It was in the Shleikes Jewish food restaurant in Bnei Brak that I got the definitive proof of how gossip has conquered the ultra-Orthodox public. I had arrived for a joint interview with journalist Itzik Ohana, whose specialty is coverage of get-togethers between secular celebs and rabbis, along with Haredi political analyst Yisrael Cohen, who admits that he’s turned to yellow journalism in recent years. By chance, the new publisher of the Haredi website Behadrei Haredim, Miki Barzel, came in. Cohen, who has a healthy sense of humor, asked Ohana to take his picture with Barzel and post it on Twitter, with a caption wondering whether he was defecting to Behadrei Haredim. The photo quickly spread from the tweet to a galaxy of WhatsApp groups.
It then turned out that others had also clandestinely photographed the chance meeting two weeks ago. A hullabaloo ensued. Within minutes, Cohen’s phone began to vibrate with messages from a bevy of ultra-Orthodox media-industry reporters who wanted to know whether he was actually leaving Kol Harama, the radio station he’s identified with. Cohen’s denial only heightened the suspicions.
In the meantime, a report about the fact that I had met with the two jokesters at Shleikes (which means “suspenders” in Yiddish) found its way into the Haredi gossip columns, accompanied by a historic photo: Cohen, Ohana and me seated with a plate of gefilte fish garnished with carrot, on the table between us. Even before the gefilte fish had been digested, we all gained everlasting fame. A week later, photographer Tomer Appelbaum, who took the picture of the duo, was the subject of an item on the Haredi news site actualic.co.il.
After years in which the Haredi press was generally quite limited, both in terms of content and dissemination, the advent of the internet stood that world on its head. Five years ago, the first official gossip column, Leibele, was inaugurated on Behadrei Haredim. It’s since been joined by Bekleine, on the Actualic site, Tzitzit on the Kikar Hashabbat news site and also by Pashkevil, a website geared to the Haredi advertising industry. A dedicated gossip site called Pichifkes initially took off but shut down a year ago. And there are also ultra-Orthodox groups on WhatsApp and Twitter, which are abuzz with gossip and often beat the conventional columns to the punch.