Who says print journalism is dying?
Early Friday morning, the delivery man puts on the brakes, and, leaving the car's engine on, steps into the dark street. From his vehicle he pulls out a bundle of colored leaflets wrapped in a sheet of transparent plastic, places it next to the door of the locked building and then hurries on to the next address. All day long, until Shabbat begins, additional delivery men will appear and the bundles will pile up next to the same locked door, the door of the synagogue. They are not meant for any newspaper vendor, but rather for the sexton, who will open them and organize the variety of leaflets on a table at the end of the sanctuary. Be'ahava Uve'emuna, Ma'ayanei Hayeshua, Olam Katan, Sihat Hashavua, Shabbat Beshabbato, Hashabbat, Me'at Min Ha'or, Yesha Shelanu, Kol Tzofaiyikh and others.
Shortly after Shabbat begins, the worshipers will begin to appear; the leaflets, which are distributed free of charge, are designed for them, and in recent years have been conducting a quiet but unbridled competition for their attention. Each worshiper will take a prayer book from the shelf, and in his other hand will pick up his favorite leaflets from the table, depending on his political and religious taste.
This is a media revolution that has long since crossed the boundaries of religious Zionism, where it was born 23 years ago. More and more groups are joining it, even in the ultra-Orthodox camp. It is hard to know how many titles are distributed in the synagogues of the various streams, but according to a cautious estimate, the number of regularly appearing leaflets that are distributed nationally exceeds 100. Behind many of them are religious and ideological groups and subgroups belonging to a wide array that ranges from Bratslav Hasidism to Bar-Ilan University, from Shas to the feminist organization Kolech, from the Israel Defense Forces chaplaincy to right-wing, anti-establishment groups. The vast majority, however, falls somewhere on the spectrum of the "orange" (anti-disengagement) right wing.
Anyone who is eulogizing the printed press should visit Israel's synagogues on a weekend. Every Friday they distribute a wide array of leaflets during evening prayers. These sheets have turned the synagogues, especially those identified with religious Zionism, into a kind of popular Hyde Park meant for the limited and unique audience of the worshipers and their families.
Shabbat Beshabbato was the pioneer, and in spite of its conservative contents and design, it still maintains a central place, with 70,000 copies a week. That has occurred mainly thanks to columnist Rabbi Israel Rosen, a ratings star, who is also now the leaflet's editor. Rosen has a talent for extracting sensational messages from the extreme right of the political map, even from a boring weekly Torah reading.
Last November, for example, he managed to link Jacob's impersonation when he came to receive his father Isaac's blessing, to the statement that "the best response to terror is 'counter-terror,' an eye for an eye, a soul for a soul." From here Rosen jumped straight to recommending the establishment of a Jewish militia that would undertake reprisal missions against the residents of Gaza in revenge for the firing of the Qassam rockets. "We should have allowed the young people of Sderot, Ashkelon, the western Negev, or any young man fit to bear arms, to bring the war home to them in the context of undisciplined militias," he wrote. Rosen's leaflet, by the way, is one of the few that receives financial support (NIS 20,000-NIS 30,000 a year) from the Department of Torah Culture in the Ministry of Education.
Rosen in Shabbat Beshabbato and Menahem Brod in the Chabad movement's veteran Sihat Hashavua (200,000 copies; all the distribution data in the article were supplied by the editors of the leaflets) have taken the genre of preacher-publicist - who places the verses of the Torah under the bulldozer of current events - a very long way. Now the genre is also open to other political batei midrash (study halls).
The Golden Calf from the recent weekly portion Ki Tisa (early March) carried some very heavy metaphors on its back. In Me'at Min Ha'or (under the heading "Disengagement - It Will Not Happen," by Rabbi Menachem Felix), the calf was compared to the uprooting of settlements. In Shabbat Shalom, on the other hand, which is distributed by the left-wing religious movement Netivot Shalom, the same calf served as an example of the claim that nothing material, including Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, is inherently sacred.
According to Emunah Elon in Shabbat Beshabbato, the separation fence is the Golden Calf, "into which they are pouring out billions upon billions of shekels and lending it the shape of a high, fortified concrete wall, and saying: This is your God, Israel, which will take you out of the Land of Palestine." In the same issue Rosen claims that the calf that is worshiped in our times is the sexual urge and Internet pornography sites.
