The writing on the wall

The Satmar Rabbi once said the reason why it's not forbidden to paste broadsides on walls in Jerusalem is because without them the buildings would fall.

jerusalem 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem 88
(photo credit: )
The Satmar Rabbi, Yoel Teitelbaum once said, only partly in jest, that the reason why it's not forbidden by Jewish Law to paste pashkevilim (broadsides) on walls in Jerusalem is because without these placards the buildings would certainly fall. Broadsides have long been the chosen method of communication in Jerusalem's haredi communities. A recent publication, Pashkevilim: Modao't Kir U'kruzot Pulmus B'rehov Haharedi (Broadsides: Wall Announcements and Polemical Proclamations in the Haredi Street), pays tribute to this primitive yet effective mode of communication's varied past and very much alive present. The book was published by the Yad Ben Tzvi publishing house to accompany a recent exhibit on pashkevilim at the Eretz Israel Musuem in Tel Aviv recently. In her introduction to the book, Nitza Baharuzi-Baroz, the exhibit's curator, claims this book represents the first attempt to "examine pashkevilim as historical, cultural and social documents, as the lens through which we can view this isolationist and conservative society." In fact, this is not the first book or exhibit on the phenomenon of these broadsides; at least one other was published by Genazim publishers in 1971 entitled "L'Shaah V'Ledorot: Osef Kruzim V'Modaot B'Inyanei Dat VaDin" (For the Hour and for the Generations: A Collection of Broadsides and Announcements About Religion and Law"). Nonetheless, the three academic articles that introduce this book and the explanatory notes that open each of the book's seven chapters do much to explain a unique phenomenon that has endured, against the odds, despite the proliferation of other modes of mass communication today. In the first article, Prof. Menachem Friedman, of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Bar Ilan University, provides a historical overview of the pashkevil, including its origins in 16th-century Italy. A man named Pasquino used to paste satirical notices on a statue in the square near Piazza Navona in Piazza Pasquina. His name stuck to both the piazza and the statue. Others began to post political and social notices on the same statue, and the notices became known as Pasquinata. The phenomenon quickly spread to other statues in the city and then throughout Europe. It seems the word found its way from German (as Pasquill) into Yiddish (as Pashkevil) and from Yiddish into the Hebrew of the Old Ashkenazi Yishuv in Jerusalem. In the Jewish tradition, the pashkevil actually dates back even farther than that. The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 29A) warns against "kotvei plaster" (those who write wall notices). Yet while in the secular communities we see fewer and fewer such posters, they are alive and well in the haredi community. It seems that the Satmar Rabbi was right on one count: although pashkevilim may not hold the walls of Jerusalem together, communication via these broadsides is so deeply rooted in the haredi psyche that their use and abuse may very well be part of what holds these communities together. Kobi Arieli, journalist for Maariv and Channel 10 and a yeshiva graduate who specializes in religious-secular relations in Israel, wrote the second article. He emphasizes the use of pashkevilim as death notices and goes further to explain why pashkevilim have become such a vital part of haredi culture. "The haredim," he writes, "are first and foremost an incomparably curious people, inseparably connected to the written word, pure and simple. That's what pashkvilim are - written words. "Just as you can't have a religious community without a shul and a mikve, so too you can't have a haredi community without a wall plastered with pashkvilim; if the shul and mikve express the religious dimension of the place - pashkvilim express the cultural dimension." Arieli asserts that pashkvilim are thus both the primary weapon of the haredim and their main source of entertainment and will remain so despite the proliferation of haredi newspapers and magazines today. The third article in the book is by Dr. Tzipora Shapira, Kol Yisrael radio's language advisor for 20 years. Shapira, who wrote her doctorate about the Hebrew language in Tel Aviv between 1908-1934 as seen through broadsides, explores the language of the pashkevilim. She notes that the pashkevil has created a dynamic, colorful, unique and incomparable language of the street, providing an overview of the linguistic phenomenon unique to these broadsides. Shapira examines the pashkevil's use of exaggerated description to attract the attention of passers-by on the street, the use of whole sentences lifted from scripture, mishnah and Talmud, including verses from the Torah portion of the week as a sort of code decipherable only to those "in the know," along with the endlessly growing list of abbreviations and misspellings, some deliberately made up and some not. While Friedman offers a fascinating account of the history of the broadside in Jerusalem beginning with the Old Yishuv, highlighting a few specific historical instances when the pashkevil influenced history, his elaborations end in the 1950s. Arieli gives one modern-day example, of a February 2005 broadside relating to the Indian wig scandal that plagued the haredi community at that time. The book as a whole, however, seems to lack a contemporary examination of these broadsides that continue to be such an important and prevalent phenomenon within haredi cultural life. Baharuzi-Baroz explains, "the book is only a sampling of the more than 2,000 pashkevilim that were on display at the exhibit. [...] We chose the pashkevilim that were the most important historically, pashkevilim that the public would otherwise have no way to see because they exist only in private collections." Shapira divided the rest of the book, devoted to facsimiles of these broadsides, into seven sections according to topic - the controversy about the Old Yishuv, Haredi education, Zionism, Shabbat desecration, divisions between various camps of ultra-Orthodoxy, women's modesty, and fights between rabbis over various issues. "These are the seven main divisions that pashkevilim fall into, but it was very difficult to categorize them as such, there are simply so many pashkevilim that touch on every aspect of haredi life. These broadsides are a very public, street medium, through which we can view the very private, guarded goings-on within the closed courtyards of these communities," Baharuzi-Baroz told In Jerusalem, "People's fascination with them is endless." Friedman highlights and explains the broadsides that relate to the developing schisms in the haredi community and the roots of the divisions between the haredim and the religious Zionists. Some of the earliest pashkevilim that he describes relate to disagreements between many of the haredi rabbis and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. In contrast, other broadsides stick out purely for their shock value and oddity. One shocking broadside warns women not to wander the streets lest they look at men and be injured by the evil eye, and rails that "red meat is lust for the eyes in the marketplace but on the street there is 'white' meat [female flesh]... You are not meat in the butcher shop! Be a modest woman, not an animal! A Jewish woman who shows her stomach is a sign of dishonor! An embarrassment and disgrace to the Jewish people! Look and see the degree of insolence and brutishness we have reached!" Another pashkevil in the book, perhaps among the earliest warnings against the dangers of television, narrates the story of a ten-year-old boy whose parents go out for dinner at the neighbors. While they are out, a burglar knocks on the door of their home and is allowed in by the ten-year-old. The son kills the burglar. When the police come and unmask the intruder, they discover that he is none other than the neighbor's son. The son claims that he killed the burglar because he had seen something similar on television. Everyone agrees not to press charges but just to get rid of their television sets. Arieli, however, highlights the paradox inherent in all this railing against modernity - advances in the technology of the printing press are precisely what enable the haredim to publish pashkevilim so successfully. And he asks a rather simple, yet obvious, question: "Why do the haredim need these pashkvilim at all?" He answers, "Just go for a short walk in Meah Shearim... There is a constant stream of pedestrians traversing the area who stop to read the pashkevilim, discuss them, debate their contents, smirk or scream, savor a sentence, make a gesture and move on." Even in today's hi-tech world, pashkevilim are obviously a successful form of communication - at least for some.