“Color magazines must be eradicated” proclaims a poster on a wall in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel. They “mix good with bad, and confuse the minds of the youth.” Other notices denounce VHS players as “corrupters that invade the home,” and television as “the ultimate defilement, consuming body and soul.” Public posters like these, called pashkevilim, have been pasted up every day along the streets of Mea Shearim for at least a century, forming layers so thick that Jerusalemites claim the old buildings would collapse without them. The crowded neighborhood is home to the city’s isolated community of Haredim – ultra-Orthodox Jews – many of whom believe that their customs embody a pure form of Judaism, passed down by word of mouth, and that any change to their culture could cause the religion to be lost forever. Consequently, a December 2005 pashkevil urged Jews to “completely avoid media of all kinds. The news distracts the heart from fearing God.”
Nevertheless, Haredi newspapers such as Yated Ne’eman are popular in Mea Sharim. They report on local events, religious doctrine and politics, but never crime, in accordance with an editorial policy ordained by God. Lashon hara (“the evil tongue”) is the sin of revealing bad news about someone else, meaning Haredi journalists have a duty not to report wrongdoing. Naturally, this leaves a lot to discuss, and where the newspapers end, pashkevilim begin. Published anonymously, they are a vent for protest and frustration. They can be funny and stylish, but are often vicious, with a hysterical tone perhaps due to a religious law obligating Jews to issue strong verbal attacks in order to prevent future harm. Pashkevilim against smartphones, for example, warn that users will be swept away in a “spiritual Holocaust,” or that iPhone users are bound to “spawn their stench on all those around them.”
Smart phones derive their wickedness from access to the Internet, an evil so troublesome that 40,000 Haredi men gathered in a New York baseball stadium last year to discuss it. But some Haredim keep computers in secret, according to rabbi Chaim Shaulson, who left Mea Shearim for New York in 1984. Shaulson, an advocate for greater transparency within the Haredi community, writes a muckraking blog about ultra-Orthodox communities worldwide. But newer technologies aren’t likely to replace pashkevilim any time soon. On the contrary, says Shaulson, “Now everybody has a computer, so more people can write pashkevilim because everybody can print. With new computer techniques, you can even do color.”
[ 1 ] The moral dangers of computers and the Internet are the subject of heated debate in Mea Shearim, but pashkevilim are increasingly typed up electronically at home, then e-mailed to a print shop.
[ 2 ] Five years ago, most pashkevilim were printed in an old-fashioned press, taking seven hours from writing to printing. Now, thanks to the speed of digital printing, 20 to 30 new notices appear each week.
[ 3 ] Pashkevilim are either anonymous, attributed to secret groups or feature signatures from rabbis that often prove to be fake. To preserve the writers’ anonymity, people are employed to paste them up on public walls around the neighborhood.
[ 4 ] With new posts up every day, for Haredim in Mea Shearim, reading fiery, opinionated pashkevilim is a lot like reading blogs online: what can’t appear in the newspapers will appear on the street.
From the pages of COLORS #86 - Making the News.