From Bar Refaeli's Torah Lessons to Paparazzi Shots of Rabbis: The ultra-Orthodox Love Affair With Gossip

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The father of Haredi paparazzi, Boaz Ben-Ari.
The father of Haredi paparazzi, Boaz Ben-Ari.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

It was in the Shleikes Jewish food restaurant in Bnei Brak that I got the definitive proof of how gossip has conquered the ultra-Orthodox public. I had arrived for a joint interview with journalist Itzik Ohana, whose specialty is coverage of get-togethers between secular celebs and rabbis, along with Haredi political analyst Yisrael Cohen, who admits that he’s turned to yellow journalism in recent years. By chance, the new publisher of the Haredi website Behadrei Haredim, Miki Barzel, came in. Cohen, who has a healthy sense of humor, asked Ohana to take his picture with Barzel and post it on Twitter, with a caption wondering whether he was defecting to Behadrei Haredim. The photo quickly spread from the tweet to a galaxy of WhatsApp groups.

It then turned out that others had also clandestinely photographed the chance meeting two weeks ago. A hullabaloo ensued. Within minutes, Cohen’s phone began to vibrate with messages from a bevy of ultra-Orthodox media-industry reporters who wanted to know whether he was actually leaving Kol Harama, the radio station he’s identified with. Cohen’s denial only heightened the suspicions.

In the meantime, a report about the fact that I had met with the two jokesters at Shleikes (which means “suspenders” in Yiddish) found its way into the Haredi gossip columns, accompanied by a historic photo: Cohen, Ohana and me seated with a plate of gefilte fish garnished with carrot, on the table between us. Even before the gefilte fish had been digested, we all gained everlasting fame. A week later, photographer Tomer Appelbaum, who took the picture of the duo, was the subject of an item on the Haredi news site

After years in which the Haredi press was generally quite limited, both in terms of content and dissemination, the advent of the internet stood that world on its head. Five years ago, the first official gossip column, Leibele, was inaugurated on Behadrei Haredim. It’s since been joined by Bekleine, on the Actualic site, Tzitzit on the Kikar Hashabbat news site and also by Pashkevil, a website geared to the Haredi advertising industry. A dedicated gossip site called Pichifkes initially took off but shut down a year ago. And there are also ultra-Orthodox groups on WhatsApp and Twitter, which are abuzz with gossip and often beat the conventional columns to the punch.

Journalist Itzik Ohana and Haredi political analyst Yisrael Cohen.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The explosion in the Haredi media world today recalls the glory days of the Israeli media in the 1990s, when an item about the move of a reporter living in a leaky apartment from a local paper to the big leagues would be a story worthy of coverage. These days, the view in newspapers is that the public isn’t really interested in media personnel. However, in the Haredi galaxy, the outmoded notion of the branzha (slang for “guild”) is enjoying an unprecedented boom. For example, if a novice Haredi journalist is caught stuffing himself with cholent, or even just strolling – merciful heavens! – on Rabbi Akiva Street in Bnei Brak, that’s a huge scoop.

Menachem Koldetsky, 35, is the person behind the Bekleine gossip column. A decade ago, Koldetsky was a kashrut supervisor during a shmita year (the sabbatical year, when the land is to be left fallow), and when it ended dug around for a new job. He found himself working for the weekly in his ultra-Orthodox hometown of Modi’in Illit. At first he wrote under the pen name Menachem Hadar. Journalism wasn’t a profession to be proud of back then in Haredi circles.

“There were hardly any Haredi reporters at the time,” he recalls. “I had a non-internet computer, I wrote an article and sent it via a friend, something about selling willow branches for the Sukkot holiday. I didn’t dare ask whether the article would be published. Then, when the paper appeared, I suddenly see the item. I started to work for Kikar Hashabbat ” – the online ultra-Orthodox paper – “and had one scoop after another. I’m the person who invented the term ‘Hapeleg Hayerushalmi’” (the “Jerusalem Faction,” referring to the militant followers of the late Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach).

But today Koldetsky writes the gossip column. “These days, gossip draws more responses than an article about [MK Moshe] Gafni, [Deputy Health Minister Yaakov] Litzman” – the leaders of the United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset – “or the conscription law,” he explains. “People want something voyeuristic, something bizarre. It used to be that the beadle of Rabbi Schach or Rabbi Elyashiv was someone you saw only in places of learning; people didn’t go to malls and didn’t have cellphones. Today that has all changed. Look at Moshe Abutbul, the former mayor of Beit Shemesh – he’s constantly uploading items using the ‘stories’ feature on the Actualic site.”

