When I was an adolescent in the town of Zichron Ya’akov, Israel, during the 1980s, American fashion magazines were an expensive treat whose glossy pages, fragrant with perfume samples, held the promise of a temporary escape to a more glamorous world. Israeli women’s magazines cost a fraction of the price. But as far as I was concerned, they were nothing but homely, unsuccessful imitations of the real thing. I wanted to capture the thrill of walking down Madison Avenue, not the lukewarm excitement of a day trip to Tel Aviv.
When the Hebrew edition of Cosmopolitan first appeared here last month featuring Angelina Jolie on its cover, Israel joined 48 other countries that publish local editions of the world’s most widely read women’s magazine. The rights for publication here in Israel have been purchased by the SBC group, Israel’s leading magazine publisher. With access to all of American Cosmo’s photo layouts and articles plus an insider’s knowledge of the special concerns of Israeli women, its editors want to offer their readers the best of both worlds.
Lea Kantor Matarrasso, the magazine’s editor in chief, was busy closing its October issue — with Renée Zelweger on its cover — when she spoke to the Forward by phone from Cosmo’s Tel Aviv offices. The Israeli-born, 40-something Kantor Matarrasso already had impressive publishing experience as SBC’s editor in chief. But her new job required her to make a globally marketed American magazine concept work for Israeli women.
“The first thing we had to do was create a profile of the Israeli Cosmo reader,” said Kantor Matarrasso, who spent part of this summer in New York at the magazine’s headquarters learning how the American edition is run and explaining to its publishers the ways that Israeli women differ from American ones.
“Women here are full of contradictions: They are basically content with their looks, but they are always curious about plastic surgery,” she said. “They are down to earth, yet for many of them the tumultuous reality they live in creates a need to believe in a higher power. Israeli women develop a lot of defense mechanisms that stem from the feeling that you should never let anyone gain the upper hand. There is a toughness about them that makes it difficult for them to accept that being soft and feminine doesn’t mean being more vulnerable, but simply human.”
Although the magazine is thoroughly Israeli, she said, it combats what she described as “the rampant cynicism of contemporary Israeli culture, which prevents people from opening up and communicating on a deep emotional level. If there is something that I feel is my personal mission, it is to help peel off this mask.”
The Israeli designer Sigal Dekel, whose trendy line of women’s clothing is sold in Israel and the United States, has some insights for the magazine’s fashion desk about the ways in which Israeli women shop and dress differently than their American counterparts.
“Israeli women’s taste cannot be defined according to their age,” she said. “You often see a mother, daughter and grandmother shopping together. Israeli women like to experiment and are very open-minded. Our dress has few rules. You can show up to work all dressed up one day and come in the next day wearing a ratty pair of jeans — it’s all very fluid. Still, Israelis are fashion victims — there is a strong herd mentality.”
Dekel also notes that Israeli women are more concerned about their husbands’ opinions than American ones — a fact she believes stems from their greater financial dependency.
“They are strongly opinionated, but also very insecure about their bodies,” Dekel said. “They involve the saleswoman with their most intimate secrets. You need to be a psychologist, a dietician and know the names of several surgeons.”
At its core, Cosmo is a magazine that focuses on women’s relationships — with men and with themselves. By making its readers the focus, the Israeli edition stands out from other women’s magazines in Israel, which also deal with children, pregnancy and home-keeping. These include At (You), Olam Haisha (Woman’s World) and the widely distributed LaiSha (For Women).
“Being good to yourself is a very non-Jewish, non-Israeli concept. But Israeli women are learning to take better care of themselves,” Kantor Matarrasso said.
Ivriya Gal, a prominent clinical psychologist who specializes in therapy for couples and individuals, tends to agree. “Women here stay single longer than they used to and allow themselves to enjoy life,” she said. “Still, there is a lot of stress and pressure to get married, and women who don’t feel very guilty.”
Israeli men, Gal told the Forward, don’t have it easy either. Contrary to appearances, she said, “the macho image they have to uphold takes an emotional toll. Combined with the stressful atmosphere in Israel, it creates a lot of fear and anxiety about sexual functioning and potency.” On the bright side, she noted that “Israelis are more open. When there is closeness and intimacy between two partners, it can be very deep.”
Some 60,000 copies of the first issue of Israeli Cosmo were printed, each containing 210 glossy pages. For the Israeli equivalent of about $5, it offers feature articles of the kind familiar to American Cosmo readers — “Angelina Jolie Tells All,” “The Five Things That Scare Him Away From Your Bed” and “Ninety Nine Ways to Make Him Want You.”
Regular departments include “Men: The Instruction Manual,” “Beauty and Fashion,” “Sex and Love,” “Life and Work,” “Health and Fitness,” “Stars and Entertainment” and the ubiquitous Cosmo horoscope.
True to Kantor Matarrasso’s mission, a monthly column by Karin Arad, the author of a funky Internet manifesto about female sexuality that has become the unofficial bible of Israeli women, urges readers to get rid of their cynicism and get in touch with their emotions.
Although Israeli Cosmo does not specifically cover religious or Jewish issues, subjects like women in the military or the country’s political situation do make an appearance. Special emphasis on the magazine’s local identity is evident in a department called “Israeli Reality.” In September, its subject was a young woman whose fiance was killed in a terrorist attack.
According to Kantor Matarrasso, Cosmo has been enthusiastically received in Israel, and she has been flooded with touching e-mails thanking the magazine for its upbeat, optimistic tone and its message that women can do — and be — anything they want.
Not everyone, however, is happy with the worldview Cosmo represents. Interviewed in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper earlier this month, professor Hanna Naveh, who chairs the women and gender studies program at Tel Aviv University, criticized the media’s tendency to present visually a myth of beauty that celebrates youthful femininity and sexuality while excluding older women. According to Naveh, there is no real women’s magazine in Israel. “There is no expression in these magazines of what a 50-year-old woman considers to be beautiful,” Naveh said. “My beauty includes the fact that I gave birth to four children.”
Naveh’s point is well taken. But for those who still feel compelled to find out about ways to deal with hair rendered dry and frizzy by the harsh Israeli climate, why Israeli models are foregoing military service and what a young, single woman should do on Jewish holidays, Cosmo’s next issue is just around the corner.
Talya Halkin is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Post.