Images Craved, Not Graven

There is a thriving paparazzi industry in the Haredi world today, starring magazines and websites full of photos of esteemed religious figures at family and other events, and fueled by large sums of money.

Starting over a week ago, when Ashkenazi Jews joined their Sephardic counterparts in their pre-Rosh Hashana selihot (penitential prayers ), the whistle blew to open the so-called Haredi paparazzi season. The season will go on for an entire month, until the end of Sukkot, providing photographers in this sphere countless opportunities to document rabbinical sages in action, as they undertake various High Holy Day-related rituals, including selihot, examining citrons and visiting the courts of other rabbis. The pictures get printed in the community's photographic magazines and papers, and uploaded to its websites. A leading figure in the Haredi paparazzi industry states that, "if we could, we would photograph the holiday prayers themselves."

Two months ago, a wedding was celebrated by two esteemed Haredi families in Bnei Brak. At the peak of the ceremony, an entire battery of photographers, belonging to all the ultra-Orthodox media outlets, trained their lenses on the couple. Among them was Shuki Lerer, a photographer who has become a fixture in this sphere. A confidant of virtually every leading local ultra-Orthodox rabbi over the past 20 years, he came to document the wedding of the nephew of Rabbi Dovid Kohn, leader of the Toldos Aharon sect, a well-known Hasidic line in Jerusalem, and the daughter of Rabbi Rahov, a noted figure among Bnei Brak Hasidic circles. The photographers knew that after the event thousands of Orthodox around the world would look for photos of this wedding, and that their pictures would strengthen the flourishing trade of Haredi magazines - publications which serve to reinforce, rather than merely document, the ultra-Orthodox leadership.

Photographers, ultra-Orthodox, Jew, Orthodox man.
Alon Ron

It wasn't the young bride and groom, but rather the elderly religious sages who were the stars of the Toldos Aharon-Rahov wedding. The photographers were relentless, clicking away without stopping. In the Toldos Aharon family, cameras were traditionally taboo. This prohibition has occasionally been ignored, particularly in the case of weddings conducted in Bnei Brak, far from the family's home court in Mea She'arim; still, not everything is allowed.

Lerer explains that at this wedding, photographers were allowed to work, but had to keep a distance, and were not allowed to approach the banquet table, use flashes or, heaven forbid, video cameras. As always, it was forbidden to photograph (or, worse, publish ) any images of the rabbis eating or drinking. Nobody examines the journalistic or aesthetic quality of pictures taken on an occasion like this; the main thing is that there are photographic images of venerated figures.

These Haredi publications appear each Thursday , and have a total circulation of tens of thousands. Some brand them as "tabloids," "yellow journals" or even "Haredi Playboys" - and someone who is caught with one can never claim he is looking for in-depth journalistic reportage. These publications have only photographs - though never, heaven forbid, of women. Each has a similar format, featuring pictures of weekly events: For example, here's a page devoted to a wedding; there's part of a page with a photo of a funeral; here's a religious sage prostrate on the grave of his ancestors in Romania; there's some Torah scholar, accompanied by figures well known in the Haredi world, like singer Lipa Schmeltzer, installing a mezuzah at a new, glatt kosher sushi restaurant in Bnei Brak. Industrious graphic designers take pains to display each photo with a gold-colored frame.

Rising competition

For many years Hebrew-language magazines such as Haolam Haharedi and Kol Haolam Kulo, in Israel, along with Yiddish journals in the United States such as Die Woche and Die Welt, have been publishing photos and circulating in ultra-Orthodox communities. In recent years Haredi websites have started to post photographs taken at important events in the ultra-Orthodox world, plus there is also a weekly photo magazine, called 24 News, which circulates both in e-mail and printed formats.

The strength of these various photographic publications has been tested in recent months, as competition between them has intensified. Some have managed to make inroads into the realm of mainstream Haredi media. The management of The Community, a weekly, recently signed an agreement with the owners of The Haredi World, which is now being distributed as a free insert inside the weekly.

The Community editor Binyamin Lipkin explains that "there are increasing numbers of readers who enjoy the photographs. These are readers of all ages, but key groups are children and the Haredi population overseas, which does not read Hebrew, and which purchases our newspaper mainly on account of the photographs. People love seeing their beloved rabbi in a photograph; it warms the heart.