'Against the current'
These are alternative media, a platform for statements that hardly ever reach the general media, and are barely heard in even the established religious media. Leaders and shapers of public opinion - from Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner to Hanan Porat and Emunah Elon - choose every week to address their public via the leaflets, rather than via the religious newspapers Makor Rishon or Hatzofeh, the latter of which is in danger of closing.
Olam Katan began appearing in the period prior to the disengagement, and now distributes 55,000-65,000 copies a week. The leaflet, which calls itself "a weekly for young people," often serves as a platform for anti-establishment right-wing voices. From its pages, "orange" youth were called on not to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, to ascend to and pray on the Temple Mount, and to visit the ruins of the settlement Homesh during Pesach vacation, "because live fish swim against the current."
Olam Katan has introduced colored graphics and daring content; for example, a question and answer column on matters of halakha (religious law), which fields such questions as: "Is there a prohibition against negia [physical content with a woman other than one's wife] when one helps an old or blind woman cross the road?" (the answer: no), and "What feelings should we have toward a person who raped girls? Should we love him - How is it possible to love such a person? Should we hate him - how is it possible to hate Jews?" Rabbi Shlomo Aviner replies: "Of course, we should hate him for his terrible deeds ... "
In its features, the leaflet deals with social and personal problems that are often repressed in this society, ranging from anorexia to wet dreams. "In my opinion, a discussion of anorexia is a consequence of the disengagement," says the editor of Olam Katan. "The days are over when we discussed only one subject. There is ferment among us, a desire to touch on more and more topics." They are not subject to any spiritual committee or rabbinic authority.
Neri Levy, one of the owners and editors of Olam Katan, explains that "the disengagement heightened our disgust for the general media. Not necessarily because of the anti- settler atmosphere in the media, but because of their handling of the issues of culture and society. National religious young people, many of whom live in the settlements, are less and less exposed to the general media. Many have no television at home; they don't read [the daily newspaper] Maariv as they once did, nor are the religious newspapers relevant to their lives. We carry on an internal conversation with our public, because there are aspects to our lives that do not exist for the general media.
"At first this public wanted to assimilate," continues Levy. "Now it is more interested in self-definition. The disengagement reopened the discussion, a desire for our self-definition vis-a-vis the state."
To boycott the courts?
In recent weeks, readers of the "orange" leaflets - each of which is distributed in at least 50,000 copies - have been witness to a discussion that will have been virtually unheard outside the synagogues of religious Zionism. The subject is the "secular" judicial system, and the arguments made have not sufficed with criticism of the system, but, rather, have included direct calls, more or less vehement, for its boycott, and the establishment in its place of an alternative system that will rule on the basis of Torah law.
Olam Katan, which devoted an issue to the question of the establishment of Jewish law as the law of Israel, spoke with two retired Supreme Court justices, Dalia Dorner and Mishael Cheshin - short, apologetic interviews, in which they dealt with the question of why the existing judicial system does not better reflect Jewish law. A much longer interview on the topic was conducted with Rabbi Yosef Carmel, a dayan (rabbinical court judge). "According to most of the poskim [those who determine halakha]," Carmel announced, "there is an actual prohibition against going to courts that do not rule according to Torah law, even in the State of Israel."
Ma'ayanei Hayeshua published a similar article, and the newsletter's cover bore a cartoon of a fat and satisfied secular judge angrily raising his gavel in the air, possibly at the witness stand and possibly at a frightened religious Jew who is trying to defend himself. The judge sends a threatening look at him, and says "There is nobody but me!"
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who writes in Shabbaton (60,000 copies), a leaflet identified with the religious Zionist bourgeoisie and considered to toe the establishment line, peruses the competition from both the right and the left every Shabbat, and is frustrated by their politicization. "The religious sector is becoming increasingly accustomed to talking about itself and to itself," he complains, even regarding his own leaflet. "Many religious people live with a sense that now they have an alternative medium. Everyone around them reads it - and people get used to thinking that it's the be-all and end-all. The price we pay, though, is that the politicization of the leaflets eliminates the need for religious Zionism to fight for its ideas and to disseminate them among Israeli society at large. That closes them in even more. This is a journalistic system that is inaccessible to the general Israeli public, it's a very pleasant place, with internal codes."
