Call it: A Tale of Two Hasidim. One of them, a man of about 20, stands at the entrance of a kosher supermarket riffling through the pages of Der Yid, the Satmar community’s Yiddish-language newspaper. The young man turns the pages, pauses here and there, and then sets the paper back onto the stack in front of him. He isn’t finished, though. A feast of publications lies before him in acrylic display boxes: newspapers, glossies, and chapbooks, all in Yiddish, each one more enticing than the other. Hard to decide which one to peruse next.
The other Hasid, also aged 20, dressed in the same recognizable Hasidic garb, is sitting in a car driving down Lee Avenue in Williamsburg. Just beyond Flushing Avenue, where Lee becomes Nostrand, the Hasid stops and parks his car. Before he steps into the deli at 34 Nostrand, he looks furtively to his right and left. Seeing nobody he knows, he walks in and finds the one Yiddish magazine sticking out among its English-language peers. It is called Der Veker.
For the Hasidic community, it is now the best of times or the worst of times—depending on whom you ask. But this much is certain: The Yiddish print industry is flourishing. The gloom and doom atmosphere pervading many publishing companies nowadays, the moaning over the death of print, the necessity of endlessly partnering print publications with online social media venues—none of that is evident in the offices of Der Yid, for example, or in the ever-growing stacks of newspapers and magazines distributed to kosher supermarkets in Williamsburg, Boro Park, Monsey, etc., each week.
Although articles declaring that Yiddish is dying tend to crop up in secular Jewish publications every few months, Hasidim haven’t gotten the message. Among them, Yiddish continues to live and thrive. And people continue to establish and produce Yiddish publications at an ever increasing rate to meet the demands of an ever increasing readership.
The beginnings of the Hasidic Yiddish print industry were modest enough. In postwar America, the fledgling Satmar community found itself with a dearth of Yiddish-language reading material considered kosher enough for its members. At the same time, Satmar needed a venue in which they could freely express and publicize their views, particularly their anti-Zionist stance. To accomplish both these objectives, the community bought the Der Yid newspaper from Dr. Aaron Rosmarin in 1956 and transformed it into their mouthpiece.
The Satmar rebbe, the late Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, formed a board of several people who worked together to produce each week’s issue. Its first editor in chief was Sender Deutsch. He was followed by Chaim Moshe Stauber, who was then followed by Aron Friedman, the current editor in chief. When Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum died, the late Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, also known as the Beirach Moshe, succeeded him as Satmar rebbe and took his place on Der Yid’s board. The Beirach Moshe then placed his gabbai, Moshe Friedman, as head of the board. After Moshe Friedman took over—he is the current publisher of Der Yid—he raised the quality of the newspaper in various ways (more on that later). According to Der Yid’s own statistics, approximately 80,000 readers enjoy the newspaper each week, in places all over the world, including Australia, Israel, England, and Argentina.
Der Yid’s success is a microcosm of the general burgeoning Yiddish print industry. Nowadays, besides Der Yid, two major newspapers—Di Tzeitung and Der Blatt—cater to the Hasidic, Yiddish-reading demographic. Readers also have their choice of magazines: Maalos, a monthly established by Sarah Jungreisz in 1996 that attempted to raise the literary quality of Hasidic publications; Moment, a glossy weekly (not related to the secular Jewish magazine of the same name founded by Elie Wiesel and Leonard Fein in 1975), the first to feature images of Hasidic personalities on their cover pages in the style of secular glossies; Der Shtern, established by Shimon Rolnitzky; as well as Di Vokh, Der Blik, and Der Blitz. And for Hasidim interested in reading edgier pieces on less mainstream topics, there’s the above-mentioned Der Veker. In the 60 years since Der Yid was established, the industry has come a long way.
Der Yid has traveled far too. Editor-in-chief Aron Friedman has been with the publication for 40 years. When he started his career, he was working as a writer in the Der Yid office on 543 Bedford Avenue, where desks outfitted with typewriters sat on linoleum-covered floors, and the sound of clicking keys was constant. Writers, typesetters, editors, and proofreaders did their work in that office, covering the local and heimish news that was deemed appropriate for its intended audience. An issue was between 36 and 48 pages on average, and consisted of news and ads, including several pages of classifieds, where Hasidim advertised homes for rent or sale; jobs or employees sought; businesses, furniture, or other objects for sale; lost and found items; etc. As Aron clacked away on his typewriter, the smells permeating the office—coffee, cigarettes, ink, and newsprint—became embedded in his clothes, a part of his very essence.
Today, all of this has changed. Located at 191 Rodney Street, the Der Yid office is a clean, modern space, divided into various high-ceilinged offices boasting large, airy windows and a décor of gleaming silvers, grays, and white marble. Though some of the staff still work on site—several receptionists man the front office; the graphic design team occupies one large office; and publisher Moshe Friedman, his son Shia Friedman, managing editor, and Aron Friedman all have private offices—the writers no longer inhabit the space. Their clicking typewriters have been retired, and they work on computers from home or private offices, sending in their articles by email. The pages of classifieds, too, are no longer a staple of the paper. On average, a Der Yid issue is now between 200 and 250 pages (on holidays and special occasions, that page number is apt to double)—a stunning number considering the decline of the general newspaper industry.
