Nobody likes to be a sucker, but call an Israeli man a freier and you insult him to the core. Not only should he have gotten a better deal, you imply, but he has betrayed the cardinal rules of Israeli masculinity: don’t play by the rules and never let someone outsmart you. Being a freier in Israel is like being a coward in Sparta.
I first bumped into the word, which is Yiddish, while working on a documentary about Israel’s kibbutz movement. I found that the Marxist work ethic embraced by the founding generation — “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — had long since withered away. Third-generation kibbutzniks refused to work, say, 12 hours, and earn the same as someone who worked six. That was being a freier.
I was puzzled. In my Yiddish-speaking home, freier was a disdainful reference to a non-observant Jew, literally “free” of the yoke of religious commandments. My 88-year-old uncle, a Yiddish journalist, confirmed that meaning but added, “Colloquially, it’s someone who is easily cheated, a naïf.”
Israel’s pioneers — arch-secularists — brought this vernacular use of the jibe with them from the Diaspora. And yet a pioneering kibbutznik who worked harder than the next guy for the same pay never considered himself a freier because he was working for a cause larger than himself. Transcendence rooted in solidarity inoculated him against the charge.
Younger Israelis who embrace the new ethos of self-interest are far more susceptible to the fear of coming off as freiers . But in a surprising backlash against the term, American immigrants have been heard to say that if being law-abiding and civil in Israel’s cowboy culture makes them freiers , then they embrace the term with pride. And my sister the kibbutznik tells me that she’s starting to hear the same thing on her kibbutz.
Toby Perl Freilich is a freelance filmmaker in New York and Jerusalem.