Do the admors, rabbinical leaders of Haredi communities, like to be written about?

Koldetsky: “In contrast to Leibele, I write less about rabbis, more about journalists. It’s an industry column. But I will write about a yeshiva head who abuses children. I had information about that and I published a hint about it in Bekleine.”

A video Tweeted by journalist Itzik Ohana shows Bar Refaeli and husband Adi Ezra at a Hanukkah event

In the gossip column? But that’s a news item.

“I wrote that a new scandal was about to explode having to do with a yeshiva in a Haredi city. He got on a plane and fled. Half a year later, he realized that the issue had been dropped and he came back. In cases like that, we write about ‘grave acts.’ The Haredim by now understand what ‘grave acts’ means – there are codes.”

A photo that ran on the Behadrei Haredim website shows Haaretz reporter Roy Arad with Haredi political analyst Yisrael Cohen at the Shleikes restaurant in Bnei Brak.

Why, for example, does my meeting with journalist Yisrael Cohen merit a mention in your gossip column?

“The fact is that it’s the most widely read thing among the Haredi public. I also like to write about anonymous people. For example, about a photographer no one ever heard of. After he got into the gossip columns he became the photographer for [the ultra-Orthodox political party] Degel Hatorah. People also like to read an item about how the mayor’s driver went to eat kugel. Humor is a very important element in the column.

“There are also stories that I don’t write about. Despite the traffic, there are red lines. We won’t write about pregnancy – it’s too voyeuristic. Leibele doesn’t mention women. We do, but not too much. [Zionist Union MK] Tzipi Livni, yes; modest Haredi women, yes. But I’m afraid of creating an obstacle [for readers]. We are breakthrough people, but the readers want a column with limits, they aren’t able to look at daring photos.”

Menachem Koldetsky. "It’s not easy to vote for Degel Hatorah after hearing about all their intrigues. But we don’t want to hurt people.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Do you go to events or mostly get tips by phone?

“I don’t have to make the rounds, people tell me things.”

Sounds like everyone’s a spy.

“I have plenty of sources. I hear the real gossip that we can’t publish. It’s not easy to vote for Degel Hatorah after hearing about all their quarrels and intrigues. But we don’t want to hurt people.”

'Juicy items'

Doesn’t being a journalist mean speaking the truth?

“Not if you do injury to a certain rabbi.”

Are you and Leibele in competition?

“The truth is that he lives two buildings away from me. We’re both busy, he focuses on admors, I’m more into the PR people and the juicy items.”

Who’s more sensationalist, you or him?

“I am, regrettably. He has limits.”

A few years ago, when Koldetsky was away in Tiberias, people phoned him to say that the neighborhoods were full of pashkvelim (wall posters) denouncing him. “I came out against mayors and they didn’t like it,” he says. “They all just lick, I bite. That was one of the causes of the rabbis’ boycott of the internet. I started to expose corruption and to publicize failures. I showed time after time how a certain city was neglected, and the public was shocked.”

Were you offended by the posters?

“People told me they didn’t know I was so famous. I took it with a smile, I have a tough hide, although I thought it would be hard for my wife. But she was strong. I got a message from a certain public figure of whom I was regularly critical, saying he wanted to meet me at a café. We sat with a mediator. And then the mediator said, ‘Listen, you stop writing about the public figure, otherwise you’ll find yourself out of the city.’ I toned down the criticism.

“There’s no real democracy, we are limited. Before that I had felt intoxicated by power. I fired in every direction, and that led to sidewalks being fixed. I was also criticized for writing about the struggle against anti-Mizrahi discrimination. People asked me, ‘Why are you defending the Frenks?’” – a derogatory term for Jews of Sephardic origin.

Shuki Lerer, the country’s official admor photographer, at a Hasidic wedding. Credit: \ Alon Ron

You could have been a topflight investigative reporter – why stir up people’s kugel?

“I’m a jack of all trades. I do political exposés, and the gossip comes along with it. The public likes that. And if I’ve said something good about someone, he says ‘Thank you, you’ve made my Saturday evening.’ On the other hand, if a public figure married off his daughter and I didn’t run a photo in my column, it’s as though the wedding didn't happen. If you’re not in the column, you don’t exist.”

