Pashkevils
Employee of national library scanning pashkevils. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Yoel Krois decided in recent months to take a temporary break from the holy wars he ordinarily wages as the unofficial "sheriff" of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim, in Jerusalem. The battles against men and women walking together on Mea She'arim's sidewalks, against bus company Egged, against the Gay Pride Parade and against the Haredi politicians who sit in the infidels' Knesset - all of these can evidently wait, because Krois, a member of the extremist religious faction Eda Haredit, has a burning mission that keeps him glued to his storage room for days and nights: uploading his personal archive of 20,000 pashkevils, or street posters, to the digital collection of the National Library of Israel.

The cooperation between the radical anti-Zionist activist and the national-academic institution is hardly self-evident, nor is the fact that the pashkevil - the medium of communication that has shaped the face of streets in Jerusalem for more than a century - will take its place in the national library's collection, at an investment of NIS 100,000. On top of this, the individual who served as middleman between Krois and the library is considered a bitter enemy of the Eda: Shuka Dorfman, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A visit to the halls of the library at Givat Ram reveals the tremendous appeal this institution holds for many yeshiva boys and men, some of them regulars. For "Yoelish" Krois, however, the story is a lot more complicated. Krois, a dyed-in-the-wool radical, well known in the Haredi community, is reluctant to violate a mostly forgotten boycott that the rabbis of the Old Yishuv (the pre-1882 Jewish community ) imposed in the late 19th century on "a Jerusalem house of books belonging to Montefiore" - one of the early incarnations of the national library, whose "sin" was that it had heretical books on its shelves.

Krois has told Haaretz that he is in the process of ascertaining from his rabbis whether the ancient boycott is still in force, and until then he is opting for an interim position (surprising in itself when it comes to him ): On the one hand, he is handing over his precious collection to be scanned and photocopied for the library's benefit. On the other hand, he won't set foot in the place.

Because of this, the library's director of digital-content projects, Ido Ivri, came to Krois' home in Mea She'arim and equipped him with a scanner and computer, with which he copies and then sends the scanned pashkevils to the digital collection. Krois also agreed to give Ivri, on loan, his outsize pashkevils, which are more complicated to scan and photocopy. The rare posters are being held, temporarily, in the very library that their owner insists on boycotting.

"This is one of the strangest and special collaborations we've had. Every time he has a problem with the scanner, I go to his house in Mea She'arim," Ivri says.

Krois scans the posters, sorts them by period and topic, and writes a factual background for each poster.

"It's like a disease with me," says the man who began collecting the street posters in the late 1980s. "Every two hours a new notice would come out, and I'd run to rip notices off the walls, put them in the bathtub to separate them from each other, and dry them out."

Over the years he came up with other ways, such as regularly paying poster hangers to save copies for him, and buying rare pashkevils from private collectors, including a collection that he says he purchased for $25,000.

With regard to the national library, the digitization of the pashkevils is a groundbreaking event: Until recently the institution refused to use or display materials that were not part of its holdings. Following changes to the way the library operates (it switched from being a department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to an independent public corporation, ahead of a planned move to a new building near the Knesset ), it is also becoming an umbrella site for the digital collection and preservation of print matter related to the library's three main fields of interest: the State of Israel, the Middle East and Judaism.

The pashkevils are part of its collections of ephemera - disposable and degradable print matter. In the library's basement, for instance, there are crates full of restaurant menus, wedding invitations, posters and business cards, each of which tells a different story about the society in which it was produced.

Warped mirror

In this respect, the pashkevil constitutes a very warped mirror of Haredi society and even of the extremist Eda Haredit circles, which are the breeding ground for the majority of these posters. The pashkevil is known for its blunt style, raging texts and lack of understatement.

"To the world's disgrace - the Hitlerian snake, the bitter enemy of the Jews, has said to annihilate, to kill, and to lose all of the Jews without leaving a remnant," shrieks the first part of a pashkevil from the 1980s, before immediately going on: "[Mayor] Teddy Kollek and his friends say to uproot and destroy the sanctity of Shabbat in Jerusalem and to cause the people of Israel to sin, which is worse than killing it." Signed: "The Haredi Jewry in the Land of Israel."

"It's true that every pashkevil presents an extreme picture of every kind, but we believe that when you hold thousands of pashkevils, and you take into account that you are looking at an extreme picture, you can still get a big picture and learn a lot from it," says Hezi Amior, who has the admirable title of "Israel curator" of the national library.

As printed on posters on the walls of Mea She'arim and nearby Geula, every television set is malignant leprosy, every movie is the plague, and every police officer, Antiquities Authority official, or mayor is a Nazi. The pashkevil world is black and white, devil and saint, Hitler versus the great rabbis of Israel, abomination versus purity. There are no nuances and no compromises. But there is an abundance of humor. For example, the campaign against the iniquities of television is waged, among other means, through a poster in the form of a lost-and-found announcement: "Found: A televiushia, in the trash ... probably tossed out by a ba'al teshuva [newly observant person]. Now whoever wants to go to hell can have it, solely at his own risk."

Despite their limitations, the pashkevils provide fascinating documentation of crusades by a group of activists over what they perceived as threats of breaching the wall. All the ultra-Orthodox campaigns in recent decades are documented in this collection. For example, the battle against any technological invention pertaining to entertainment - from the fight against movies ("A notorious film whose content is heretical ... and a spectacle of abomination and disgust. To mention it by name: 'Operation Thunderbolt.' Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?" ); against television ("The ultimate defilement that consumes the soul and the body, that contaminates the mind and the heart" ); against video players ("A corrupter that comes into our home" ); against computers and the Internet ("A deadly poison that threatens to kill, heaven forfend, to bring down the whole sanctity of the Jewish home" ); against MP3s ("A fire is taking hold in the four corners of the house" ) and more. "Every generation is characterized by an evil of its own, its special demon, the weapon of mass destruction with which the enemy tries to wage its war," another pashkevil sums things up.

Krois says he is coming across pashkevils that he didn't know were in his possession, such as one from the 1970s in which rabbis decry promiscuity and single out the miniskirt. Today an explicit reference to an item of clothing such as "miniskirt" in itself would be considered an immodest act.

"The writing style then and now is two different worlds," he explains. "It's something else. Today no rabbi would sign a poster that explicitly mentions something like 'miniskirt' or a movie title."

Naturally the collection also covers public campaigns by Haredim against advertising seen as pornographic, co-ed swimming pools, Sabbath desecrations, the gay pride parade and more. So far, approximately 5,000 pashkevils have been uploaded to the library's Hebrew-language web site (http://jnul.huji.ac.il/heb/pashkavil-collection.html ). Some 15 percent of these will be blocked to viewers outside the library out of concern for slandering individuals named in them.