‘Pashkevilim’ offer glimpse into haredi struggle

Over 10,000 black-and-white announcements collected by activist featured at ‘Zionist’ National Library despite ultra-Orthodox ban.

By MELANIE LIDMAN
November 6, 2011 04:55
YOEL KROIS shows his extensive collection

YOEL KROIS shows his extensive collection 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

 
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In the capital’s insular ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, haredi residents glean much of their community news from posters covering the stone walls, plastered onto seemingly every available surface. These stark black-and-white announcements, called pashkevilim, expound on everything from the dangers of technology to the proper (i.e. modest) attire to the latest boycotts to classes given by famous rabbis.

Sprinkled with references to Talmudic sources and the great sages, these announcements provide a glimpse into the closed world of the most stringent ultra-Orthodox, including conflicts between rabbinic rulings and fears that ever-encroaching technology will ruin their way of life.

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Yoel Krois, the 38-year-old unofficial spokesman of the Toldot Aharon, a virulently anti-Zionist hassidic sect that provides many members of the Eda Haredit communal organization in Jerusalem – has been collecting these traditional announcements for two decades. The windowless stone storage room next to his house in the Mea She’arim neighborhood is crammed with more than 20,000 of these pashkevilim, spilling out of the tops of black binders loosely organized into subject, and piled haphazardly in every corner.

Krois has shared his collection with a handful of researchers over the years, who come to study the announcements in this room, crowded among nostalgic items such as olive oil cans from the 1940s. But a few years ago, he found an unusual partner who was interested in bringing the collection to the broader public: the National Library at the Hebrew University’s Edmund J. Safra campus at Givat Ram in Jerusalem.

Eda Haredit, known for its strong opposition to Zionism, has had a herem, or ban, against visiting the National Library for more than 100 years, due to the library’s collection of non-holy books. Krois has never set foot in the library.

“It’s forbidden for me to go there, but it’s not forbidden for me to give them things,” he said, with a sly grin.

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An exhibit of the library’s collection, with Krois’ input, opened on September 15 and continues until December. More than 10,000 pashkevilim are available in digital form on the library’s website, a large portion of them from Krois.

Krois, known by his nickname “Yoelish,” is something of a black horse in the Toldot Aharon community. An outspoken, eloquent leader, he courts the secular media and readily gives interviews about his collection of pashkevilim and other issues in the community. He has a stormy relationship with the police, who frequently arrest him for operating a chicken slaughterhouse without the necessary permits from the municipality and for fomenting violent riots. Members of Toldot Aharon do not deal with anything related to the State of Israel, including permits for businesses, and do not pay taxes or accept public healthcare.

In the early 2000s, during the construction of Highway 6, at a protest against the Antiquities Authority’s excavations of what Toldot Aharon said were ancient graves along the route of the highway, Krois met Antiquities Authority head Shuka Dorfman, who reached out to try to smooth over the situation.

Dorfman learned of Krois’ collection of pashkevilim after the two met in Krois’s Mea She’arim office, and Dorfman connected Krois with the National Library. The National Library has gathered pashkevilim for years, but Krois’ extensive collection and local knowledge allowed the library to flesh out its records and understand more about the inner politics and history.

Krois seems to relish in his role as both public leader of the community as well as resident renegade. He insists that Toldot Aharon had no problems with his cooperation with the library because the community wasn’t ready to invest in saving the pashkevilim. Instead, representatives of the library brought him a computer, not connected to the Internet, and a scanner. Once a month, someone from the museum comes to collect the most recent batch of scanned pashkevilim.

“Pashkevilim are the most important communication tool [for haredim],” said Dr. Hezi Amiur, the Israel Collections curator at the National Library. “People are really interested in pashkevilim because people are really interested in haredim. It’s a really closed community and someone who’s not inside doesn’t understand, so there’s a lot of curiosity.”

One of the reasons the pashkevilim offer such an interesting view into the haredi society is because they deal with the conflicts inside the community: clashing opinions about the best way to run the war on immodesty, on technology, with the Zionist state, and for separation with secular society. Though the details change, these themes of separating and protecting the community come to light continually from the library’s first pashkevil, printed in 1841, the year the printing press was brought to Israel. This pashkevil warned against doing business with Christian priests, among other things.

In the fight against technology, for example, the first pashkevilim warn against magazines, and then as time progresses, against television, against cellphones and finally, the Internet. The same fear mongering tactics, that technology will destroy the community’s insular way of life, are used over and over throughout the years.

“If I can see that the pashkevilim is against something, then I can see what the reality was,” said Amiur. “The extremists show what was on the agenda.”

Recent pashkevilim illustrated 20 ways for women to cover their neckline modestly. Amiur noted the pashkevilim did not indicate that haredi dress codes were becoming more stringent. Rather, the posters served as reminders to haredi women to maintain their modesty, especially since they were working alongside secular women in the workforce for the first time.

Most people refer to all of the printed announcements as “pashkevilim,” though only about 10 percent of the printed announcements are truly pashkevilim, said Krois. Most are notices, imparting information to a public that has no access to television, radio or Internet.

True pashkevilim are anonymous, snarky attacks against individuals, companies or communities that are usually used as an intimidation tool for settling debts and other disagreements. A rumor-fueled pashkevil campaign against a business can inflict real economic damage, including recent campaigns against the Yesh supermarket chain for allegedly violating Shabbat and the Electra real estate company for building in Jaffa on what the haredim said were old Jewish graves.

But as with all old forms of media, the pashkevilim are struggling in the 21st century. Both Amiur and Krois said that with the widespread use of computers, the impact of a pashkevil has lessened considerably.

Until five years ago, many pashkevilim were still printed using printing presses, taking at least seven hours from writing to printing. Krois has a dusty but complete set of printing press letter blocks in his storage room. Until five years ago, there were only about two pashkevilim published each week, due to the timeconsuming process. Now, more than 20 to 30 new notices are posted around the neighborhood each week.

“It’s lost the effect,” said Krois, who added that the technology allows people to add realistic forgeries of the signatures of rabbis, making it difficult to tell if a pashkevil is a fake or not.

Krois, a father of 13 (“for now,” he said) views the attacks on the haredi way of life with paranoia. He will work ceaselessly, and sometimes violently, to protect his community from the encroaching Zionist and secular institutions, he said, including demonstrating to have Mea She’arim included as part of a future Palestinian nation. But he knows that the ultra-Orthodox won’t be able to keep modernity out forever, despite the dire warnings of the pashkevilim.

“The world is like a train,” he said, gesturing to the walls of his ad hoc museum, filled with knick knacks such as soda bottles from the 1920s.

“Everything is the same, the world is always moving forward,” he said, and no one, not even the haredim, will be able to stop it. “We just want to make sure that we’re in the last car of the train.”

The National Library exhibit on pashkevilim is located in the lobby of the library and is open free of charge.

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