You and the others have become something very different from the secular stigma associated with ultra-Orthodox people.

“The public is becoming more open. During the Gulf War in 1991, we played jacks, everything was pure and innocent. Today we live in a more permissive world. There’s been a dramatic change in recent years. On the other hand, there were those who warned that if we surfed the web we would slide into the abyss. Thanks to the accommodating leadership of [the late Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib] Shteinman, none of those dark scenarios came to pass. People opened up, but stayed within the territory. Once you would go to the kiosk to watch a soccer game; today you get the game over the phone. You can surf the internet, go to the beach, travel abroad, go to cafés. People don’t peek into each other’s homes, like they used to. There’s greater space.”

The first Haredi gossip column was Leibele, which was launched five years ago. It was founded by the former editor of Behadrei Haredim, David Rotenberg, and then took a break. The column was revived by a journalist who goes by the pseudonym “Moshe Weissberg.” Today, he is 32 and the father of four.

“It’s extremely popular,” Weissberg relates. “Internet sites look for the sensational everywhere. Listen, Haredim have always loved neies. The word means ‘news’ in Yiddish, but really, it refers to gossip. Haredim are very interested, for example, in which store opened and which closed. People on Shabbat eve at home – what do they talk about? This one closed, that one opened. It really interests people.”

In the secular population, the concept of the branzha (meaning both members of the media community and gossip about them) doesn’t interest the broad public, it’s even considered elitist.

“Our readers wait every week for it. It’s no joke.”

And women?

“We censor photographs of women. If there’s a scoop and there’s a woman in the photo who can’t be cropped out, we blur it. In [items about] marriage proposals, the woman’s image is blurred or not put in at all.”

How do you live with that?

“It’s what the public doesn’t want to see. There are children.”

I can’t believe you’d pass up a huge scoop like a photo of Tzipi Livni gnawing at a challah in Bnei Brak.

“[Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked met with Rabbi Poborsky – that was a main headline. But without her picture. We sent a photographer to get an exclusive shot, but only tweeted it.”

Why do you use an alias?

“Other journalists know who I am, but from the Haredi perspective I don’t want to be too famous. I’ve been asked to give interviews by numberless television programs as a [Hasidic] court journalist – after all, my ‘doctorate’ is in admors – but I prefer not to.”

Are the admors happy when you publish photos of them, for example, dacing with a rope [at a wedding]?

A Hasidic wedding in Bnei Brak, 2015.Credit: \ Gil Cohen-Magen

“They’re not into it.”

But they know about it?

“I believe they’re exposed to it.”

Does it seem reasonable to you that rabbinical sages should become celebs?

“They’re our personages. That’s the price. A few years ago, I published a photograph of an admor filling out a lottery form in Petah Tikva. If the rabbi bought a form, it’s a sign that it’s not a disgrace. He too has to make a living. I see it greatness in this.”

I meet with the pseudonymous Weissberg at the editorial offices of Behadrei Haredim, on the second floor of a gas station in Bnei Brak. “The world’s biggest Haredi portal,” a sign on the wall says. Kikar Hashabbat, for its part, terms itself “the world’s leading Haredi website.”

Even though Weissberg is one of those responsible for the sensationalist thrust, he feels that a red line has been crossed.

“I was having my hair cut on the eve of the holiday, and the door was open. I then received simultaneously five photos of myself there, taken by five different people, and I hadn’t even noticed them. People send me pictures of themselves and ask me to upload them, as if they’d been spotted by me. I will try to avoid doing that. I tell them, ‘Listen, that’s more demeaning than it is respectable. People will know you asked, there’s no point.’ But sometimes it’s uncomfortable for me, so I run the photo. There are ‘WhatsApp boys’ in the Haredi community, who will be members of 150 different groups and get a salary from people to spread news about them in the groups.”

You and Koldetsky both live in Modi’in Ilit, which is the poorest town in Israel. Maybe there are more important things you could do with your talent.

“Modi’in Ilit is a model city. You don’t see poverty there. It should be a model for every city in Israel.”

