In Other Words

Family Ties

Mishpacha, Jerusalem

In this age of satellite television and the Internet, it's rare for a print magazine to alter the consciousness of an entire community. But Mishpacha, a weekly magazine published in both Hebrew and English, has done just that. Read by 30 percent of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and by a similarly hefty swath of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States, Mishpacha has successfully redrawn the borders of public discourse for this tightly disciplined community. "Mishpacha is both an expression and an agent of a revolution in ultra-Orthodox society," says Tamar Rotem, a journalist for Israel's Haaretz newspaper who was herself raised in an ultra-Orthodox home. Remarkably, Mishpacha (its name means, simply, "family") has done this not by sniping from the margins, but by depicting, appealing to, and in some ways defining a new ultra-Orthodox mainstream -- one that is more democratic, pluralistic, and self-critical than it was possible to imagine even just a few years ago.

In Hebrew, ultra-Orthodox Jews are called haredim, which translates as "tremulous" or "fearful" and reflects the community's claim to represent the last segment of Jewry whose behavior and commitment are centered in awe and reverence to God. It is an apt name in another sense, because fear of the relentless assimilative power of modernity has shaped ultra-Orthodoxy's ideology and survival strategy since its inception. Ultra-Orthodoxy began in the early 1800s, when the secular humanism of the Enlightenment started to penetrate into the Jewish population centers of Eastern Europe. Key rabbinical leaders -- revered by the faithful as towering scholar-saints -- responded to the challenge by erecting a virtual firewall that they hoped would keep their flock from straying. Secular learning was banned, as were innovations of theology, practice, and style that were seen as reflecting modern sensibilities.

After the Holocaust, the shattered remnants of ultra-Orthodoxy that regrouped in the state of Israel were faced with the triumph of secular Zionism and the appeal of the new kind of Jewish identity it offered. In response, Israel's haredim (America's largely followed suit) created a religious culture more insular and controlled than had ever existed in Jewish history. A single kind of personality -- the preternaturally pious, diligent, and ascetic Torah scholar -- became the ideal that everyone was meant to emulate. Television and movies were banned, and the pursuit of higher education, unless strictly related to making a living, was frowned upon. So was internal debate and criticism, which could subvert the authority and ideology holding the nearly exterminated community together in the face of what it perceived as existential dangers.

Over the past two decades, however, the ultra-Orthodox world's exponential population growth (an average family has six to eight children) has calmed its anxiety that modernity is leading inevitably to their culture's extinction. So has the success of its education system in raising a new generation of Torah scholars. Meanwhile, Zionism has lost much of its cachet as an ideology, largely because its major goal -- the creation of a Jewish state in the land of Israel -- has been completed.

The new self-confidence of ultra-Orthodox society has allowed it to become self-critical as well -- and here Mishpacha has played an important role. Mishpacha's quiet revolution is not apparent on the cover of the magazine, which is often adorned with the white-bearded image of one of the Torah sages that are ultra-Orthodox society's cultural heroes. The first indication of the fresh winds that are blowing through ultra-Orthodoxy are often found in the letters section. In one recent issue, a reader's letter about discrimination against "returnees to Judaism" -- Jews from non-Orthodox families who have joined the ultra-Orthodox community -- sparked a major debate on the ultra-Orthodox street, as well as in the pages of the magazine. Mishpacha raises other kinds of discrimination, such as the tendency of some ultra-Orthodox high schools and seminaries to refuse acceptance to North African and Middle Eastern Jews. By speaking out against various forms of prejudice, the magazine is challenging the hierarchical structure and emphasis on family pedigree in ultra-Orthodox society.

Perhaps even more important has been Mishpacha's critique of the underlying goals of the ultra-Orthodox education system. As the community has grown, so have the numbers of alienated youth who are prone to acting out through substance abuse, vandalism, and other kinds of antisocial behavior. Using modern social work terminology such as "youth at risk," Mishpacha has called for a more accepting, realistic, and flexible educational process that is relevant to a broader range of young people, not just those who have succeeded in meeting the scholarly and religious ideal.

Although Mishpacha officially remains neutral on the political issues dividing the state of Israel, it extensively covers events such as the withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip and last summer’s war with Lebanon. Eli Paley, the magazine's founder and the CEO of the Mishpacha Publishing Group, says he wants to foster dialogue between the ultra-Orthodox community and other segments of Israeli society, as well as promote haredi empathy with the struggles of others. "During the withdrawal from Gaza, we didn't take a stand," Paley says. "[We] were criticized for this, because much of the haredi world was against the withdrawal. What we did cover, however, was the pain of the settlers on being evicted from their homes."

Mishpacha's unspoken agenda -- to mediate the dètente between modernity and ultra-Orthodoxy -- is already a work in progress. "What interests me," says Paley, "is what we can learn from modernity, not what we have to fear from it." Mishpacha regularly features articles on positive figures from non-Jewish cultures, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rembrandt, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus -- a focus unheard of in other ultra-Orthodox publications. Although Paley himself admits that he is not entirely at peace with this aspect of Mishpacha, the magazine is also an innovative showcase of ultra-Orthodox consumerism, with features and advertisements aimed at a new haredi middle and upper-middle class, in which sumptuous photos of luxury vacation spots and products are the norm. It is a new concept in the ultra-Orthodox community, which has traditionally preached that one must use every moment for Torah study and good deeds.

Mishpacha, which is independent of rabbinical or political control (though it does have a "spiritual advisory board"), thus serves as a filter, allowing features of contemporary society deemed worthy to enter haredi consciousness, while keeping other aspects far away. Therapeutic language is in. So is art, fiction, and leisure. Sexual licentiousness is out. So are gossip and the cult of celebrity. Science is in -- even, perhaps evolution. "I don't see any problem with evolution as long as we know who sparked it,' says Moshe Grylak, the magazine's editor in chief. In offering a model of self-confident fundamentalism unafraid to engage with modernity, Mishpacha has the potential to extend far beyond its own chosen borders and lead the way for traditionalist groups elsewhere that are trying to make peace with our times.

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