Journeying through Journalist Territory on the Way to Chevron
Our generous hosts had several children included a 16-year-old girl with a serious commitment to Torah and Eretz Yisrael.
(We'll call her Moriah.)
Excited about davening at Ma'arat Hamachpela/Cave of the Patriarchs in Chevron/Hebron for Shabbat Shacharit, we 3 girls decided we'd join the armed Jewish men also going to Ma'arat Hamachpela for Shacharit as they did every Shabbat.
But we didn't catch them in time (can't remember why).
So now it became a security issue.
But when the mother noticed our gloom over missing a special Shabbat Shacharit right next to Avraham Avinu and Sara Imeinu, she quietly remarked that there were soldiers along the entire way.
Moriah knew the way, having walked it several times.
Then Moriah announced we were going and that not only were there fully armed soldiers along the route, but also Hashem protects a shaliach mitzvah from harm.
Seeing as every 4 amot in Eretz Yisrael is a mitzvah and that davening at the gravesite of tzaddikim is a praiseworthy act, then Hashem would look out for us.
We were on!
We headed out with Moriah in her long dishwater blonde ponytail and owlish glasses marching ahead of us with the resolve of generations of dedicated bnot Yisrael.
As illogical as it may sound, I felt very safe with Moriah. When one has solid emuna and bitachon, it provides much more protection than any weapon.
As we left the Kiryat Arba resedential neighborhood, we came upon a short tunnel of bricks. Moriah didn't say anything until we came out the other end and pointed to a dark plaque outside the exit of the short tunnel.
It was a memorial to a good Jew who'd been stabbed by a you-know-who (hint: not a Bahai nor a Baptist) lying in ambush at the very place we stood.
This did not give me a reassuring feeling.
I looked around to see if there were any terrorists hiding nearby, but fortunately, there didn't seem to be any.
"Do we need to come back this way?" I asked Moriah. "Is there another way where we don't need to go through this tunnel?"
Alas, there wasn't.
But then Moriah firmly reminded me that terrorism cannot and does not stop us. We strode on fearless in our faith and trust in God!
My admiration of Moriah increased even more.
Anyway, we soon came up on our first soldier. In fact, there was a soldier stationed every few yards within clear vision of each other.
Dressed in full combat gear—helmets, fully automatic rifles, bulletproof vests, etc.—they each stood in their position, there eyes carefully scanning all around them, including above them, as if wondering, Will something fall on my head?
They also looked a bit self-amused, like "I'm just standing here in the middle of a field of flattened grass like a sitting duck."
And what's really funny is that each time we approached each soldier, he did a double-take.
First, he tensed as he caught our movement from the corner of his eye, then he did a double-take when he saw 3 girls.
And each time, Moriah snapped up her palm in greeting and declared: "Shabbat Shalom!"
Each time she did this, the soldier looked even more surprised (but pleasantly so) and responded with amused disbelief, "Shabbat Shalom, girls!"
This happened repeatedly throughout the entire line of soldiers.
I found it all both amusing and heart-warming.
I really appreciated them being there and they really appreciated our spiritual gutsiness (although to be completely honest, I was being swept along by Moriah's lionhearted bitachon rather than my own).
And after having survived the wishy-washy secular culture of the US, it was rejuvenating to be in the presence of such a young Jewish woman who possessed such serious commitment and resolve.
Also, the contrast was funny.
Apparently, the area was dangerous enough so that they needed full combat gear, but here we were striding along in our Shabbat dresses without even a small bottle of pepper spray.
...we saw two scuzzy-looking guys standing right next to one of the soldiers. One guy held a big camera. The other scuzzbag sported shoulder-length sandy-colored gritty-looking hair and wore jeans and held a pen and pad in his hands.
They were obviously journalists for a secular newspaper.
"Hey, giiiiiirls," he said in this really sleazy way and introduced himself as being from one of the major Israeli newspapers (either Yediot Acharonot or Maariv; I always got them confused).
