclaves of 1960s sub-culture, or among New Age holdouts.
Taken from “Denial Does Not Make The Haredi Body Go Away Ethnography of a Disappearing (?) Jewish Phenomenon”, By Prof. Gideon Aran
I am referring to a low seated position – not on a chair – which has several versions, such as crouching down on your heels, with bent limbs drawn up closely beneath the body, or a kind of relaxed semi-lotus position, resting entirely on your backside with legs crossed in front. In all its versions, this is a posture in which the body’s center of gravity is close to the ground, or even in contact with it.The sitting posture described here commonly expresses an unmediated relationship between a person and his body and his place.
Moreover, this posture is usually interpreted as embodying stability and calm, simplicity and naturalness, a feeling of homeliness, authenticity, and perhaps exoticism as well. It is seen as a strong sitting posture. It is not surprising, then, that this posture often signals a native status; sometimes defined as a “native sitting”.
In the US it is associated with the Native Americans, and a similar pattern can be found in South and East Asia, as well as other places around the world. The same has been true in Israel, mainly in its formative years and during the heyday of the modern Jewish national movement. This sitting posture became one of the trademarks of the Zionist awakening, focused on the land and state building.
In a way, the Zionist project can be summed up as an attempt to restore Hebrew autochthony, or rather to create Jewish indigenousness. The sitting posture under discussion became a test and a rite for the Jewish natives in their old-new country. While Zionism’s early leaders and activists were of European extraction; upon settling in Palestine they cultivated this posture, charged it with symbolism and called it by the loaded name of yeshiva mizrachit (Oriental Sitting).
There is a paradoxical dimension in the ideology of Jewish nativism, or, native-ness.[i] Being indigenous – native – implies that the feeling of belonging to a place is taken for granted, rather than something to yearn for, argue about or deliberate over. Feeling comfortable and confident in a place, as if it were your own – this should be natural, a given, something that sits in the back of the mind, and not a topic to be focused on or a subject that needs to be clarified or contested in any way. The status of the native might be a bone of contention between one group and another, but it is not supposed to be an issue within a group. Being conscious of one’s nativeness, and being socialized to become a native, these are contradictions in terms. It reflects a fundamental tension inherent in Israeliness.[ii]
Early in their attempts to turn themselves into natives, the Zionists realized that there were already natives in the area – local Arabs, who would come to be known as Palestinians. Ever since, a bitter struggle has been waged over who is the true, legitimate and senior native, with each side making competing claims for authenticity and exclusivity. From the outset, the baffled Zionists tended to adopt elements of Palestinian nativeness, which they naively perceived as representing archaic Hebraism, thus complicating the story of the Middle East and diverting it into a tragic catch.
In the attempt to link the new Israelis with the ancient Israelites, indigenousness was shaped whose foundations repeatedly point to its very rival. The Jewish native’s nickname – tsabar (Sabra) – derives from the bush that adorns the grounds of the Arab villages in the disputed territories. Note also that local Jews borrowed from local Arabs distinctive items of clothing (e.g. kafiyah), gestures (e.g. dugri,), dialect (e.g. ahalan) and other identifying marks.[iii] One of the ironic and fatal consequences of this appropriation is that
every genuine attempt to get closer to the Zionist ideal of nativeness inevitably leads to the heart of Palestinian entity. Rocky hills, olive trees, wells and donkeys – a seemingly biblical panorama – are the present-day characteristic vistas of the lands inhabited by the Palestinians, the very same landscapes in which the Jewish settlers, waving the flag of Zionism, are trying to strike root.[iv] Yeshiva mizrachit would seem to present a similar case. Like eating falafel and dancing the debka – prototypical images of authentic mizrachiut (“oriental-ness”) – this sitting posture is an icon of healthy true Israeliness.
The Zionist ideal was reflected in an upright, healthy, athletic and aggressive body. Suntanned muscular Judaism was the aim, as
well as the medium, of the revolution. In the Zionist fantasy – followed by the Zionist program and ultimately by Zionist practice – body image, the body’s appearance, performance and its language, all have an important role. There is a repertoire of bodily postures and movements that are considered correct, exemplary and obligatory. Yeshiva mizrachit is a crucial element of this repertoire. The champions of yeshiva mizrachit embody Zionism – initially the pioneers of the early aliyot, and later the tsabarim, the first generation of native born Israelis.
Yeshiva mizrachit is hegemonic. Of course, not everybody adopts it, and there are those who positively reject it. Certain groups of Jewish citizens from the pre-state yishuv, as well from today’s state, can be singled out for not practicing yeshiva mizrachit. In the past they were
the bourgeois immigrants from Germany and Poland (the Fourth & Fifth aliyot), and more recently they include immigrants from the former Soviet bloc. The former described yeshiva mizrachit as primitive and impolite; the latter see it as infantile and ostentatious. Throughout the years, however, there has been another Jewish sector in Israel that has consistently refrained from yeshiva mizrachit, namely the local ultra-orthodox, the Israeli Haredim.[v] The latter are unable, or unwilling, to sit like that. Indeed, the Haredim have never been “caught” sitting yeshiva mizrachit. Systematic observations and interviews confirm the incompatibility between Haredi-ness and yeshiva mizrachit. This incontrovertible fact is the starting point for the present research on the Haredi body. The issue of Haredim and yeshiva mizrachit will also close this research report.