Classified Information

Part of my job as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison is to help ensure that traditional Orthodox Jewish beliefs and life are accurately represented in the press, and that the larger Jewish and non-Jewish worlds are informed about important happenings in the Orthodox community.

There are ample opportunities for both. Misconceptions about Orthodox Jews, especially haredim, are commonplace, not only in the general press but even in the Jewish. And there is no dearth of newsworthy occurrences in the haredi world. Orthodox educational institutions, moreover, do an impressive job of ensuring Jewish commitment and continuity; and the community yields singular events – like the “Siyum HaShas” Talmud-completion gathering last celebrated in 2005, which brought together more that 100,000 celebrants in major convention centers across the continent and around the world.

And yet I think that what are most revealing about Orthodox life are little things.

A revered yeshiva dean was once asked by the parents of a marriage-eligible young woman about the personal qualities of a young man studying at the institution. The rabbi’s response was that the fellow struck him as a paragon of good traits. “But if you want to find out what he is really like,” he added, “you’ll have to ask the cook.”

What he intended to convey was that while our public personae and actions may mean much, whatever meaning they hold pales beside the evidence to be culled from the mundane activities of our daily lives, from the testimony of our husbands, wives, children, friends – or, if we live in a dormitory, the cook.

The haredi world doesn’t have a cook (well, actually, it has a good many excellent ones, but you get the point). What it has, though, are newspapers.

There are several, most notably Yated Neeman and Hamodia – the latter not only publishes, like the former, a large, multi-sectioned weekend paper but a smaller daily edition as well. The news coverage itself says much about the community. Since mimicking the larger world’s media would violate a number of Jewish religious ideals, one won’t find any reference at all in the haredi press to the celebrity obsessions that grace even the front pages of the general press, or any parallel to the sort of sleazy crime coverage favored by tabloids, or even any of the standard-issue scandal-mongering that saturates so much of the media. Basic international, national and local news are reported straightforwardly, with the intention of providing important or practical information.

But to me, the most intriguing – and telling – window onto the Orthodox world provided by its newspapers lies in the small print of its classified ads.

Those in a randomly selected edition of Hamodia include the expected job offerings, services and properties for sale or rent, of course. But then there is, in addition to a “lost” column, a sizable one labeled “found.”

Therein, one ad-placer seeks the owner of a gold bracelet; another, the person who had lost a digital camera; yet another, the feet missing a pair of children’s sneakers; another still, the holder of the partner of a single leather glove. Another bracelet and a blanket are offered by yet other ads, both found “a few years ago.”

And then there are the “gemachs,” more than five full-page columns of them. “Gemach” is the transliteration of a Hebrew acronym for the phrase “bestowal of kindness,” and the word refers to a charitable effort that grants or lends goods, or provides services, to anyone in need of them, free of charge.

Many gemachs – understandably, considering the Orthodox commitment to large families – revolve around the needs of new parents. There are gemachs offering “multiples” baby equipment for new mothers of twins or triplets, others that prepare free meals for new mothers, yet others providing women to spend nights at new parents’ homes, to help care for the young siblings of newborns. There are also offers of catering services for new parents celebrating their son’s bris, portable playpens, and infant car seats.

And then, among the dozens of other gemachs listed are some offering professional makeup-application (for weddings and such), others still lending hospital gowns that provide more coverage than the standard fare, audiotapes of lectures on an assortment of topics, checklists for planning a wedding, custom hair pieces for men and children with chemotherapy hair-loss (most of Hamodia’s women readers own wigs), rides to the park or the shore for Alzheimers sufferers, air-beds for sudden influx of overnight visitors, “shtick” – costumes, novelties and the like – to enliven weddings. There is even a gemach offering listings of gemachs.

This, from a community that, with the constant and formidable responsibilities of observant life, has precious little free time. But what time and effort it has, it seems, a good deal of it is channeled toward helping others.

That subtle message residing in newspapers like Yated and Hamodia rarely appears in the general or other Jewish media. There the spotlight is most commonly focused on the Orthodox community for one or another of its unusual religious or cultural practices, or when one of its members does something wrong. But Orthodox peculiarities or wrongdoers, though they certainly exist as they do in every society, do not reflect the essence of their community.

The classifieds do.