Boaz Ben-Ari.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Looking for blood

No article about the Haredi world of gossip would be complete without mention of the rise and decline of the father of Haredi paparazzi, Boaz Ben-Ari. Known by the nickname “Quick Temper,” Ben-Ari is 38 and from Jerusalem. I first met him at the Knesset. I saw a person with extravagant dress – a spectacular red scarf, red buttons and red glasses. I wasn’t even sure he was ultra-Orthodox. Using a telephoto lens, he photographed the texts of MKs’ private WhatsApp conversations and published them. But the revolutionaries are the first victims of the revolution. In the past few years, Quick Temper has slowed down. He couldn’t compete with the yeshiva students who uploaded photos to WhatsApp before he could.

“Today everyone has a smartphone and can upload material in a jiffy,” he says. “And the editors want the ultra-sensational. The thrill quotient is rising, and they want blood, traffic accidents with Haredim. Or, you blur the picture a little and upload terror attacks with a lot of blood and red. I have rules. I don’t show blood. It corrupts the photographer’s soul. At a certain point, I just said no.”

“Madhouse” is how he describes the way he runs around from one candle-lighting ceremony to another during the week of Hanukkah. We are speaking after he photographed a candle-lighting at the Belz Yeshiva. I ask him if he had been invited, and he tells me that the Hasidic communities officially invite only Shuki Lerer, the country’s official admor photographer, who focuses on the rabbi himself in each case. “I want to photograph the different, the Hasid who’s waiting for the admor, but has fallen asleep from weariness. It’s yellow journalism, but not low-yellow.”

Ben-Ari started to upload photos to the Behadrei Haredim forum on the Hyde Park site, even before Behadrei Haredim had its own site. “That’s when the first Nokia phones with cameras came out, and people didn’t even know the phones had a camera. I took pictures and uploaded them. Things started to get out of hand, because no one knew who was daring to take pictures from inside.

“One time I went to the wedding of the daughter of a public figure and I uploaded it while the wedding ceremony was still underway. There was a huge uproar. It was the first time this had happened. Generally the pictures are published a week later and are filtered. People understood that someone was changing the rules of the game. Dozens of times I was thrown out the window, and not as a joke, and then I would come back through the same window. The Gur Rebbe won’t allow his picture to be taken. His Hasids fight to make sure that he’s not photographed. But I hid and took really good pictures.”

Even so, Ben-Ari has a hard time with the growing sensationalism of the Haredi media. “It’s very painful,” he says. “Why do we need to show these sides of ourselves? It sells, yes, it’s sexy, that’s absolutely true. But is this what they want to show the outside world about the community? Because of that, my material is less highly regarded now. I don’t shoot the dirt.”

Journalist Itzik Ohana.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Spotted at the Kotel

There are people who become absolutely addicted to gossip. Until recently, journalist and social media personality Itzik Ohana, 21, went by the pen name Itzik Mann. What really enthralls him is when secular celebs, like the singer Omer Adam and the model Bar Refaeli, meet with rabbis. Ohana describes himself as a “pillar of gossip” on the web. Even though he hasn’t been salaried since leaving Behadrei Haredim recently, he posts gossip on his Twitter account with the expectation that it will be published on websites afterward. He earns a living from what he collects from the “neies lines” – headlines related to the ultra-Orthodox community that are sent to people’s phones. “Gafni said this, [MK Meir] Porush said that. When [singer] Kobi Peretz is spotted at the graves of tzadikim [holy men], it draws more traffic than anything. [Singer] Eyal Golan is seen at the Kotel [the Western Wall] – that’s gets more clicks than politics. Sometimes people reread the same item a few times. I can’t always figure out how people who don’t have a smartphone even know what I’ve written. Maybe they go to an internet café.”

Do rabbis send you items?

“Their people cooperate in the fullest manner. For example, Rabbi Yigal Cohen, who is getting close with Omer Adam. Last year, everything changed [with Adam]. A secular celeb may not observe Shabbat, but he feels an affinity for Judaism and is happy for there to be a photograph of him wearing a kippa.” Ohana tells me about an editor on a television program who regularly draws on his assistance about Haredi issues. “Journalists were looking for [the so-called singing rabbi] Dudu Dery, and I arranged it within three minutes,” he says. “The gossip columns know who to contact.”

You’re addicted, Itzik.

“Everyone has his hobby.”

