(JTA) — Israel’s new prime minister is probably the first one who has stuck a wad of chewing gum to his head right before a public event.
Naftali Bennett, who took office this week, is the first prime minister in the country’s history to regularly wear a kippah, or Jewish ritual head covering. Unlike his secular predecessors, he identifies as a religious Zionist and practices Modern Orthodox Judaism, which requires men to cover their heads.
He’s also bald. That makes it a challenge to keep the small crocheted disc on the back of his head, where it’s traditionally worn. The traditional methods of securing a kippah — bobby pins and metal hair clips — are of no use to Bennett.
Yet it stays on. No matter where Bennett is — in parliament, on the campaign trail, giving a news interview — the kippah is there, mounted on his scalp, or sometimes on the thin layer of buzzed hair that surrounds his bald spot.
Appearing on a comedy talk show in 2013, when he was a freshman lawmaker, Bennett said that he uses a mixture of tape and gravity to keep the kippah on his head.
But once, he recalled, he had to give a speech outdoors in the wind and discovered that he was out of tape. So he took a piece of chewing gum (presumably ABC) and used it to glue the kippah to his head.
“I had to improvise,” he said. “So we MacGyvered it.”
Bennett doesn’t use ordinary Scotch tape. His adhesive of choice is a product invented and sold beginning in 2013 by Haim Levin, a 65-year-old bus driver living in a largely Modern Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv.
The product, called the Kipa Keeper, is made of reusable hypoallergenic double-sided medical tape, which allows the kippah to stick to heads with little to no hair. It’s sold in packs of 40 and costs 40 shekels, about $12.50, including delivery. Levin declined to say how many he sells each year.
“It was Yom Kippur, when everyone in synagogue bows down [to the ground] and prostrates themselves, and I saw that 20 to 30% of the worshippers had their kippah fall to the floor,” Levin, himself a bald kippah-wearer, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I realized I had to come up with an idea for the kippah to stay on the head.”
Levin doesn’t remember exactly when Bennett began using his product — a source close to Bennett confirmed to JTA that the prime minister uses it — but says he got in touch with the future Israeli leader in the hope of boosting sales. They took a photo together in 2015 in Bennett’s office, when he was economy minister. Levin told JTA that Bennett last ordered the product a week and a half ago.
“It really helped,” Levin told JTA regarding his outreach to Bennett. “There are still people who call them ‘Bennett’s stickers.’”
In Israel, where kippah choice often signifies religious and political identity, Bennett’s personal style — a small crocheted kippah — signals that he’s a religious Zionist. By contrast, a black velvet kippah would identify him as haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, while larger crocheted or knit kippot, which might stay more readily on a bald pate, are favored by a subset of settlers who tend to be more religious, openly spiritual and nationalist. The fact that Bennett’s kippah is small, and worn toward the back of the head, suggests that he’s on the more “modern” end of the Modern Orthodox community.
Regardless of how Bennett keeps it on, the kippah is an important part of his identity as well as a symbolic shift for Israel. In the state’s early decades, the ruling elite was comprised of secular socialists from David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, a precursor to today’s Labor. Religious Jews — along with Jews of Middle Eastern descent and Israeli Arabs — were generally excluded from positions of power in Israel’s government and culture.
That began to change in 1977, when the right-wing Likud party led by Menahem Begin mobilized a coalition of conservatives and religious and Middle Eastern Jews to win power. And in the settlement enterprise that had begun following the 1967 Six-Day War, religious Zionist Jews had a cause to rally around.
Since then, religious Zionists (who generally practice Modern Orthodoxy) have largely identified with the political right, which has led Israel’s governments for most of the past 45 years. Haredi Israelis have historically not identified as Zionist, but in recent years have also gravitated to the Israeli right under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, like his mostly male predecessors, donned a kippah at some ceremonies and at religious sites, but did not wear one on a regular basis.
When Bennett entered politics in 2012, he took the helm of Israel’s religious Zionist party, the Jewish Home, and aimed to broaden its staunchly right-wing message to appeal beyond Orthodox Israelis.
Since then, he has tried to represent a fusion between Jews of all types of religiosity, even as he has pursued a right-wing agenda both domestically and in terms of Israel’s settlement policy. In a 2019 Facebook post, Bennett defined his personal religious practice as “Israeli-Jewish.”
“Israeli-Jewish can mean religious, traditional, secular, haredi-nationalist or haredi,” he wrote. “Israeli Jews don’t judge each other based on how strictly they observe mitzvot. Israeli Jews love and accept every Jew.”
Bennett has described his personal religious observance along the same lines. He was born into a non-Orthodox family and became more observant of his own volition. His wife, Gilat, was secular when they met, and he has said that she was drawn to religious Judaism during the years they lived in New York City.
At one point he wore his kippah as a political choice. Bennett wrote last year that at the time Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, he had stopped wearing a kippah for a few years. But he felt that because Rabin’s assassin was an Orthodox Jew, the religious community was being blamed en masse for the murder. So, to make a statement, Bennett wrote, “I put the kippah back on my head.”
Today he wears the kippah consistently and lives a religious life. Still, he has written that his family makes the same small compromises that many religious-secular couples in Israel do.
While they keep kosher and Shabbat at home, his wife’s parents drive to their place on Shabbat, which is forbidden by Jewish law. And when they eat at the home of his in-laws, they don’t check how strictly kosher the kitchen is beforehand.
Bennett has been shamed by haredi politicians for posing as a religious Jew publicly while compromising on his private religious practice. But the source close to Bennett said that the prime minister sees his personal example as a bridge across a cultural and religious divide in Israel.
Bennett believes that “at least in theory, the crocheted kippah is and should be the middle ground,” the source said. “He had his very solid belief about what it means to be religious, and so it didn’t intimidate him when people tried to outflank him as nonreligious.”
Levin said it’s “a good thing” that Bennett uses his product, though he added that it doesn’t make a difference to him whether the prime minister is a kippah wearer. And he said he has yet to make up his mind about whether Bennett, who made political concessions in order to helm a narrow, fractious and controversial coalition, is the right person for the job.
But Levin is proud to have Bennett as a customer. And while he said he could not share a copy of the prime minister’s most recent receipt, he promised that Bennett paid full price.