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9 Responses

  1. Harry Maryles says:

    While what Rabbi Shafran says is true, there is a larger issue to contend with in these newspapers. The Yated and Hamodia are only unbiased about general world news. But when it comes to the reportage on the Frum community it is presented with a Charedi spin that makes other Hashkafos look wrong. The only view presented is the Charedi one to the exclusion of all others. And is is often incorporated into the body of the report as news. It is not identified as opinion. These newspapers therefore have no more credibility for me than do the secular ones. One needs to read everything with a grain of salt and consider the source.

  2. Avi Shafran says:

    It was only in passing and for the uninitiated that my essay described aspects of the news reportage of the papers cited. My essential point, of course, did not concern reportage but what I feel is the revealing subtext of the papers’ classfied advertisements.

    The larger issue raised by Mr. Maryles, though, is a legitimate and interesting one, although things may or may not be as he describes them. The newspapers cited most certainly have a perspective that both would rightly say is the very essence of their mandate (although each has a somewhat different perspective, I think). And so, yes, one must read them with that understanding. But I am unaware of any news medium (from CNN to Fox News, from Ha’aretz to the Jeruslaem Post, from Der Yid to the New York Times) where it is less than essential to realize the bias (read: “point of view”) of the medium itself.

    I am not sure, though, what Mr. Maryles meant by “reportage… that makes other hashkofos look wrong” — at least if the reference is to hashkofos within the realm of legitimate Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps an example or two might make for some stimulating Cross-Currents discussion.

  3. Shmuel Plotsker says:

    Rabbi Shafran writes that he is not sure what exactly Rabbi Maryles means by the reporting in Yated and Hamodia which makes other hashkafos look wrong. He asks for examples. Surely he jests.
    Yated and Hamodia, as Rabbi Maryles accurately wrote, really do have one and only one point of view: the charedi position. There is no other. [edited] Those two papers will report North Korean nuclear missile tests straight up, but, as Rabbi Maryles notes, when it’s something in the frum velt, watch out: the spin is on and it’s thick. We’re perfect. The Modern Orthodox are wrong. We never report on scandal: it doesn’t exist among us. There are no humiliating financial scams or horrible landlords or child abusers or recalcitrant husbands or shidduch crises or crushing tuition problems or anything else. All is well! We have gmachs!
    So, yes, there are terrific Jews in the charedi world, no denying it: but we have very stubborn, difficult-to-fix problems which will never be corrected as long as newspapers, rabbis and constituents deny their existence. Hence the tsunami-like anger and frustration on the various blogs with so many of these issues and the rabbis who never address them: finally people can talk openly about them (though often unanimously…yet another indication of how difficult things are in the frum world). And now we’re told the Agudah will blame the blogs for discussing these matters. As one commenter on Rabbi Maryles’ post asked, should we have blamed Jeremiah for the destruction of the first temple?

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “reportage… that makes other hashkofos look wrong”—at least if the reference is to hashkofos within the realm of legitimate Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps an example or two might make for some stimulating Cross-Currents discussion.”

    I will provide two examples from Hamishpocha Magazine regarding balance in hashkafa(Jewish philosophy) issues, in the interest of stimulating positive and constructive exchange of opinions. These are indeed related to hashkafah issues, rather than to strictly news reportage possibly influenced by hashkafa, discussed by Mr. Maryles and Rabbi Shafran.

    First, positive examples of inclusiveness and broadness(“breidkeit”). Hamishpocha Magazine attracts a more diverse readership than the Yated or Hamodia–from chassidic to “chardal”(charedie/dati-leumi). They deserve credit for successful attempts at unity, such as the feature done on Rabbi Pinchas Stopler of NCSY/OU, or for the positive mentions by Rabbi Gyralak of Hesder Roshei Yeshivos. They have also “pushed the envelope” and stood up to more insular and zealous elements by not backing down from “Hearts of Gold”, and from an oblique editorial by Rabbi Gyralak on the gay parade(let’s hope it doesn’t take place).

    The two examples which I felt were unbalanced, were features on segulos(omens and amulets) about a year ago, and a recent essay on chazal’s knowledge of science in the most recent edition of “Kulmus”. To be sensitive as possible regarding these contentious issues, it is fair to state that there are different opinions on these issues both within and without the charedie world. Yet, in my opinion the presentations were unbalanced, because neither of these features gave mention at all to the Rambam’s general opinions or to his emphasis of these issue, nor did they mention that there are shomrei Torah u’mitzvos who are m’aminim bnei maaminim , who would take a different approach on these issues, at least regarding balance and weight given to different views.