"Can I ask yoooou a few questionnnns?" (Picture this being said in the greasiest way possible.)
My friend & I put on our polite pleasant American faces, thinking that being receptive to his questions and being nice would be a kiddush Hashem.
But just as we opened our mouths, Moriah stepped up to plate and stated, "NO. It's Shabbat and we don't do interviews! Writing and taking pictures is forbidden on Shabbat and we don't allow it!"
Okay, I admit I was shocked at the time.
This was a far cry from the nice compassionate approach to tinok sheh nishba, an attitude most baalei teshuvah cultivate and is also strongly encouraged in the frum community.
But Moriah knew a lot more than I about these types and had correctly identified him as a total snake, like the original Nachash in Gan Eden.
Or maybe just a weasel.
"Oh, c'mon, giiiirls," he sneered. "Just a couple of queeeestioooons..."
(I can't fully convey this in writing, but everything about his tone of voice, his body language, and his persona gave the impression of him being a total sleazebag who'd slithered out from under the most scum-fested rock possible.)
I sensed his attitude had to do with us being religious, and being associated with "settlers," but I couldn't prove it. Yet I got a very strong feeling that was the case.
In other words, he loathed us for the Divine values he saw in us.
"I said NO," Moriah said.
He bent his knees to squat and spread out his arms and said, "But why noooot, giiirls?"
Giving him a stern look, Moriah repeated, "Because it's Shabbat and we don't do interviews on Shabbat! Writing and taking pictures is forbidden on Shabbat and we don't allow it!"
The journalist said he would be doing the writing, not her. Moriah exhorted that it was forbidden for him too.
Then we turned to keep walking, but Moriah knew just how sneaky and disrespectful these guys are and to my surprise, she suddenly whipped around to face them and said, "PLEASE. I said no pictures on Shabbat! I insist that you respect our wishes!"
I was shocked to see the camera up in front of the photographer's face. The really scuzzy journalist spread his arms out again in obviously fake innocence.
"What's wroooong, giiiiirls?" he said.
Moriah gave them a hard glare and the camera went down while the journalist's arms slowly dropped to his sides.
We passed another soldier just then, who looked at us with twinkling eyes as he murmured, "Kol hakavod, girls!"
I glanced back at the scuzzbags. They were staring after us, the photographer looking bored and the journalist looking like he wasn't sure what just happened.
I felt so YUCK after that brief interaction, and I felt the YUCK in a way I haven't felt before or since.
And that was the end of our journalistic encounter.
I know I don't usually write with such negative descriptions of people, but I really can't emphasize enough the unusual & disconcerting feeling that we were facing 2 giant cockroaches.
And one of them was an unsettling realization that the really sleazy guy wrote for a major national newspaper.
This granted him influence and likely meant that he wrote well.
I wondered whether his overpowering sleaziness seeped through his writing or whether he came off as an intelligent and sincere articulate guy, as many successful journalists do?
It unnerved me to think that such a repellant person had the power to influence others and could command journalistic respect.
(The column claimed there was a charedi rebbetzin living in a building storage room after having been forcibly divorced & rejected by her entire community, and forbidden to see her own children.)
An actual rebbetzin, eh? Good golly!
My friend also had extensive professional experience in helping abused women and the mentally ill.
What a perfect shidduch!
I figured that not only could I get help for the persecuted homeless rebbetzin featured in the column, but it might also be a kiddush Hashem for the columnist to see that some charedim did care about injustices in our community enough to take action.
(You can also see that my eager young newly frum enthusiasm was out in full force at that time.)
Anyway, I called my friend and asked her if she'd heard about this situation. She had tons of cousins on this street and visited there often.
Yet my friend hadn't heard a thing about it.
"The woman living in the abandon bomb shelter of one of the buildings is supposed to be a big rebbetzin," I said.
"Mm-hmm," said my friend who'd already cottoned on to the truth, but figured she'd let me work it out on my own.