It may be a strange thing to say—considering the stereotype of the traditional Hasidic lifestyle as one of stasis—but the success of the Yiddish-language publishing field is mainly due to the Hasidic community’s ability to adapt and evolve. Though Hasidim retain their centuries-old traditions and their commitment to a Torah lifestyle, as a community, they have always shown tremendous resilience when faced with the challenges of the modern world. In the publishing industry, this resilience is evident both on the business end—dealing with competitors, for example—and when confronted with challenges to their insular lifestyle, like the ones posed by the modern realities of technology and social media.
Take, for example, the opening of Der Blatt, a rival newspaper to Der Yid. Der Blatt was established as a result of a succession feud within the Satmar sect, resulting in the Satmar population being split in half—those who followed Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, called “Aronim,” and those who followed Rabbi Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum, called “Zaloinim.” When the Aronim released their first issue of Der Blatt, it appeared as though Der Yid might lose half their readership, ergo half their income. And yet, nearly two decades later, Der Yid and Der Blatt are both doing well. “There’s no question,” says Shia Friedman, “that when Der Blatt came out, they took away some of our readers and advertisers. But Der Yid has continued to grow despite that. We actually produce a much stronger quality paper now. About 10 years ago, we revamped our entire design. Originally, the newspaper wasn’t divided into sections. Then, it got divided into two sections: the news section, where we wrote news from the world at large, and the kehillah section, where we wrote about things in our community. About rebbes, yeshivas, that type of thing. Then, 10 years ago, we made more changes. We added a family section, where we have recipes, children’s stories, and articles on topics of interest to women. We also added a Torah section, where we write stories about tzaddikim and feature discussions, interviews with older Jews. And so on.”
Der Yid also encountered competition from other sources. In 2002, a new weekly periodical, called the Shopper’s Route, began to be distributed throughout various locations in Williamsburg and Boro Park. The periodical was free and was composed mainly of advertisements. “In a very short time, they pretty much got most of the local market to advertise with them,” Shia explains. “All of a sudden, a store could get a full-page color ad for $200. With us, a full-page ad could be five times that amount. So most of the smaller stores chose to advertise there.”
And Shopper’s Route wasn’t the only new innovation in Hasidic print media. A few years later, a single sheet of paper, called Dvar Yoim B’Yoimo, began appearing all over Williamsburg. In synagogues, in grocers, and in various other locations, a pile of these sheets was distributed every morning and placed in designated acrylic boxes. The sheets listed the day’s engagements and weddings of the local Hasidic community. Like many innovations—think cellphones or Waze—once the community became accustomed to Dvar Yoim, they found they couldn’t live without it. By now, most people rely on this daily sheet to remind them of which weddings and events they have to attend that day.
“Once the Dvar Yoim opened, there went our classifieds section,” says Shia Friedman, who, in an interesting twist of fate, now owns Dvar Yoim. “We were a weekly, and Dvar Yoim came out daily. For the same price, people could have their listings seen by people on that same day. So all those pages of classifieds that Der Yid used to have became a thing of the past.”
How, then, did Der Yid continue to not only survive, but even to grow? They adapted. Since Der Blatt was appealing to a younger demographic with more conversational and sensationalistic articles, Der Yid added pieces with more accessible language and more reader-friendly photographs. Since the Shopper’s Route was offering ads for $200, Der Yid offered ads—though only in the family section and limited to shops and services considered women-specific—for the same price. Der Yid’s longer paper, added sections, and enticing photographs all made the weekly paper too good a deal for readers to resist.
And they’ve been savvy in their approach to technology too. Though Der Yid created a website in 2015, it existed simply as an online presence, to give them web visibility, not to feature articles, as most secular papers do. For heimish news, many Hasidim went to the more subversive Vosizneias site. But with the advent of the web filtering company Meshimer, which along with Geder, became the standard filters most Hasidim used, Vosizneias became blocked. Hasidim, who’d become used to getting their news every day, chafed against this sudden restriction. And so, Der Yid, discerning an opportunity, created their “daily email blast.”
The blast is a free service Der Yid provides, where subscribers (currently 7,500) receive a daily email featuring the news of the day. Revenue comes from ads. “The email blast has turned out to be even more successful than we imagined,” Shia Friedman says. “Its writers are excellent. Short and to the point. And readers really like it.”
Unlike many publications that are loath to offer their papers in PDF format, lest readers forward them to other nonpaying readers, Der Yid actually offers e-subscriptions. For readers who prefer getting their issues by email, Der Yid uses an advanced European technology that prevents the PDF documents from being forwarded. The articles are also embedded with a print limit; most can only be printed once or twice.
