NEW YORK - Minor history has been in the making for the past two months in an unimpressive two-story structure on a side street in Brooklyn. The building is home to the first Jewish daily in the English language in the United States and the first Jewish daily since the Yiddish-language version of the Forward stopped appearing as a daily newspaper in 1983.
A small, modest plaque peeking out from the snow at the entrance to the building reveals the name of the newspaper - Hamodia, the newspaper of Agudat Yisrael. Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, an expert on American Jewry, said, "Even if a newspaper of this kind once existed in America, it was a short-lived affair that soon disappeared and consequently remained unknown." Sarna says it is notable that ultra-Orthodox Jews in America today prefer to read a newspaper in English, rather than Yiddish or Hebrew.
The ultra-Orthodox-Hasidic community in New York was quite surprised when it learned that Hamodia in English, which for the past six years has been published as a weekly, had decided to start putting out a daily edition. At present, the newspaper is distributed only in the metropolitan New York area and to subscribers.
"Readers are mainly young ultra-Orthodox couples who are very sensitive to the type of written material they allow into their homes and they feel very comfortable reading Hamodia," says New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the ultra-Orthodox community in Boro Park.
"Hamodia in English is a Hasidic idea," says Pinchas Goldberg, an official of the Ger community in Brooklyn. "The Rebbe says so," he adds in Yiddish to underscore the point.
Hasidic sources of the Ger sect would not confirm or deny the claim that the rabbi of Ger, Rabbi Yaakov Alter, one of the most important rabbis in Israel, was behind the idea to publish an ultra-Orthodox daily newspaper in English in the United States. However, a Brooklyn rabbi who is closely associated with the Ger movement maintains that he knows as a fact that the rabbi exerted pressure to establish the newspaper. He said the rabbi had stated that if there was a daily ultra-Orthodox newspaper in Poland before the Holocaust, there is no reason why a newspaper of that kind should not be published in the American Diaspora.
Fear of extremistsThe unique nature of the new newspaper is underscored by the fact that all of those involved in its editing maintain complete anonymity and pointedly avoid all contact with the media. This is the case despite the fact that the names and titles of the editors of the English-language weekly Yated Ne'eman, the publication of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah party (see box), appear on its second page.
The main or perhaps only reason for this mystery is apparently that the initiator, founder and editor-in-chief of the conservative ultra-Orthodox daily is a woman, Ruth Lichtenstein-Levin, the granddaughter of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, the leader of Agudat Yisrael at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, and a veteran columnist of the Hebrew-language Hamodia.
Because the name of the editor-in-chief is not mentioned, it is only natural for the names of the other members of the editorial staff to be absent too. Pinchas Goldberg explains that refraining from publishing the name of the editor is "a matter of
expressing modesty." A Brooklyn rabbi maintains, "The editor is not ashamed of what she is doing, but she doesn't want to shame us, her ultra-Orthodox readers." According to local Hasidim, however, the real reason the editor is so careful not to publish her name is her fear of the reaction of extremists in the ultra-Orthodox community, especially in Israel, who are waiting impatiently for any excuse to attack the English-language edition. The mention of the name of a woman as editor-in-chief is exactly the lapse they are looking for. The fear is so great that Lichtenstein refused to be interviewed for this article, and even rejected a proposal that she respond to questions by means of a third party.
However, in any case, the secret is a particularly well-known one. Lichtenstein is very familiar to readers of the ultra-Orthodox press in Israel and the United States. She signs her weekly column, published in the Shabbat supplement of Hamodia, which has been distributed throughout the United States for a number of years, with the pen name R. L- -n. Her grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, the leader of Agudat Yisrael for many years, founded Hamodia, which began to appear in 1950 as the organ of the movement he headed. Her father, Rabbi Leib Levin, was the editor-in-chief of Hamodia from the first day it appeared until his sudden death in 1978. The day the first edition of the new daily in English appeared was set by the editor for December 15, 2003 (20 Kislev), the anniversary of her father's death.
At a meeting with ultra-Orthodox women not long ago, Lichtenstein said, "The decision to publish Hamodia in English as a daily is in my view a mission rather than a business." Is difficult to ignore the inevitable contrast between the old and the new, as reflected by the zealousness of the editor-in-chief not to publicize her name in the newspaper she worked so hard to publish.
A society tornThis contradiction between the need for the new and the fervent desire to preserve the old has become greatly intensified among the Hasidic-ultra-Orthodox community in the United States, especially since they represent such a significant and growing proportion in the community of the second and third generation of immigrants from Europe and Israel. Many of them, especially those involved in the liberal professions, are torn between the openness and tolerance for others, which is characteristic of the society surrounding them, and their inhibitions and reluctance to respond to outside stimuli, due to their strict ultra-Orthodox yeshiva education.
