After 100 Years, Israel's Oldest Newspaper Turns to a New Audience

With a staff of six, some of them not even in Israel, the Hungarian-language newspaper Új Kelet is published every other month. After being bought by a vegan 'hipster', the veteran paper is turning to a younger, wider audience

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Steiner and Vadasz at the newspaper offices in Jaffa.
Steiner and Vadasz at the newspaper offices in Jaffa.Credit: Moti Milrod

An Ottoman building in the heart of Jaffa is home to Israel’s oldest newspaper. The paper and the building that houses it are about the same age – 100 years old. But that adjective doesn’t describe its employees, and its offices are firmly in the 21st century, with laptops and coffee made with soymilk, as befits the spirit of the times.

Új Kelet (“New East”) was founded in 1918 in Transylvania, where a large Jewish Hungarian-speaking minority lived. The fact that it is celebrating its centenary in Israel is thanks to an unusual figure, who came here following love a decade ago.

The newspaper's centennial issue.
The newspaper's centennial issue.Credit: Uj Kelet

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Kristóf Steiner, a 37-year-old hipster and TV star in his home country and author of vegan cookbooks, had a Jewish grandmother on his father’s side. Israel still doesn’t recognize him as an immigrant, but he has built his life to the Holy Land.

Three years ago he read an article by Roy Arad in Haaretz that saddened him. It said that Új Kelet was about to close, and noted in its headline that its connection to Hungarian figures in Israel ranging from Rudolf Kastner, a journalist and lawyer assassinated in 1957 in Israel over allegations of collaboration with the Nazis, humorist Ephraim Kishon and politician Tommy Lapid. This was “the end of the era of foreign-language newspapers in Israel,” the article’s subtitle said.

“I read the article and I told myself that this paper had to be saved,” Steiner said last week, leafing through the centenary edition. Steiner, who brought a great deal of energy with him from Budapest, bought the paper from its previous owner, George Edri. The latter, a Moroccan Jew, ran a local empire of foreign-language Jewish newspapers. Among them, he published the Yiddish Letste Nayes, the German Israel-Nachrichten, the Romanian Viata Noastra, and the Polish Nowiny Kurier , which originally belonged to the precursor of the Labor Party, Mapai.

Over the years they all closed down except Új Kelet. In 2015, Edri decided that he had had enough of financing the newspaper out of his own pocket, despite a compliment from one reader: “If I don’t eat my cholent with Új Kelet, for me it’s not Shabbat.”

Steiner spotted the potential, and decided to save this veteran piece of Jewish-Hungarian heritage. To attract new readers, he realized he had to freshen things up, but to maintain the previous readership, he had to show respect for its past glories. Faithful to this idea, he has kept on the oldest of the paper’s writers, Lea Schanpp, an Auschwitz survivor who has been writing for Új Kelet since 1967 and is now 91 years old. The paper has also published a poem by its youngest writer, 5-year-old boy.

A woman reading a copy of Uj Kelet.
A woman reading a copy of Uj Kelet.Credit: Uj Kelet

Two other women, also Jews who came to Israel from Hungary, joined Steiner as part owners of the paper. Sára Salamon, a photographer, and Eva Vadasz, a journalist appointed editor-in-chief, have been able to advance the revolution set out by Steiner. The entire editorial staff consists of six people, two of whom live in Hungary and the rest in Israel.

Új Kelet, once a daily, is now published every two months. But the language is still the original Hungarian. “We’re trying to revive the language because we see that the Hungarian families, as opposed to the immigrants from Russia, don’t pass down the language to the future generations,” Vadasz says. “It’s such a beautiful language, with rich culture and heritage,” he added.

About 1,000 copies are printed in each edition, sold at kiosks and stores throughout Israel and distributed to coffee shops. An additional 200 copies are sent back to the homeland. The readership is varied, Steiner says proudly. “An elderly reader from Be’er Sheva called us to ask to use a larger font because she has trouble reading it, and at the same time we received a letter from a high school student in Hungary who wanted to publish a poem with us,” he says.

Like other media outlets, Új Kelet has had its share of curses and threats.  “When I wrote about the exhibition of a Palestinian artist, readers wrote that I sleep with Arabs,” Steiner says. Vadasz has her own experiences in this area. “I was attacked by an anti-Semitic [online] troll from Hungary,” she says.

The subjects the paper deals with are varied, and connected to life in Israel. Recently for example, Új Kelet wrote about African asylum seekers, a visit to the West Bank and surrogate parenthood. The paper also publishes a column for children (including stories and games), a quiz about Israel and recipes from the Hungarian-Jewish kitchen.

Vadasz and Steiner can’t say exactly how many Hungarian speakers – Új Kelet’s potential readers – live in Israel. Though they say that 130 people attended the centenary celebrations, a record compared to other events held by the paper. “When my mother came here as a child in the 1960s, every fifth person spoke Hungarian in the street,” Vadasz says. But even today, Steiner says, Hungarian roots are a source of pride. “When I tell people I’m Hungarian, every third person tells me he has a Hungarian grandparent. Everybody has a Hungarian connection.”