Why create this service? “We had a demand for it,” Shia explains. “There are three types of categories of people who wanted this service. First, people who only read, let’s say, three articles a week, and don’t want the mess of inky newsprint in their house. They either read the three articles on their computer or print them out. Second, a lot of Hasidim travel overseas for business very often. It’s not so easy to find Der Yid in China. This way, they never have to miss an issue. And third, in some far-flung places, even if we distribute Der Yid there, it doesn’t arrive till Friday, sometimes even Sunday. This way, people who live in those places can get the newspaper in their inboxes on Thursday morning.”
The topics discussed in Hasidic print media have evolved over the years, gradually becoming more open about issues that would not have been discussed in an open forum two decades ago. One such topic is the issue of mental illness, first broached by the conservative magazine Maalos. (Maalos was also the first to write a column on Yiddish grammar and language, a subject previously considered the milieu of maskilim.) Nowadays, mental illness is often discussed in both Yiddish and English language publications with Hasidic readerships. Ami magazine, for example, had a feature article and two interviews with mental-health professionals in their Nov. 22 issue, and Moment frequently serves as a platform for therapists, doctors, and academics who speak about various mental disorders and illnesses.
A remarkable response to a child’s letter to the editor of Maalos shows how entrenched the “study of the mind” has become in Hasidic communities. Following is a translation of the letter and response:
Question: I am very afraid of snakes. Sometimes I’m afraid to go to the bathroom because of that, and sometimes I’m also terrified of falling asleep for fear that I’ll dream about snakes. —a 10-year-old boy
Response: Most snakes in New York and its surrounding areas aren’t at all poisonous. The few types of poisonous snakes can only be found in dense forests. Even if you do come across a snake, there’s usually no reason to fear it. Perhaps your parents can take you to a zoo sometime, where children are able to play with snakes, so that your fear will vanish.
Sometimes a child might have such an irrational fear because he doesn’t want to think about a frightening thing he’s experienced. For example, if someone did something bad to him somewhere and therefore he’s afraid to go to that place, but he doesn’t want to think about it because that person had warned him not to tell anyone, his mind might be trying to convince him he’s afraid of snakes, mice, fire—as long as he doesn’t think about that person. If, heaven forbid, something like that has happened to you, you must tell [someone] about it (even if it’s a relative, etc., or someone who pretends to be a pious Jew), so that that person should be punished and others shouldn’t suffer from him. You do not have to be afraid at all to talk. These sorts of evil people might threaten with the worst, heaven forbid, just to frighten, because they’re afraid that others will find out about their bad deeds, but in truth, they can’t do anything.
There’s an implicit reference to possible molestation in the response—another area in which more open discussion has evolved, though not as much as many would like—but what’s perhaps more noteworthy is the responder’s instinctive linking of the child’s seemingly innocuous fear of snakes to a more sinister fear created by psychological trauma. Connections of this kind would likely not have been made before talk of trauma and psychological issues and mental health had become part of the Hasidic public conversation, a testament to Jungreisz’s far-reaching influence.
But perhaps nothing demonstrates the evolution of Hasidic Yiddish print as well as the relatively new publication, Der Veker. Which may be a peculiar claim to make, considering that Der Veker is not a mainstream publication sold in stores frequented by Hasidim, but instead, only available through Amazon and in limited locations in Williamsburg, Boro Park, Monsey, and outside Kiryas Joel, New York. However, the existence and growing success of a publication like this indicates just how large and individualistic the Hasidic Yiddish readership has become.
Der Veker, a quarterly established and run by Hasidim from different sects, released its first issue in June 2016. In their own words, the publication “does not shy away from controversial topics and discussing challenges that the community currently faces.” Their goal is to be a platform that takes an unbiased stance, unlike the more mainstream Hasidic publications, which tend to skew in favor of a view and offer their pages to support that view exclusively. Additionally, Der Veker encourages writing as an art form, featuring works of fiction and poetry in their pages.
Though Hasidic publications have become more open in certain areas, such as the aforementioned mental-illness topic, Der Veker’s editor, who goes by the name of Reuven, believes that Hasidic media has generally slanted toward the right. As an example, he offers an article printed in Veker No. 14, a reprint of a 1966 article that had originally appeared in Der Yid. The then editor of Der Yid, the late Sender Deutsch, wrote a piece condemning rabbis of yeshivas who permit their students to go to college. However, alongside his piece, he allowed a Young Israel rabbi to write a contradictory article, arguing that it was wrong to condemn the rabbis of those yeshivas, because they, too, were Torah scholars and had a right to their own opinion. “Such an article,” says Reuven, “would never have appeared in Der Yid or Der Blatt today.”
Still, despite its more enlightened—some say subversive—position, Der Veker is very much a Hasidic publication. Their writers and readers are nearly all Hasidic (though they encourage secular Yiddishists to contribute), and their articles don’t cross the lines of Orthodox Judaism. “We’re Hasidic Jews and proud of it,” explains Reuven. “We want to provide a more open, more diverse publication for those who want it, but our articles must be in keeping with the Torah. We saw a niche—there’s a steadily growing population of Hasidim who are looking for a publication like this—and we feel proud to be filling it.”
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Rose Waldman, a writer and Yiddish translator, is the translator of S. An-sky’s Pioneers: The First Breach.