In Jerusalem, an old-fashioned medium goes online
JERUSALEM (AP) — For ultra-Orthodox Jews who shun secular newspapers, radio and the Internet, the best way to hear the news has long been by literally reading the writing on the wall.
The insular, strictly religious community still relies on black and white posters pasted up on walls in their neighborhoods to hear the latest rulings from important rabbis on modest dress, upcoming protests and the correct way to vote in elections.
Now one avid collector has teamed up with Israel's National Library to bring this old-fashioned form of communication into the 21st century by scanning more than 20,000 of the posters — known locally as "pashkevilim" — into a digital online archive. The project, which includes an exhibit that opened at the library earlier this month, offers a glimpse into one of the main media used by a group trying to hold the line against the march of modernity.
Yoelish Kraus, a 38-year-old ultra-Orthodox resident of Jerusalem, began peeling the posters off the sooty stone walls of his neighborhood when he was a teenager. Today they fill a windowless, crumbling two-room library. Some are filed by subject. Others lie in piles under a layer of dust and scattered black fedoras.
The posters are typically written in Hebrew or Yiddish and use incendiary language. "Jerusalem is in danger!" one bellows — the danger being a mixed-gender swimming pool.
Others urge the observant to demonstrate and demand the closure of a parking lot because it violates the Sabbath.
The word "pashkevilim" evolved from the name of an Italian statue known as Pasquino, in Rome, where locals pasted satire and protest calls in the 16th century, according to Ido Ivri, digital programs manager at the National Library. Though the Romans have long since abandoned the practice, the name lives on in Jerusalem and other cities home to Israel's 700,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, about 9 percent of the national population.
Two years ago, the National Library offered to help Kraus catalog and scan his collection. It was an unlikely partnership: Kraus will not enter the library because it carries secular literature and a boycott of it was announced — by pashkevil, of course — decades ago.
Kraus had been looking for a new place to store his collection. His library ceiling is crumbling. He stored posters in the cellar until mold destroyed dozens of them.
"It's strange but I have no choice," Kraus said. "I looked for years for someone to take it."
The library staff agreed to lend him a scanner and computer with no connection to the Internet — largely banned by rabbinic decrees publicized by pashkevil. They then taught him to use it, as Kraus had never used a computer before. Soon, he was scanning and cataloging hundreds of the posters a day. The project cost about $27,000.
The library has put up 100 of the most striking posters in an exhibit. One warns against computer use by showing a Jewish boy turning into a horned beast after spending hours on one. Another provides a visual guide to women, warning against all the ways a shirt collar can be immodest.
The National Library added Kraus' extensive collection to its own archive of about 7,000 posters, including many from the Jewish community in Poland in the 1930s.
The pashkevilim have not been completely successful in keeping modern life out of the ultra-Orthodox world. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews use mobile phones, including a model that automatically powers down on the Sabbath. Others filter their Web use through "Koogle," a kosher search engine.
One service has even taken to photographing pashkevilim and uploading them for smartphone users.