Once the symbol of Israeliness itself, the simple cloth cap known as the kova tembel was, for several decades, relegated to dustbins, attics and flea markets. Trust Israeli hipsters, however, to rediscover the lowly kova tembel.

The revival has catapulted the hat to no less than New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where it will take its rightful place among other iconic clothing items such as the leather biker jacket, the sari, the Rolex watch and Spanx.

The origins of the kova tembel (whose exact translation is “dunce cap”) are murky. According to Wikipedia (in Hebrew), “tembel” may be derived from the Turkish for “lazy.” According to another theory, “the name ‘kova tembel’ was coined because it was worn by the [German] Templers, with an Arabic pronunciation that replaces the ‘P’ sound with ‘B.’ Another version ties the name to the English-language word ‘dumbbell’ because of the shape of the hat, which resembles a bell.”

Cartoonist Dosh’s “Srulik” at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. Photo by Y.S via/Wikimedia Commons

Others attribute the name to the Mikveh Israel agricultural school where, legend has it, lice-infested children covered their newly shaven heads with the cloth caps.

What is certain is that the cap became a staple of pre-state Israel and the Hebrew laborer’s garb, particularly after 1934 with the establishment of legendary textile factory ATA by Czech-Jewish industrialist Erich Moller. ATA produced work clothes, underwear, uniforms and more — including the kova tembel.

The name ATA was devised by novelist S.Y. Agnon, as the acronym for the Hebrew “arigei totzeret artzeinu”, meaning “fabrics produced in our land,” reflecting both Socialist and Zionist values. In fact, ATA’s first employees lived in communal conditions, either on the factory grounds or at nearby kibbutzim. During the Second World War, ATA was the largest supplier of tents, uniforms, underwear and socks to the British army in the Middle East.

The ATA factory. Photo from the National Photo Collection via Wikimedia Commons
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Following the establishment of the State of Israel, during the austerity regime of the early 1950s, ATA was named the main supplier to the civilian sector, with citizens redeeming government-issued chits for clothes. In the 1960s and 1970s, ATA made several halfhearted attempts at upgrading its fashion but its core business continued to be basic clothing.

For half a century, it’s safe to say that every Israeli had at least one piece of ATA-produced clothing in the closet. In 1985, following a workers’ dispute in which the Histadrut labor union actually sided with management, ATA was shut down.

ATA was purchased by textile manufacturer Kitan of the Clal Group, and subsequently rebranded as Golf & Co., which is today owned by IDB Holding Corp.

A brick layer in Tel Aviv wearing a kova tembel. Photo by Zoltan Kluger/National Photo Collection of Israel

In 2011, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv presented “Factory, Fashion and Dream,” a retrospective of ATA-manufactured garments.

Curators Monica Lavi and Eran Litvin wrote, “The story of the ATA textile factory mirrors the changes that took place in Israeli society from the 1930s to the 1980s. … Even before radical changes took place in Israel’s economic and political structure, the happenings in the ATA factory concretized the three governing powers in Israeli economy: one comprised the industrialists, the second – the trade unions, and the third – the government.

“In addition to the socioeconomic story, the history also relates … the story of the appearance of Israeli society and its sectoral division; Israel’s workers and soldiers wore ATA clothing, as did members of youth movements, while urban and bourgeois Israelis preferred more stylish clothing.”

An ATA store in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Hod HaSharon municipality via PikiWiki

The Eretz Israel exhibition inspired businessman Shahar Segal to acquire and revive the long-defunct ATA brand. He contacted fashion designer Yael Shenberger, who embarked on a months-long process of deconstructing the ATA aesthetic, combing the country for original pieces as reference, and reformulating the design principles for today’s world.

The result was one line that takes ATA’s values regarding workwear — simple, practical and durable — as inspiration. A second line consists of ATA fashion replicas — work shirts, pants, shorts, white “Sabbath” shirts, and of course, the kova tembel.

The author and her sisters wearing colorful kova tembel hats in 1968 at the Dead Sea. Photo by David Neiman

According to Ha’aretz reporter Shira Pur, New York-based fashion researcher Yaara Keydar introduced the idea of including the kova tembel to the MoMA exhibit curators. Shenberger had to do additional scouting to provide MoMA not only with her own interpretation but also with five original caps, which she sourced from flea markets. These will be presented along with 110 other “items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries and continue to hold currency today.”

The kova tembel fits perfectly with this theme. As Lavi and Litvin wrote for the Eretz Israel Museum exhibition, “ATA rendered three symbols that are engraved on Israeli cultural memory: the pride in being a worker, the struggle of workers to retain to their workplace, and work clothes.”

Fisherman on a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley, 1946. Photo by Zoltan Kluger/National Photo Collection of Israel

Click here to see the full list of items to be presented in the “Is Fashion Modern?” exhibition at MoMA.

Kova tembels were the hat of choice at this archeological site in Israel, 1968. Photo by David Neiman