Religious boys, hasidic boys, orthodox chidlren
Alon Ron

"The Community always viewed itself as the Haaretz of the Haredi population and, in general, in the Haredi community nothing replaces the written word. But we noticed that there is increasing demand for photographs. People love seeing the images, and in recent years we've become more diverse. The addition of The Haredi World was a good sales move, and it improved our circulation figures. That does not necessarily attest to superficiality; many people don't have time to read the entire newspaper and so this is a good solution for them."

The ascendance of the photographic papers and magazines is directly connected to the growing tendency in the Haredi world to become more permissive regarding publication of images and information about rabbis' lives. This trend is also evident on the street, where revered rabbis are being forced to deal with flocks of paparazzi that follow them wherever they go. It is also seen in text messages with tidbits of information that circulate to thousands of subscribers - messages that are likely inspired by gossip columns in secular newspapers. Such, for example, was a message circulated not long ago about Rabbi Mendel Hagar, who is embroiled in an inheritance dispute with his brother, and who was "seen tonight praying alone, without an entourage, at the Western Wall." Such messages have pushed some rabbis to go to pray very late at night, or to invite a large retinue of Hasidic followers to accompany them, who, among other things, keep photographers at bay.

The mainstream Haredi media also have an interest in obtaining a glimpse of the private lives of rabbis and displaying their spartan austerity. Last Pesach, the Mishpacha newspaper published a profile about Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, who is considered a leader of the Lithuanian stream; the article stirred an uproar because it relied on an indirect interview with the rabbi himself. But nobody complained about the content, which included a description of Rabbi Karelitz's usual routine, including the information that he needs "total rest" of 45 minutes to an hour each afternoon, along with two walks and five meals a day (the exact foods and times of intake were determined by a physician who has tended the rabbi for several years, since he had a heart attack in 1996 ).

The publications in question usually have some paid advertising, but this is apparently not a financial necessity. Most of the income is generated by sales, and by the objects that are photographed: namely, the rabbis and members of their courts. While photographing events sponsored by particular Hasidic streams may be done at a magazine's expense, members of the rabbi's entourage want to ensure that there is expanded coverage and will thus offer special payment.

Coverage of major Haredi events always garner high "ratings," and editors are often prepared to foot the bill, since they know thousands of people will flock to the newsstands to buy the publications.

Internal disputes

As for the photographers there is no set fee paid by Haredi event sponsors. It may be in the thousands of dollars for covering a single event, depending on the size of the Hasidic community involved, the nature of its relationship with a particular publication - and also the amount of space alloted by the editors for the photo and its placement.

While some members of ultra-Orthodox groups pay to publicize photos of their events in the press, other members may be offended by such an arrangement, however.

One variable that influences the size of the rather mysterious fees that are paid is whether there is an internal dispute within the sect whose members are being photographed, which may draw more interest among readers. One person connected to the Haredi photo magazine industry explains that coverage of a wedding can cost $500, for a photo published on an inside page; the price will be double if the image is plastered on the front page. When an ultra-Orthodox group is embroiled in some internal conflict, annual payments to a magazine can reach $20,000 or more, says the source.

Some prominent rabbis adamantly oppose photographs of themselves appearing in the magazines, but the paparazzi shoot and get the pictures published. Circulating on the Internet in recent days is a photo of the Admor of Gur at the Western Wall; the revered figure, who objected to the photograph, is seen with his two arms outstretched, trying to rebuff the photographer.

The Admor of Slonim, who noticed that his own ban on being photographed was not working because his own followers relayed pictures to the Haredi press, made a strict announcement recently on a website, forbidding this practice. He was quoted as saying that "each time I hear that my photographs have been published, I feel as though someone has stabbed me with a knife."

In contrast to these unwilling photo subjects, quite a few rabbinical figures and their followers thirst for publicity. They view publication of a particular rabbi's photo in the press as a means of communication, as a visual message reflecting their community's growth and status, and also as a means to increase the stream of donations to their community. These magazines have helped to institutionalize the status of some rabbis as iconic quasi-celebrities. And the publicity has kept a number of small rabbinical courts in operation: While some such communities have a small number of members, the photos of their rabbis help put them on the Haredi map.