Members of the editorial staff quote the editor who occasionally reminds them that "the trick is not to tell people want not to do, but rather to tell them what they can do." In her view, "Instead of warning ultra-Orthodox Jews and telling them what not to read, it's better to give them something they can read." Her principal motif is to create what she calls "a clean newspaper" - a definition that is reflected in the issues of Hamodia in English. The newspaper does not report crime or phenomena involving permissiveness, and avoids printing photographs of women or events that are incompatible with a Hasidic lifestyle.
The effort to give the newspaper an attractive and up-to-date graphic image is evident in the outer formats of Hamodia in English, especially of the weekly magazine and supplements. The daily paper has 24 pages, most of which contain brief reports about current events, both in Israel and on the local scene.
The headline of the newspaper one day last week reported on "a renewed effort by President Bush to guarantee support for religious groups working for charitable causes." Another item on the front page tells of "American yeshiva students injured in road accidents in Israel." Another page has a column on "safeguarding the tongue," which includes quotes from books by the Hafetz Haim, which exhort against gossip and slander. The same page contains a column about the "daf yomi," (a page of the Talmud studied on the same day by Jews all over the world).
However, the last five pages of the paper are devoted to the latest news from the New York stock market and other financial news.
A staff member explained that there is a standing order in place for all editors and writers to avoid reporting or even briefly relating to controversial topics in the ultra-Orthodox community. Thus, for example, Hamodia forthrightly refrains from reporting on the recent quarrel between various Hasidic groups in Brooklyn regarding the question of whether the Boro Park eruv ( a symbolic fence that makes it possible for Orthodox Jews to carry on Shabbat) is kosher or not.
Pride and joyThe pride and joy of the editors of Hamodia in English is its weekly magazine and supplements, which appear every Friday, quite an impressive project, any way you look at it. Since January 19, every Friday newspaper contains three supplements, one of which - "Hamodia - American news" - has 104 pages filled with local news and reports, and ads of many kinds: for gala events for Torah institutions and large supermarkets with sales on kosher items. A second supplement is called "Hamodia - International" and has 66 pages of reports and articles on news in Israel and the world. The third supplement is "Hamodia - magazine," which contains 32 pages devoted to Torah subjects, including commentary on the portion of the week.
The circulation of Hamodia in English is subject to conjecture. A source on the editorial staff said the daily is still trying to establish itself and that no more than a few thousand copies are sold each day. The magazine and supplements, on the other hand, he says, are "a success story," with 45,000 copies distributed throughout the United States, with some sent to subscribers in Europe and Australia.
The Israeli Hamodia is considered entirely subject to the authority of the Agudat Yisrael Party, and especially of the Ger Hasidic sect. In her responses to questions from readers, Ruth Lichtenstein repeatedly emphasizes that the English edition is completely independent. In a conversation with the yeshiva head during the annual convention of Agudat Yisrael in America, she said, "Hamodia in English is not the newspaper of the Ger Hasidim or of Agudat Yisrael in America."
Rabbi Abraham Shafran, the spokesman for the offices of Agudat Yisrael in New York, confirmed in a conversation that his ties with Hamodia in English do not go beyond the routine relations between a party office and a newspaper. "We view Hamodia in English as a newspaper that represents the worldview of Agudat Yisrael, but we do not tell the editors what to write and they do not receive instructions."
It appears that only time will tell just how independent the newspaper is. A considerable restriction on that independence is the close cooperation it maintains with its father newspaper published in Jerusalem. The vast majority of articles published in the English edition come from Jerusalem and are translated into English in Brooklyn. Lichtenstein also makes considerable use of the advice and guidance she receives from the editor and managing director of Hamodia in Jerusalem, Haim Moshe Knopf, and his son, the deputy managing director of the paper, Elazar Knopf.
Yated Ne'eman was there firstYated Ne'eman, the newspaper of the non Hasidic "Lithuanian" ultra-Orthodox community, was the first ultra-Orthodox weekly published in English. It appeared 10 years before the English edition of the Hasidic Hamodia in the United States. The editor-in-chief of Yated Ne'eman in English, Rabbi Pinchas Lipshitz, did not respond to our calls to speak with him. According to members of the local community, the editors of Yated Ne'eman applied heavy pressure on certain members of the Hasidic community and entreated them to prevent the appearance of Hamodia as a daily.
Yated Ne'eman in English maintains an emphasized uniformity in the content of its articles and the direction that may be implied from its external format. The edition that appeared on January 23 had 124 pages. A 16-page section called, "Israel - News in Brief," contained condensed political and diplomatic news. Most of the magazine's pages are devoted to eulogies of rabbis and yeshiva heads that have recently passed away, in addition to articles extoling Torah greats of previous generations. The "Halacha Brura" section contains a long article about "The destruction of the beard and sidelocks." But on the final pages, there are articles about "Hamas as a continuing threat," and "A new look thanks to the Atkins Diet." (S.S.)
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