    To be fair to the other side, I understand that because of the forum and the wide range of readers, a complete discussion often can not be had. Based on the Gemera, “less-sophisticated” people need to be protected from certain topics, and “Kannoim”(well-meaning zealous elements) would protest, as has sometimes happened in the past. But nevertheless, for those of us who have an appreciation for Jewish history or for philosophical Rishonim, the current approach has drawbacks. I do not know how to satisfy everyone, but I think that Yeshiva World publications need to be sensitive to this group of people who range from the left and center of the Yeshiva world, to the right of Modern Orthodoxy(“centrists”).

  5. Bob Miller says:

    When I was a kid, we bought both the NY Post (then very liberal) and the NY Herald Tribune (arch-Republican) even though my parents were Democrats. My father said we needed to hear from both sides to form a proper picture of events. He did not say both papers should adjust to his own views. Likewise, no one ought to demand changes in the direction of today’s Orthodox papers. If there is another point of view, let its supporters find a paper expressing it or start their own paper.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that R Baruch’s analysis of the Charedi media is correct. ( Full Disclosure: We are subscribers to Mishpacha and former JO subscribers). Although Mishpacha follows a Charedi editorial line, its features are not so limited and are quite respectfully to Gdolim and Mosdos that are not part of the Charedi world. I do believe that its survey of seforim stores and buyers left out one conspicuous and well known venue-the annual SOY sale at YU which has the best quantity, quality and prices in North America.

    Its Letters to the Editors on “Hearts of Gold” was IMO a fascinating proof that not everyone in the Charedi world as represented by those letters thought alike on the sensitive issues discussed in that weekly serial.Its recent pictorial on Eastern European yeshivos of yore was fascinating.

    For those who are interested in Jewish history or hashkafic discussions between Bnei and Bnos Torah of different hashkafos, Tradition, the Torah UMadah Journal, Jewish Action and some interchanges in the JO’s letters provide a venue where articles on these issues can be found fairly periodically. OTOH, one’s POV may or may not be subjected to editing based upon editorial constraints or political considerations that may or may not legitimately water down the writer’s POV. OTOH, blogs such Hirhurimk, R Marryles , Evanston Jew, Beyond Teshuvah as well as this blog provide these venues with the moderators all exercising restraints over the content of the posters therein.

  7. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Likewise, no one ought to demand changes in the direction of today’s Orthodox papers. If there is another point of view, let its supporters find a paper expressing it or start their own paper.”

    I agree about starting another paper as an alternative to demanding change. Side A can not force side B to change their hashkafa or POV. I am happy that both the Yated and the Jewish Press exist, because they know of each other’s clout, and they balance each other out. This is healthy for society.

    Nevertheless, just like the “right” takes the “center’s” media to task, the center can certainly express its concerns and opinions respectfully as well.

    To quote from the conclusion of Dr. Oppenheimer’s article in Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society:

    “Agendas, rather than truth, at times motivate the publication of a story. The journalist must play the role of the impartial observer, attempting to draw attention to those conditions that need reform. This is very difficult to accomplish when one is directly involved…

    All the news that’s fit to print? Hardly. Not all the news is fit to print. Halacha demands discretion and responsibility. Limitation is an essential part of journalism. Media that seek truth and justice while promoting peace and harmony will strengthen the community and serve as an invaluable and precious resource.”

  8. Avrohom says:

    A press critic, A. J. Liebling, once observed, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Why do we expect journalists necessarily to be impartial? They have the right to their opinions, short of kfira, of course, which no one technically has the right to, and they have the right to express their views. Thanks in part to the internet, everyone now has access to disseminate his point of view. As far as a newspaper’s point of view? Let the buyer beware! Someone owns the press that printed the newspaper and that person probably wants to bring you around to his point of view. Is that wrong or is it just naivete on the part of the average reader who thinks he is being educated when in fact he is being preached to.

  9. easterner says:

    while true that whoever owns the media gets to control the message, that media cannot then protest when others in the media attack them. when bloggers ,from centrist to far-left,even anti-torah step into the breach to counter the ‘i’m ok, you’re not ok’ attitude of many of the Yated mindset [‘ the godol was niftar and left behind hundreds of descendents all of whom faithfully follow in his path’][ edited] — these bloggers are uniformly then derided ,from the Right to the far-right. [edited]

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