"Uh, you haven't heard of any big rebbetzin living in one of the buildings like that?" I probed.
"Nope," she said pleasantly.
I bit my bottom lip and frowned. That didn't make sense according to the column, which portrayed it as a major community scandal.
Yet if it was a major community scandal, why hadn't my friend even heard of it?
"You didn't see any abandoned lady down there when you went to visit your cousins?"
Well, maybe my friend hadn't gone into THAT specific building.
Knowing that my friend was deeply involved with programs and counseling for women suffering abuse or mental illness, I asked her if the columnist could contact her.
My friend generously agreed and told me the exact number to reach her by—a number I knew well because I'd frequently called her at that very number.
Bursting with goody-goodyness, I emailed the columnist with the information.
I received a cooing email in reply, one that flattered me as being "one of the few who cared" and reassurance that the call would be made.
But then the columnist added other details of the situation (which were expressed in a huffy self-righteous style).
That's when I got my first "uh-oh" vibe.
Because what the columnist now described sounded a lot like one of those schizophrenic ladies you sometimes see hanging out on the streets of the frum neighborhoods of Jerusalem—neighborhoods where these mentally ill stragglers enjoy more safety and more compassion than in other areas.
A a couple of days later, I got another email from the columnist stating that my friend couldn't be reached because the number connected to a fax.
That was my 2nd "uh-oh" vibe.
I'd been calling my friend at that exact number for years and never encountered a fax.
I frowned as I tried to work out what was going on.
So I called my friend and asked whether the columnist's claim had any validity.
"I never have a fax connected to this number," said my friend.
"Maybe it happened just one time?" I suggested, thinking maybe the columnist had tried to call at that one time.
"Nope. Never," said my friend.
My puzzlement grew.
I couldn't accept the fact that the columnist was outright lying, in direct contrast to the columnist's self-portrayal in every column as a crusader for fairness and truth.
I checked the number I'd emailed with the way it was written in my phonebook (even though I knew it from memory).
Maybe the number changed via some glitch when it was emailed?
I created a new email and included the number within. Again.
The columnist continued to insist that the number connected to a fax, no matter how many attempts were made.
I wrote back explaining that couldn't be because there was no fax.
In reply, I received an email from the columnist expressing regret that our efforts simply weren't working and how could things progress if the phone number didn't even work and my professional activist friend could not be reached?
So this was the end. I was praised again for caring "so much."
And that was that.
I came away with the feeling I'd been had, but I couldn't figure out exactly how.
(Another time, I read a statement by that same columnist that couldn't possibly be true by bare objective fact, I found it hard to believe that a person would outright lie in a public forum. Also, I could see how the person could weasel out from the lie with other lies there'd be no way for me to prove.)
Looking back, she acted like a gaslighter (a form of emotional abuse).
Report: El Al Delayed Flight Blamed on Chareidi Passengers - Not True
After all the flaming and self-bashing that went on online, it turned out that the original portrayal was not even true.
Is that the journalist's fault?
Less so in this case.
After all, the reporter got the original tidbit from directly an official source.
But real journalists are supposed double-check "facts" & other journalistic responsibilities.
The problem today is the pressure to crank things out, to report news as it's happening, and to stay relevant.
Combine this with the fact that as long as it supports a journalist personal point of view, then why bother double-checking?
(I don't know whether it did with these particular reporters, but many people are ready to believe anything about the frum community as long as it is negative.)
Who's Behind the Byline?
(Note: There is often a slew of editors and proofreaders & copyeditors & graphic artists working behind the scenes, in addition the writer whose name appears on the article. Their names don't always appear even on the masthead.)
As far as the frum publications go, please rest assured that the majority of people involved with producing their magazine or newspaper are decent sincere people.
But not all of them.
And it only takes one or two people positioned in just the right (or wrong, as the case may be) place to produce topics, slants, and attitudes that are actually not Torah nor even well-intended.
