It is hard to imagine life without newspapers. Before the worldwide recession of 2008, 6,580 daily newspapers were rolling off the presses at the rate of 395 million copies a day. Yet the first true newspaper (depending on the definition of a true newspaper) only jumped off the presses three hundred years ago in 1605 in Strasbourg, its name, Relation aller Fürnemmen und Gedenckwürdigen Historien, translated as, Collection of all Distinguished and Commemorable News, strongly hinting at the old adage that today’s news is tomorrow’s fi sh wrappings. The first Jewish newspaper was the Gazeta de Amsterdam, published in Ladino between 1674 and 1699.
Sadly, as the years passed, Jewish papers generally became a vehicle to spread Haskala ideas, and frum papers were desperately in need as a counterbalance. Among the fi rst fruits of the frum press was Halevanon, fi rst published in Yerushalayim in 1863 and later in Paris, Mainz, and London, announcing in its earlier editions: “Declaring the peace of Yerushalayim, bringing news from the entire holy land, and unknown information from Syria, Yemen, and India, everything a Jew yearns to know.”
Perusal of this paper during its early years reveals that there is nothing new under the sun. Many of its earlier editions devoted much space to debating whether it would be best for the population of Eretz Yisroel to be devoted mainly to Torah study, or whether it might be better to develop agricultural communities where people earned their bread by the sweat of their brows. This debate was sparked by the founding (years before the Zionist movement) of the Chevras Yishuv Eretz Yisroel organization whose goal was to buy farming land from the Turkish government with the help of mainly English Judiophile Christians. Yechiel Bril, Halevanon’s editor, was convinced the Arab population would never sanction such a scheme, writing, “All around there are bandits and murderers… The Arabs persecute the miserable Jew; all his saliva cannot suffice to spit at a passing Jew.”
In addition to world-shaking concerns, the paper was also concerned with lesser issues such as confidence schemes, epidemics, kashrus problems, and the old question of who is a Jew.
For example, an 1865 edition of Halevanon includes a report from Constantinople describing a strange new cure for one of the dread diseases of the time:
“When plague erupted in Constantinople and its surrounding towns, terrified people attempted to keep it at bay by utilizing the strange remedy of drinking huge quantities of wine from morning to night. They claimed that this was a surefire cure, having learnt it from an old woman who used it to save herself from many Cholera plagues. Saloons, now referred to as ‘springs of salvation,’ were open from morning until night. People who had money spent it on alcohol, while those who did not borrowed.”
The report describes how terror of the epidemic induced some Jews to utilize this ‘cure’ even on Tisha B’Av in the interests of pikuach nefesh, and pleads, “May Hashem send us true year happiness in the coming year and may, The fast of the fifth be turned for you to happiness and joy.”
On a positive note, the article concludes that the Jews of Rome gained some benefit from the plague:
“The Times reports that when the Papal government heard that Cholera was spreading throughout Italy and threatened to enter the gates of Rome, the Pope took action and appointed commissars to supervise the cleaning, widening, and illumination of the Ghetto street where Jews were locked for the past two thousand years and dwelled in darkness until today. The Jews of Rome too, will now have light in their dwellings once their streets are widened like all the other streets of the city. How true are the words of our sages that, ‘A person should bless over the evil just as he blesses over the good.’”
The Confidence Man
Then as now, missionaries were always on the lookout to snare Jewish souls, and a lighthearted Halevanon report from Italy describes how a confidence man utilized this propensity to turn a neat profit at the Church’s expense:
“A man entered a monastery in Verona and told the Abbot that he was a Jew, urged by his conscience to turn to the New Testament. They gave him a special room where he confessed and cried in remorse, ate barely enough to survive, spoke little, and slept on the earth. Repenting body and soul, he promised to give the monastery his property that was worth 40,000 francs. Most amazing of all, he learnt and understood all the teachings of their religion in a few days.
“On August 8th, the abbot invited all the honoraries of the town to come to a conversion ceremony, and the following day the man asked the monks to supply him with traveling expenses so that he could travel home, liquidate his property, and return with the money he had vowed. By now the priests became suspicious and told him to get a passport from the town clerk. A secretary there recognized him as the member of a band of robbers from Lombardy who had fled imprisonment.
“After his arrest, it turned out that he was a Catholic and robber since birth, and that he had often claimed that he was a Jew wishing to convert in order to turn a quick profit. There is no doubt that the abbot will no longer believe every Jew who comes his way to convert.”
