What’s So Jewish About Bucket Hats?

From the Israeli kova tembel to @jewsinbuckethats on Instagram, let's explore the fashion statement that flatters no one yet is charming on everyone.

For decades, the humble bucket hat has been popping in and out of fashion vogue with the kind of staying power that’s usually reserved for blue jeans. With its slouchy brim and effortless cool, the bucket hat, which flatters approximately no one, is nonetheless charming on everyone. The hat has roots in various head coverings, from the utilitarian Irish fisherman’s hats of the early 20th century to the boonie hat worn by the Australian military. But the connection between the modern bucket hat and the Israeli kova tembel is undeniable.

The tembel hat became a staple of the pre-state Israel wardrobe of the 1930s, defined the kibbutzim vibe well into the 1970s, and is still considered the national hat of Israel. The term tembel translates to “fool” or “silly” in Hebrew, but it’s unknown which came first — the phrase or the hat. Indeed, the very origins of the hat in Israel are cloudy, with theories ranging from the influence of the Christian Templers on Jews living in Mandatory Palestine in the early 20th century to the prevalence of Turkish headwear, which would track, given that the word tembel means “lazy” in Turkish. The hat is likely an amalgamation of sources, including the Medieval Jewish hat, which dates back to the 9th century.

For over 50 years, the de facto uniform of the everyday Israeli started with biblical sandals and ended with a tembel hat. It was so integral to the image of the average Israeli that famed cartoonist Dosh (Kariel Gardosh) baked it into the wardrobe of Srulik, a Zionist Israeli everyman figure who first appeared in Israeli newspapers in 1956.

During that time, one outfitter was responsible for the majority of tembel hats bobbing along Dizengoff Street. The ATA textile company, known for practical worker garb, churned out more tembels than anyone else from 1934 to the mid-1980s when the company shuttered. The acronym ATA stands for the Hebrew “arigei totzeret artzeinu,” meaning “fabrics produced in our land,” which reflected the Zionist roots of the company. After being nearly forgotten over 25 years, ATA was featured in a 2016 exhibition of clothing at the Eretz Israel Museum, which inspired businessman Shahar Segal to revitalize the brand in Tel Aviv, where it resumed production of tembel hats and other modernized Israeli classics.

Stateside, the bucket hat enjoyed a period of vogue in women’s fashion in the 1960s and then was shoved in the back of the closet again until it was re-popularized by hip-hop stars of the 1980s like Run D.M.C and LL Cool J, whose preferred brand was the famed Kangol.

Over the past year, the hat has made yet another comeback, showing up on the likes of Billie Eilish and Rihanna. Fashion writer Fawnia Soo Hoo explains the hat’s contemporary appeal in a piece for Nylon: “The informal, playful bucket hat meshes also with the current leisure and sportswear movements…The liberated silhouette of a bucket hat also tracks with the proliferation of gender-neutral designs and collections.”

And then, this summer, fashion Instagrammer Benjamin Merson launched a tribute to the fool’s hat via the IG account, @jewsinbuckethats, which has featured everyone from Seth Rogen to ScarJo in a “bucky.”

“For whatever reason, whether my own experience of my Jewish family and community, or just some sort of intuition, I’ve always associated bucket hats with old Jewish men,” Merson explains. “Like that trend, ‘tell me something that feels _____, but isn’t.’ I just always thought bucket hats felt super Jewish!” When Merson found himself Googling Jewish celebrities in bucket hats and coming up with too few results, he decided to perform the mitzvah of collecting pictures of Jews in bucket hats for the rest of us.

As the account has grown, non-celeb Jews have started submitting their own bucket hat selfies, inspiring Merson to feature “Bucket Buddies” on the account’s stories. “It was never the intention to post myself or anyone other than Jewish celebrities, but a few people started reaching out and sharing photos of themselves in their bucket hats,” says Merson. “I loved all the photos and saw a great opportunity to build more of a community around the account, so I thought of [“Bucky Buddies”] (it seemed appropriately silly) and started sharing the photos in my stories.”

Merson says, for him, the bucket hat is a modern manifestation of the symbolic clothing of the Jewish tradition, especially headwear, from the kippah to the shtreimel hat: “I hoped [@jewsinbuckethats] could be a bit of a whimsical way of celebrating our Jewishness together and might also help imbue a simple object like a piece of clothing with some symbolic significance — this sense of reveling in our Jewish identity — that it may not have held beforehand.”

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