If any person behind the article (and there are several people behind each article, not just the writer) is not a decent person, if they're narcissistic or unspiritual or mean-spirited or a religious fake, then that can influence the information you're imbibing.
Furthermore, everyone has issues and biases.
(I'm no exception either, BTW.)
If any person involved in an article is stunted by a blind spot, then that will affect the slant and accuracy of the information being offered.
And you can't always know who has had the final say on any article you read.
For example, one editor working for a secular Jewish publication was just plain strange.
Not a bad person, but definitely a strange person with little sense of self & not the kind of person you'd want deciding what you should read.
Also, when you read a frum publication that declares its allegiance to rabbinical supervision, do you think that means the entire publication is scrutinized by a group of rabbis?
It doesn't necessarily mean that. It could mean that, but it doesn't have to.
It could also mean that the publication only shows the rabbi articles it has questions about.
In some cases, the rabbi sees only the questionable parts of the article and not even the whole article.
Do you know what your publication means when it says it submits to a rabbinical va'ad?
Maybe it doesn't bother you either way, but if you do care, you might want to find out.
One writer interviewed a brilliant & caring yet eccentric person. Concerned that the interviewee not suffer an harm to reputation, the writer strove to portray the eccentric genius in the best light possible.
Later, the writer learned that people were saying, "Who was that journalist? She did a brilliant job with that article! I know that person and the writer actually made that person sound normal!"
"I feel like such a fake," the writer confided. "But what else could I do? I couldn't have that person's eccentricity exposed in writing forevermore to thousands of people."
"I even got a couple of angry letters about it—which were also published in Letters to the Editor!" said the writer.
"But the thing is, I never said that! I don't even think it! I'm not sure exactly who changed it—though I have my suspicions. And I was told that if I responded, I needed to send my response through the staff first. I didn't bother because I didn't think they'd expose how they alter an article's meaning—not just grammar or typos, but the actual meaning—without consulting the writer."
Said one frustrated mother after an experience with a popular frum magazine:
"My son and his wife were interviewed for an article and the magazine got so much wrong! We were so angry at the depiction. It was just a mess, all mixed-up. We all resolved never to allow ourselves to be interviewed ever again."
"And we just got used to them getting details wrong." She sighed.
"They get his age wrong, sometimes they delete his sister and sometimes they add another sister, they get wrong the years he did different things. But it's small stuff so we just try to ignore it."
Said by the acquaintance of a woman interviewed by a frum publication:
"I can't believe what they wrote about this woman I know! They made this whole article about how a woman combines her music with family life and domestic responsibilities. But I know her and she doesn't combine her music with her domestic responsibilities! Think about it. If a woman spends the entire morning composing songs and playing instruments, then when does she have time for making dinner or cleaning or laundry? She doesn't! I know her. Yes, she greets her children very warmly when they come home from school, but then she sends them out to buy hamburgers for lunch.
"She does spend time with her children in the afternoons and she teaches them music, and that's really lovely. But then her husband comes home and gets them supper and puts them to bed so that she can immerse herself in her music again.
"It's not that I mind what she does. It's her life and her family really does seem happy. But she's not 'combining her domestic responsibilities with her music.' Her husband and oldest child do everything. She simply doesn't do most of her domestic responsibilities, like housework or meal-preparation. But the article made it sound like she does. And she really doesn't."
"I came across an article I knew about a person known as a very unrefined person and a very abusive parent. Yet the article presented this person as baalas chesed who excelled in visiting and caring for the sick! I knew this person brought over meals for sick people in the community and would gossip about what she saw in the homes she'd visited. The ill women felt they couldn't stop her from talking and risk losing her services because they were weak and desperate for any help they could get. I guess she was like the Typhoid Mary of lashon hara.