A letter printed during that same year discussed the situation of the Jews in Yerushalayim, complaining that recent improvements had raised the cost of water for its Jewish inhabitants:
“An earlier edition of your paper announced how the Pasha did Yerushalayim a good service by piping in spring water from the Barak Fortress in order to alleviate the city’s thirst. Although this is true, I am sorry to inform you that this water is of no benefit to us. The spring water is unavailable to Jews since bathhouse owners seal the water’s exit the whole day long, piping it to their bathhouses instead.
“Jews cannot even take this water two hours after dark when they open the water’s exit, as the Arabs take precedence in everything and when the Jew comes to take water he does not return home empty handed since they load his back with as many blows as he can carry. Things are now worse for us. Before, everyone in the city bought water from Fellaheen who brought it in from the Iyuv well. The Fellaheen could not charge whatever they wanted, as they were afraid of being beaten by the Arab citizens. But now that only Jews are thirsty for water, nothing stops the Fellaheen from taking a sky high price for water of even half a franc. Before long, they will take one franc and who will stop them?
“We Jews are more justified in complaining about this injustice than anyone else, since besides everything else, when the righteous Sir Montefiore was here, he gave three hundred pounds sterling to the Pasha to help bring the water in order to benefit all citizens, both Jew and Arab.”
Jewish Maoris and Treif Olive Oil
A later edition of Halevanon from 1868 cites an astounding report from the Hamaggid newspaper, which claims that the Ten Tribes wandered as far as New Zealand:
“It is well known that the Australian aborigines in New Zealand known as Maoris constantly battle viciously against the British who conquered their land. These people are very cruel and leave no survivors of the enemies who fall into their hands alive. In April this year, many soldiers of an English regiment and their commander were captured by the Maoris who took them inland. As they were stripping the commander’s clothes, they saw his tallis katan. This astonished them and they decided to leave him alive.
“After he recovered, the commander returned to Melbourne and related all that had happened to him, adding that they pray in Hebrew, that most of their customs are similar to early Jews, and that in addition, their facial features testify to their Jewish origin. In Melbourne, people believe that these Maoris are descended from the Ten Tribes…”
The Halevanon writer refuses to be fooled and dismisses the entire story as an invention:
“Although I usually give credence to the saying that one cannot argue against facts, I dare to say that this whole story is fake. Do not think, dear reader, that tzitzis dealers invented this story after their sales began dropping so that Jews should hear that the mitzvah of tzitzis shields and saves people, and also so that soldiers going out to fight the barbarians should attach tzitzis to their clothes.
“Rather, it is almost certain that anti-Semites invented these lies in order to denigrate Jews and claim that Jews are cruel and merciless just like Maoris, whom, this story testifies, are Jews. In conclusion, the story is absolute nonsense!”
In that same edition, Yaakov ben Yehuda Leib Brit writes from Vilna and warns that thousands of liters of treif olive oil are being poured into the kosher market:
“Recently, I received a newspaper printed in the vicinity of Cincinnati and the Mississippi Valley that provides statistics from these places and describes how the number of swine in Mississippi reached forty-five million by the year 5609/1849 and people said that this was more than the rest of the world combined.
“The newspaper writes at length of the great business done with them in every part of the world and describes how after extracting candle wax from their fat they produce edible oil from it. Thirty factories in Cincinnati do nothing but produce this oil, the largest oil factory producing 140 thousand liters of it every month. In France, they specifically use this oil to produce fake olive oil; French chemists are so skilled that they can mix 65% to 70% swine oil with olive oil and no one can tell that it is fake. The only way to detect the counterfeit is when small pieces of wax fall to the bottom of these oil containers…
“When I read these lines, I trembled that Jews might stumble in this matter since almost all oil is imported from France. I feel obligated to report this matter and to request the rabbis of France and Italy, where the oil comes from, to investigate these counterfeits. Meanwhile, whoever fears Hashem’s word should keep away from olive oil and anything made from it until it gets a kashrus certificate from a reliable person, guaranteeing that there has been no fakery.”
Halevanon’s reporting of the weighty and trivial facets of Jewish life lasted only twenty-three years. After moving its operations to London and producing twelve editions, Halevanon vanished from the stage of history, its battle against the proliferating non- frum press over but by no means complete.
(Newspaper citations have been abridged)