Lipkin claims that "for the first time, small Haredi communities have been able to get themselves into the main Haredi newspapers. I don't know whether the editors charge fees, but the bottom line is that this is laudable - an opportunity to give space and a medium of expression to small Hasidic streams."

According to Haredi World owner Ya'akov (Yanki ) Bichler, "there are newspapers whose publication is supported by payments from Osem and Coca Cola. We are published thanks to the ultra-Orthodox circles, to the rabbis' courts and also to yeshivas that want to publicize their development among members of their communities."

Recently, a list of 552 Hasidic sects that exist in the world was circulated on the Web. Even people-in-the-know were surprised, and thought there were perhaps half that number. The splits and proliferation of these groups finds expression in the ultra-Orthodox press - and also pays off: A paper or magazine may promote the public-relations interests of one side involved in a "battle of succession," or some other dispute.

For instance, the split that occurred in recent years in the Satmar stream, the largest in the Hasidic world, between the brothers Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum and Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, was splashed all over the local press; media outlets signed exclusivity agreements with one side or the other, and those agreements generated tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. The Whole World advances the side of Rabbi Zalman (who recently published a letter to newspaper editors, asking that photos of him not be published), whereas The Haredi World relates to Rabbi Aaron as the true Satmar leader. And each such arrangement costs a pretty penny.

While the photo magazines ostensibly seek to bolster the status of certain Haredi rabbis and leaders, people close to the industry have come to the opposite conclusion. One Hasidic veteran of that industry says that "whoever knows what occurs behind the scenes in these magazines, finds it hard to look at some of the rabbis with the same sense of admiration. Regrettably, there are today very few top-flight Hasidic leaders, genuinely righteous men, who don't care about matters of public respect and image."

The rabbis' new pets

Up to a few years ago, Shuki Lerer and his fellow photographers were considered nuisances who detracted from the emotional atmosphere of weddings and funerals alike. Lerer, a diminutive and agile person, is not himself Orthodox, but he would dress in Hasidic garb when he was on the job. While the point of his costume was to allow himself to blend into the crowd, he was sometimes found out and unceremoniously kicked out of events.

Today, with photo magazines and Internet sites flourishing, and photographic skills and publication speed at a premium, Lerer and his colleagues enter Haredi events through the front door. In fact, sometimes the festivities are not complete without them: At weddings, for instance, the photographers are invited to eat these days, and are even allowed access to VIP areas, in order to enhance the quality of their work. In this line of work, a photographer is measured by the connections he forges and the trust he inspires among his Haredi subjects. He must carefully abide by certain internal communal codes, and know when and where he can take pictures, when he can use a flash, and the like. Video shots are usually forbidden.

Lerer says he is sometimes asked by prominent rabbis why he didn't turn up to events sponsored by their communities, and is frequently invited to their private homes, to photograph passport portraits, and so on. Recently, he relates, he found himself by chance on the same flight as a Hasidic leader known to be hostile to having his picture taken. Lerer approached the Admor, and said: "'It's important for your followers to know that you spend every spare second studying Gemara, even on a plane.' He thought for a second and then told me, 'I agree.'"

Lerer concludes: "There's nothing that people want more than to see their rabbis at home, busy with Torah. People wanted to see how Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef] looks when he studies, without his robe or dark glasses. That was a popular image."

'Addicted to photos'

Moshe is a Hasidic scholar in his twenties, from Jerusalem, who confesses to having developed as an adolescent an obsessive passion for photographs of rabbis. He would save up his shekels to purchase weeklies that carried pictures of these revered leaders.

"In our community, photographs of rabbis were considered undesirable, foreign items then," he recalls. "My father was very worried about me, because I was addicted to the photographs. In the end he realized that he had to ease up, or else his children would end up somewhere else [outside of the Haredi world]. He grasped that it was better for them to deal with photographs of rabbis."

Moshe continues: "It might be hard to understand this if you are not in this world, but think of a Haredi boy who doesn't have many visual stimuli. He doesn't know what television is about; he barely sees newspapers. Images of Hasidic leaders provide thrills to such a boy, particularly if the man in question is from his own community. And if the boy himself happens to find his way into a photograph at some wedding celebration, he'll be beside himself with joy."