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One Born Every Minute

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.

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