Basmati rice ads
Although some of the leaflets firmly refuse to introduce advertising and survive only from donations, others, like Machon Meir's Be'ahava Uve'emuna (80,000 copies), try to survive by publishing low-cost but select ads: for a conversion course, a study institute for women, a matchmaking agency, lessons "for discussing the identity and destiny of the Jewish people." Most of the newsletters, however, are supported by ads for wedding halls and orchestras, luxury real estate, cantorial concerts and Basmati rice. Even official bodies such as the IDF and the Jerusalem Municipality purchase advertising space.
A synagogue is a paradise for advertisers, providing as it does a handpicked audience, trapped for several hours in one place. A synagogue is a sterile space, without any stimulation to compete with the shiny and colorful pages that are distributed free of charge. Most of the worshipers leaf through the pages during services, but afterward fold them up and take them home, so that the rest of the family is exposed to them as well. Aryeh Frankel, the owner of an advertising agency that specializes in the religious and ultra-Orthodox communities, identifies among his clients "a move from the religious newspapers to the leaflets, of course not with an intention of destroying the established religious newspapers - they simply want to maximize their exposure."
But, he says, an advertiser is responsible for setting boundaries. "In the synagogues there is anger at the ads for apartments or furniture. Advertising agencies that convince their clients to place such ads are betraying their function, if not toward God and toward the worshipers, then toward the clients. A responsible advertiser will avoid actual pushing sales in the synagogue. What can work are image ads, or ads with a social orientation. That's what I advise my clients."
Senior editors and writers like Cherlow and Menahem Brod also fidget uncomfortably when they look through their leaflets. "We don't feel comfortable with the advertising, but there is no other way to keep things going," apologizes Brod. "In Shabbaton it really is disturbing," admits Cherlow. "It really means introducing something alien into the prayers, into the synagogue."
Most critical, as is his wont, is Rabbi Rosen, who calls for a rebellion against the aggressive advertising, which is found in his leaflet too. "At first the advertisers only provided assistance," he recalls. "Today most of the leaflets, including Shabbat Beshabbato, are run by advertising agencies. There are even leaflets initiated by ad agencies, which are not connected to any nonprofit association or ideological group. We will not allow the advertising to dominate the editorial content, but the entire genre sullies the synagogues."
Rosen is afraid that "it won't stop with a mixture of Torah and advertising. Why shouldn't companies place ordinary brochures about special sales in the synagogues, or piles of skullcaps with their logo? Until there is a general rebellion by the public, the synagogue lobby will be a marketplace."
To every stream a pamphlet
Although some of the leaflets are printed and distributed in cooperation with the religious newspapers Makor Rishon and Besheva, their flourishing seems to be evidence of a split in the religious-Zionist establishment. As part of it, the old political establishment and the established religious press, like Hatzofeh, are sinking. During the election campaign a year ago, the Likud issued a Shabbat pamphlet of its own, and Hashabbat and Shabbaton published paid ads for Kadima. The voices of the National Religious Party and the Yesha (Judea and Samaria) Council, which issues a leaflet of its own, are drowning in a sea of leaflets. Alongside the "orange" ones and those that glorify specific rabbis and yeshivas, quite a number of leaflets deal with feminism, Hasidism, social justice, attempts to attract the nonobservant. There are also those that still provide straightforward commentary on the weekly portion in traditional style.
"Every beit midrash wants to present itself independently, separate from the others. That's a result of the division into camps and the various nuances in the religious public," says Rosen. "Every pamphlet represents a particular stream, and the synagogues have become the market square of the religious public. Everyone has to declare that he belongs to a certain school and no other, that he is connected to a certain rabbi and no other, so he sets up a booth in the marketplace and distributes his merchandise free of charge. This is a platform that costs a little money, but it pays off."
The leaflets end up at the collection points for items intended for the geniza (a repository for sacred texts, which must be buried). After all, whether they have been read or whether they are still wrapped in bundles without having been touched, these are "sacred writings" that according to the rabbis cannot be thrown into the garbage or recycling bins. "We used to handle only sacred books and sacred objects," complained one of the workers at the central geniza collection station for Jerusalem. "Today a large percentage of our work is these leaflets." His friend picks up a wrinkled pamphlet from one of the religious circles that he hates, and says angrily: "This? Here there's only heresy; if it were up to me I would flush it down the toilet."