The political analyst Israel Cohen (who also writes op-eds for Haaretz) is not a gossip columnist, but he’s mentioned in almost everyone else’s column. He explains how to write about models without upsetting the rabbinical overseers, for example: “When Bar Refaeli arrived for a Torah lesson in Bnei Brak a year ago, we mentioned her in Kikar Hashabbat under the rubric of a businesswoman.”

A businesswoman?

“She really is a businesswoman. Gossip is part of our foundation. There were always the famous gossip-mongers in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Why his wife didn’t bear children, why that one died young. Because people are occupied with serious things, with Torah and halakha [religious law], they need the escape, and these columns provide that.”

What has the gossip done to political coverage?

“If in the past we published a speech by MK Menachem Eliezer Mozes [United Torah Judaism] and that impressed people, today people want to hear about all kinds of secret meetings and backroom deals. Gossip isn’t a secular thing, it’s a Haredi invention. We simply have an inclination toward it.”

Why, I ask, is such a large part of the coverage devoted to journalists? Cohen explains: “There are no models or actors among the Haredi public. The media person is a star.”

Effie Feldman, chairman of Ihud Hatzala, the Haredi-run emergency medical services organization, approaches our table in Shleikes excitedly. “He’s a gossipy type,” Cohen tells me, and for some reason Feldman does not take offense at this. Asked how he feels about the coverage he gets in the gossip columns, Feldman admits that “as a person, I enjoy the photos of him.”

Rabbi to the stars Haim Horovitz. “It’s impossible to ignore the meteor of technology. In the end the meteor arrives and it affects everyone.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

No backgammon

One individual who has benefited from the flourishing of gossip columns in the Haredi community is Rabbi Haim Horovitz, whom Ohana dubs “one of the heads of the council of celebs’ rabbis.” The official rabbi of the affluent Tzahala neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Horovitz rattles off the names of his students from the realms of entertainment and fashion: Zvika Hadar, Bar Refaeli, Shlomit Malka, Yehuda Levy and Omer Adam.

“A purely spiritual-Torah relationship has been created between us,” he explains. “We don’t play backgammon in cafés and we don’t crack jokes. There’s a mutual feeling of admiration and esteem between us.”

What do you think about the Haredi gossip on the internet?

Horovitz: “It’s clear that people like it. It’s interesting, nice; people are by nature attracted to celebrities. When a report is published on a religious social network about my meetings with celebs, 95 percent like it and 5 percent find it inappropriate.”

What’s your response to the 5 percent?

“I don’t have Instagram. People write about me. I don’t write, I only embrace. A rabbi’s role is to make Torah loved by all classes. It’s easy to do that with a yeshiva student, but I try to reach people who don’t come from a place of Torah, including models and television personalities. I try to be like Aaron in the Bible. I show that the Torah is cool, relevant and interesting. It’s impossible to ignore the meteor of technology. In the end the meteor arrives and it affects everyone.”

Even though the rabbi sends out heart emojis on WhatsApp and resorts frequently to secular jargon, it’s important for Horovitz to make it clear that he is first and foremost an ultra-Orthodox Jew. “I am not only a Haredi,” he says, “I am 10th generation of highly regarded rabbis. Shlomo Auerbach is my uncle. I am hard-core Haredi, the head of a kollel [yeshiva for married men] and a neighborhood rabbi. But you need the language, the access. If we close ourselves off, we have done nothing. Judaism belongs to the Jews, not to the religiously observant.”

Don’t people look askance at meetings with non-religious celebs?

“As [former Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir said, ‘It’s lucky we have a back, because you can talk behind a person’s back.’ I am a regular visitor to Rabbi [Chaim] Kanievsky’s house, I meet with MKs. Everyone says I am doing holy work.”

The growing sensationalism of the Haredi media is a phenomenon of recent years and continues to intensify. Where and how it will stop is not clear. This new world is creating an ethically slippery situation, with porous boundaries between journalists and PR people. Journalists don’t earn much, and it’s quite possible that some are tempted into extracurricular activities. As Itzik Ohana gives me a lift, he asserts that “there are journalists who get money from politicians. That happened, for example, in advance of the recent municipal elections. I know of some who took money and then wrote about a certain candidate that he would be the next mayor. I also received offers, but refused them. I’m very careful about things like that.”

Adds Koldetsky: “It’s a well-known thing. I also got hints. I was offered scoops and it was hinted that there were more things they could give me. I believe that every sensible person knows that there’s a snake in the grass.”

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