People reading Uj Kelet.
People reading Uj Kelet.Credit: Uj Kelet

Freedom vis a vis Orban

A surprise donor to the revitalized paper recently was the Hungarian government.

The revitalized paper has a new surprise donor: The Hungarian government. The Jaffa-based paper now enjoys some funding sourced from a budget earmarked for supporting the dissemination of Hungarian language and heritage abroad.

Steiner and Vadasz reply cautiously when they are asked about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “We don’t write about politics in Hungary,” Vadasz says. Steiner adds: “Readers complain if we deal with Hungary. They want to read about Israel.” Nevertheless, the two stress that the paper is not subject to any political pressure. “We enjoy complete freedom, even when we criticize Orban,” Vadasz says.

A man reading a copy of Uj Kelet.
A man reading a copy of Uj Kelet.Credit: Uj Kelet

Vadasz recalls proudly that during Orban’s visit to Israel last summer, “we were the only Hungarian-Israeli media outlet that covered his visit.”

As it turns out, Új Kelet is not the only one trying to speak to the Hungarian audience in Israel. One of its competitors is the internet site of a library in Givatayim, which calls itself “Új Kelet Online,” despite being unconnected to the newspaper Új Kelet. “This is a sensitive situation, Vadasz says. “I don’t want to speak badly of them, but they started after us.”

Új Kelet has known many incarnations. Founded in Cluj, Romania, December 1918, it served as the mouthpiece of the National Jewish Union from Transylvania, whose goal was to stop the assimilation of Jews into Hungarian society. In 1940, after Cluj came back under Hungarian rule, the newspaper was closed because of its Zionist leanings on orders of the anti-Semitic, Nazi Germany allied government.

The paper’s editor, Dr. Erno Marton, survived the Holocaust and came to live in Israel. In 1948 he reopened the paper, this time from Tel Aviv, and turned it into the town square of Hungarian speakers in Israel. The paper’s golden age was in the 1950s and 60s, when it was printed in editions of 20,000 copies and read by some 100,000 people.

People protesting in Budapest against a change Orban initiated to work laws, December 2018.
People protesting in Budapest against a change Orban initiated to work laws, December 2018.Credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Three famous figures were associated with the paper over the years. The first, Rudolph Kastner, began writing for it back in Hungary. In 1955, the Israeli High Court of Justice determined that he had "sold his soul to the devil," after allegations that he had collaborated with the Nazis. 33 of the paper's readers in Nes Ziona protested the continued publication of Kastner's articles, writing, "We don't want to read anything he writes!" Kastner was assassinated in 1957, and his reputation was rehabilitated.

Two other famous writers for Új Kelet were Tommy Lapid and Ephraim Kishon. In 1951, when the future justice minister Lapid was released from the army, he sent his first article to Új Kelet. The article dealt with Yugoslavian president with Marshal Tito. “I regret that I am returning your manuscript, but we do not have enough space and the subject is known. Moreover, we request that the next time you write with bigger spaces,” Franz Kishhunt (Ephraim Kishon), the paper’s night editor, wrote to Lapid. The caricaturist Dosh, another member of the “Hungarian mafia”, also contributed to the paper.

'Thrilling ideas'

“We know we’re holding a treasure, and that we can’t revive the glory days of Új Kelet from the 50s, but we’re trying to keep up the standard,” Vadasz says. Steiner adds another goal: “we want to turn Új Kelet into a cool newspaper, suited for people a hundred years old and people who want to take it to the beach,” he says. “I feel a deep responsibility. Our job is to bring the real voice from Israel to the Hungarian readers – in both Israel and in Hungary,” Steiner adds.

Steiner was recently asked if now, after the centenary edition has been published, the paper can be “allowed to die quietly.” But he is in no hurry to eulogize it. “I won’t lend a hand to that. We have a lot more thrilling ideas. We’re very optimistic,” he says.

One of these ideas came into being recently, when the Uj Kelet staff went through the archives looking for old recipes, and made a completely vegan meal using revamped old recipes (goulash, for example).

Another, sensational, idea was to have writers who do not know Hungarian contribute to Új Kelet. This paved the way for an article by Habima Theater actor Nimrod Dagan, Steiner’s partner, to write an article for the hundredth-anniversary edition. “I remember myself as a boy seeing the newspaper in my grandmother’s kitchen,” Dagan wrote. “I once asked her why she was still reading a newspaper in Hungarian and she replied: ‘so I won’t forget the language.’” Dagan’s article, which was written in English and translated into Hungarian, talked about his grandmother and her last visit to Cluj, the hometown of Új Kelet.

The issue of language preoccupies the paper’s readers and writers. The veteran writers insist on continuing to publish in language that has an old-time flavor, which irritates the Hungarian language editors, who insist on suiting the language to a contemporary spirit, for the benefit of the young readers. “We’re trying to maintain the charm of the veteran writers, but we have to consider the young readers so they understand what we’re talking about,” Steiner says.