Ultra-Orthodox ad firm shuns sex Beards: Israel's top ad agency catering to ultra-Orthodox Jews won't use female models. And its bearded and skullcapped models would never pass for hunks.

Sun Journal

June 18, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMAT GAN, Israel -- When Israeli advertising executive Rachel Bolton needed that special someone to pitch Wissotzky tea, she headed straight to her husband's yeshiva.

From the dozens of men studying Jewish religious law at the seminary, she chose three -- all with beards and black skullcaps. In Bolton's line of work, there's no substitute for authenticity.

Bolton helps multinational corporations and Israeli companies sell everything from chocolate to sanitary napkins to Israel's "haredim," or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Their centuries-old community relies on religious doctrine and a rabbi's word to choose the foods they eat, the television they watch, the politicians they elect.

Bolton's success -- she runs the leading advertising firm in Israel that markets to the haredim -- depends not just on her creativity. Conglomerates like Unilever rely on her knowledge of the religious, cultural and social customs of this very insular, devout community.

Take the Wissotzky tea ad. It featured two young, bearded Torah students from her husband's yeshiva, and a silver-haired elder with a bushy white beard.

The photo showed the trio discussing a religious text, a large cup of tea nearby. The caption read, "The taste of tradition," a play on the idea that the Torah -- the body of Jewish religious law -- gives Jewish life its flavor.

Bolton chose actual yeshiva students for a simple reason.

"You can't just put a beard on someone and have them look haredi," explains Bolton, a 48-year-old mother of four who is religious herself. "They have a different look about them. These are real people. If they are not real people, you can feel it."

They are real and, well, ordinary-looking. No glamour boys here. An ad featuring a gorgeous hunk would offend ultra-religious sensibilities, says Bolton.

Recruiting the ultra-Orthodox to hawk snack food, diapers or mattresses is not an easy task. Many men in the haredi world study full time. Those who do are given deferments from military service, a requirement for all Israelis.

The advertising work is exclusive to men and boys because, in this religious community, the mere appearance of a woman is considered a distraction. Ultra-Orthodox men and women pray and learn separately; their social interactions are minimal.

"Spiritually, the observant Jew needs to do his utmost to keep his mind on God. A man who is doing his utmost on God would not want to focus on things that would distract him from that God," explains Bolton, who began her business six years ago in her home and recruited her cleaning lady to be her secretary. Today, Bolton Advertising employs 10 people and has a suite of offices.

In Jerusalem, Amos Ben-Naeh runs a modeling agency aimed only at the ultra-Orthodox. But his company, Original Idea, recruits women as well as men.

When his female models strut their stuff, they are modestly dressed, have their heads covered and usually appear before an all-female crowd. "Even I don't go inside," Ben-Naeh says of the fashion shows in which his women models appear.

Ben-Naeh wears the knitted skullcap common among modern Orthodox Jews. His aspiring models don't live in the confines of the haredi world. Still, they are devout Jews who Ben-Naeh says wouldn't consider modeling for a secular firm in Tel Aviv.

On a recent sunny day, Ben-Naeh recruited several men for a photo session. Avi Shimon, 25, arrived with three freshly pressed shirts. A thin man with a broad smile, Shimon was more nervous about his lack of experience than about what his rabbi might say about a modeling career.

"I think my face is quite nice," Shimon says, when asked why he came. "Not John Travolta, but not the ugly duckling. I don't think there's a problem with a young person advertising a bank. If I see I'm serious and succeed, if there comes a problem, I'll go ask a rabbi."

For an hour, Ben-Naeh took pictures of Shimon in a courtyard off a busy street in Jerusalem. Shimon sat. He walked. He smelled a flower. He hugged a tree.

"I'm a shy person," says the hospital worker, his face flushed. "I'm too shy to make a pass at a girl."

So how does he feel about the possibility of having his face plastered on billboards across the city? "If it's only $50, I'd say no," Shimon replies, implying he was being paid considerably more. Fees may range as high as $1,500.

When Ben-Naeh decided to open his Orthodox modeling agency, he consulted several rabbis. He showed them photos of models -- in various poses, dress and styles -- to determine the risks he could take. Some rabbis flatly rejected his idea. Others approved using women in a newspaper ad or on television, as long as modesty prevailed.

"I want to show you don't need to be sexy to make fashion shows or to sell something," says Ben-Naeh, a religious Jew.

In Bolton's business, sex is definitely out. Naked bodies are out. Bare-bottomed babies are a no-no. Women and girls need not apply.

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