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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Talk? These Walls Rant

A neighborhood in Jerusalem relies on a centuries-old tradition to get its news and gossip. Officials want to tone things down.

September 03, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Take a stroll through the Mea Shearim neighborhood and listen to the walls speak.

Plastered on the stone face of one building is a dire warning, in thick Hebrew characters, about a hotel reportedly being built on the site of ancient Jewish graves. A few paces farther, a poster urges religious students in this ultra-Orthodox enclave to resist the "plague" of idleness during summer vacation.

On any given day, postings offer up glimpses of a family's private strife or a tiff between neighbors, displayed for all to see in back-and-forth exchanges. Dozens of other notices are more mundane: advertisements for weekend getaways -- strictly kosher, of course -- Bible-themed children's books, cures for constipation, death notices.

The posters, known collectively as pashkevilim, cover so much acreage in Mea Shearim that it sometimes looks as if a giant, blocks-long newspaper has been unfurled through the neighborhood's cramped lanes.

And in a way, one has.

For a community that steadfastly sticks to itself and mostly steers clear of mainstream media to avoid what members view as morally corrosive images and crude language, the centuries-old tradition of pashkevilim provides an ever-running news crawl on the issues of the street, serving as a social glue as thick and vital as the flour paste adhering them to the mottled stone walls.

Now a new municipal campaign to make Jerusalem neater by cutting down on the posters has caused hard feelings among some residents, who fear they will lose a crucial means of communication.

The pashkevilim, whose original Old World purpose was to deliver anonymous barbs, now serve as a small-town tattle sheet and free-swinging political forum, a way to sell merchandise and safeguard the strict religious rules that govern daily life for Jerusalem's 150,000 ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, residents. About 5,500 live in Mea Shearim, part of a swath of ultra-Orthodox pockets in northwestern Jerusalem where pashkevilim are popular.

"It keeps me up on what we need to know," said 18-year-old Moshe Laufer, who studies in a religious academy, or yeshiva.

Laufer, wearing the sidelocks, pinstriped robe, leggings and black felt hat of many of the haredi men who give Mea Shearim the look of a 200-year-old European Jewish quarter, takes pride in avoiding mainstream news.

He's not the only one. The neighborhood's insularity is accentuated by its web of streets and alleys and by large signs at its edges urging visitors to stay out if they are dressed immodestly. Some residents, though Jewish, don't recognize the state of Israel for religious reasons, and they favor Yiddish over Hebrew, the national language.

Outside events are of little concern, they say. Although a handful of newspapers are directed at the nation's ultra-Orthodox, many residents don't read them, insisting that the pashkevilim offer immediacy they can't get elsewhere.

"Everything we need to know about the community is in these posters," Laufer said, standing with a group of young men in front of a wall covered with pashkevilim several layers thick.

Getting the word out through posters makes sense in a place where most people are on foot and don't stray far. The biggest printer in Mea Shearim says thousands of people walk past a new poster on its first day.

Anyone with something to announce can pay a printer to make the posters and paste them up in bulk -- at a cost of about 80 cents apiece -- though some people hang their own. A pashkevil might last a week -- or only a few hours -- before another is plastered on top. Fresh notices usually go up in the morning, but death announcements are posted with urgency at all hours because Judaism calls for burial on the same day when possible.

Haredi activists have employed pashkevilim in political campaigns, such as the successful bid to topple longtime Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in 1993. The posters in haredi neighborhoods hammered at Kollek with Bible-tinged verses. Only at the end of the campaign did the pashkevilim suggest voting for his opponent, Ehud Olmert.

"The campaign was very successful," said David Zilberschlag, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper publisher who was involved in the campaign.

A measure of the central role the pashkevilim play among the ultra-Orthodox has been the angry reaction in the neighborhood to the city's recent effort to enforce rules limiting the posting of notices to city-owned bulletin boards, which offer blackboard-size spaces.

The city has dispatched a team of four inspectors to find unauthorized postings -- and in Mea Shearim that is not difficult -- and hand out $100 fines, though pinpointing the sources of unsigned notices can be difficult.

As part of the campaign to reduce the number of pashkevilim, the city named a local printer its sole concessionaire, making him the only person in Jerusalem licensed to put them up. He is also authorized to rip down those that don't pass through his hands first.

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