Fit to Print

A conference at TAU explores children's journalism and its influence on generations of Israelis.

When he was 12 years old, Yitzhak Ben-Ner wrote a story and sent it to the young writers' competition at the Haaretz Shelanu newspaper for children. That was in the early 1950s and the story he wrote was about the eucalyptus tree in his backyard.

"All the adults where we lived, in Kfar Yehoshua, read [the now defunct newspaper] Davar and the children read Davar Layeladim," he relates. "But one day a boy showed up at our school with a new newspaper. Since I would read every scrap of paper I could get my hands on, I started thumbing through it. When I saw there was a 'little journalists' competition, as the paper called it, I liked the idea. I hadn't written anything until then."

Naama Benziman in her childhood
Reproduction by Daniel Bar-On

Ben-Ner also appended to his submission a journalistic report on a class visit to a military airfield. Writer Benjamin Tammuz, who at the time was the editor of Haaretz Shelanu, had an eye for talented writers. "I received a letter from Benjamin Tammuz. It read, 'In the future send me stories and not reports,'" recalls Ben-Ner. "And that is what I did."

In fact, this is how Ben-Ner's literary career began. The stories he sent to the newspaper from time to time were always accepted warmly. Later, he was invited to write regularly, and every two weeks a story of his was published, until he joined the army. He was even paid for his writing.

"These were relatively long stories, taking into account the size of the newspaper. Their length was never cut," he says nostalgically. When he was released from the army, Aharon Amir invited him to write for the new literary journal Keshet, on the recommendation of Tammuz.

Ben-Ner attributes significance to his writing in the children's press. He does not see it as a mere footnote in his biography.

The children's newspapers played an important role in shaping entire generations of Israeli youngsters, particularly in the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. Their centrality to childhood here continued until their commercialization toward the end of the 1980s. It was then that they became what they are today: celebrity gossip rags, mostly.

Naama Benziman
Lee Orpaz

Equally interesting is the effect of the newspapers of the past on the children who wrote for them. Among the pages of those yellowing newspapers - Haaretz Shelanu, Davar Layeladim, Al Hamishmar, Haboker and more - can be found the budding efforts of people who became writers and journalists: authors Amos Oz and Eyal Megged and poet Raquel Chalfi, for example, journalist Ya'akov Ahimeir, Ehud Manor (Wiener ) and from the younger generation, Yaron Frid and Naama Benziman.

How this opportunity influenced its writers is one of the topics at a conference on children's journalism that will take place at Tel Aviv University on January 18. Among those participating in the symposium alongside Ben-Ner will be Ya'akov Ahimeir, who wrote in the Herut youth newspaper; Dan Almagor who began writing when he was only 10, publishing his abundant work in all the children's newspapers of the times; writer and social activist Yuval Albashan, who was a young journalist in the 1980s at Haaretz Shelanu, and Esther Kal, the deputy editor who was a kind of mother to all the young writers at Haaretz Shelanu, a role that included writing encouraging letters and making long phone calls during which burning issues were discussed.

Breakfast with the editor

In the early days of the state, socialist and nationalist ideology figured prominently on the pages of the press, including the children's press. According to a study by Dr. Rima Shikhmanter, who is organizing the conference along with Prof. Zohar Shavit, Haaretz Shelanu stood out among the newspapers of the period for its personal tone. In its wake, the other newspapers for children gradually abandoned their didacticism. The young journalists of Haaretz Shelanu, about 20 or 30 children, would convene from time to time at the old Haaretz building on Mazeh Street in Tel Aviv and eat breakfast with the editor and his deputy. These occasions also included a visit to the press, films or lectures. It was an entire day of cultural activity, which these children anticipated eagerly.

Dan Almagor joined Haaretz Shelanu when he was a teenager, he says, "already a ripe and mature journalist of 14." He admits that he was a "relentless writer and graphomaniac." Thus at the socialist Mishmar Layeladim, Almagor was a sports reporter and editor of the sports section, and at the same time he was also writing for Haboker, a newspaper with nationalist leanings. "I was split," Almagor laughs, "because I loved to publish. My father was a member of the (socialist ) Hashomer Hatzair and of course a member of the Mishmar (later Al Hamishmar ) camp. But that didn't interfere with me also writing for Haboker."

Almagor relates that the editor of Haboker once wrote about him in his column. "There is a certain boy in Rehovot who is so industrious that he sends material to all the newspapers, and it amazes me that this boy writes both for the exploitative grove owners (Haboker ) and for the exploited workers (Mishmar )."

Dan Almagor in his childhood.
Reproduction by Daniel Bar-On

During that same period, along with Almagor, Yaakov Shabtai, Avraham Hefner and Gideon Reicher also wrote for Mishmar. "We would make a point of mentioning our exact age, 12 or 12 and a quarter or 12 and a half. We were proud of our maturation," says Almagor.

An older journalist, Natan Seitelbach, was 16 or 17 at the time and wrote a column about popular science. He later changed his name to Natan Zach and became a leading Hebrew poet.

Almagor wrote all kinds of things for the newspaper - poems, crossword puzzles, riddles and reports - "sensational stuff like that," he says. And once, in a writing contest on the topic "The Happiest Day of My Life" he wrote that it was the day of his bar mitzvah, when he received a bicycle. "The boy from Rehovot wrote that it was the happiest day of his life," wrote the editor in his column. "What will happen when he gets a motorcycle?"

However, Almagor is especially proud of his first interview with Yaffa Yarkoni. In 1948, when he was 13, he snuck into the Givati Brigade's day of activities near his hometown. The admired singer Yarkoni performed. Almagor got an interview with her, and because of its importance, it was published on the regular, grown-up pages of Mishmar.

Plenty of opportunity

Yuval Albashan, who wrote several decades after Almagor, stresses how at the paper for which he wrote, Haaretz Shelanu, they treated children with respect. Albashan, a writer and social activist who was behind the establishment of the non-profit organization Yedid - The Association for Community Empowerment, says the writing "enriched my arid childhood." He began his career as an enthusiastic reader at the age of 11 or 12. "I would pick up the newspapers from the main Post Office building in my neighborhood, Ramat Hanassi in Bat Yam. Not a month went by when I didn't get hit on the forehead bumping into things as I walked along reading the new issues."

Dan Almagor
Daniel Bar-On

Eventually Albashan started sending in material to the children's story competition. He found great joy in having his stories published. "The editors saw the children's press as a responsibility. They did not take it lightly. I remember serious discussions regarding whether to write about Coco from 'Fame'; about whether that black girl was a role model for youth in Israel. It was my dream come true to write for that newspaper."

Writer and illustrator Naama Benziman, who wrote for Haaretz Shelanu, feels the same way. "I remember the experience of waiting for the newspaper and reading it. That was the most meaningful thing for me as a child. And later I was interested in participating in the newspaper and seeing how children take part in it." This opportunity meant total freedom and total support. A feeling that people trusted you, says Benziman. "They didn't interfere at all, at any level. They never told me what and when. They drove me places, they helped me. As a child I had an opportunity to do things other children didn't. I could approach anyone and ask to interview him. I felt everything was open to me." Thus for example, when dinosaur tracks were discovered at Beit Zayit near Jerusalem, she set out armed with her press card to cover the site.

From her perspective as an adult and a mother. Benziman sees other aspects of the young journalist's experience, too: "Recognition at an early age can create confusion as to your perception of stability and sensitivity in competitive situations. You can become confused about your social standing or when, eventually, things don't go as you had expected."