"And the abuse of her child was very distressing. Once, she grabbed her 7-year-old by the face and yanked from both sides of the child's face at the same time—all because the child didn't want to taste a new food. I jumped to my feet and my hand jerked out as I cried out for her to stop. I'd never seen such a thing, even though I've witnessed parents hitting their kids in public. But attacking them like this, especially over something so trivial? Never.
"Yet she wasn't at all embarrassed. With obvious self-righteousness, she even snapped at me that she used to do much worse and that this is an improvement over how she used to be. For the child's sake, I tried to remain calm and soothe the mother by praising the mother for her self-improvement. But she was angry that I intervened at all. She stuck her nose in the air and left the table, refusing to look at me as if I was the loathsome person in this situation.
"And then I have to read this article on how she's such a selfless nurse to the ill. I don't blame the publication because the editors have no way of knowing, but how could the writer not know the truth? After all, if I remember correctly, he's from her community—and her behavior is no secret."
What You Don't Know
But what of the secular or non-Jewish publications?
Some are well-meaning and some are truth-seekers who still believe in honest-to-gosh investigative journalism. But others are agenda-driven, biased, and uphold false beliefs and terrible values.
Finally, it's important to realize that people can be gifted and skilled without being good. We see this all the time. If someone is a superb writer, they'll be able to present themselves and their topics in a compelling, appealing manner even if their personality and value system stink.
Case in point: There's a popular non-Jewish writer whose books are always well-received.
When this writer writes about himself, he comes off as so sympathetic and appealing.
But taking a step back and looking at the topics he writes about in his novels and how he writes about them, plus the things he says in his non-fiction—like how he's treated close family members like garbage—it's possible to realize that the guy is a self-centered macabre escapist who cares little how his writing affects others (and there are people who've committed horrific crimes claiming to have been inspired by his novels).
He claims to care about others (in a Leftist way) and like most immoral people he donates money to a couple of pet causes (likely for feel-good or feel-superior reasons).
His writings and attitude shows that not only does he feel no desire to make the world a better place; he even makes it a worse place and that's fine with him. Yet he comes off as appealing and sympathetic.
So...who's behind the byline? What's the agenda or the bias?
You don't really know.
And this goes for online articles and blogs too.
You don't really know unless you do know.
How to be Your Own Filter
For example, after I read a certain frum publication, I felt hopeless and bleak.
I realized that many of the articles actually consisted of despair and unrealistic advice based on secular psychology and presented in a guilt-tripping way while trying to sound encouraging.
Some frum writers or publications uphold a very secular hashkafah in certain areas without even realizing it. Others violate halacha without realizing it.
(Again, this includes online publications and blogs.)
It doesn't mean that an entire publication should be avoided (although it could mean that).
Maybe only read certain authors or certain topics in a particular publication?
Or only read certain topics covered by that author?
Also, publications pay attention to sales and letters to the editor, but if it's online, then pageviews and sales count for more.
Even if they get a lot of angry letters about an issue, if the sales (or pageviews and visits) go up, then the publication considers that "a hot-button issue" and not necessarily one to be avoided.
But letters do matter to them & influence their decisions. So it's good to write to them.
Note: If you choose to write a letter to the editor, the following is recommended:
- Keep it as brief as possible.
- Don't rant; be coherent.
- Multiple exclamations points of outrage (!!!!!!) do not make you look serious or mature.
- Ditto with self-righteous statements of outrage ("Shame on you!!!!")—they get that statement ALL the time.
- Identify what you'd like to see in the future.
- Describe what you did like (if anything) about the article or issue.
- You might want to clarify the halachot of rebuke & lashon hara before writing a letter to the editor to make sure your letter doesn't violate halachah.
(And don't think I haven't violated any of the above ever...learn from my mistakes! ;)
But whatever you decide, it's helpful to do a self-check:
- How do I feel after reading this?
- Why do I feel this way?
Better to double-check "facts," do your own research, and include in your daily reading (even if it's only a couple of lines a day) books by truly good and wise rabbis and rebbetzins to keep your soul infused with real daat and wisdom.