Monday, May 07, 2018

A Baby Step in the Right Direction

Picture in an email sent out by Mishpacha Magazine
The internet has nearly killed most of the print media. Powerhouse news media like the New York Times are struggling to survive. Newsweek Magazine, once a serious rival to Time Magazine has long ago stopped publishing in print and is now available only online. Not that Time is doing all that well.

This is a sad but understandable consequence of our time.Just about any article in just about any publication one wishes to read can be accessed instantly with the click of a mouse. Long story short – print media is going the way of the Dodo bird. 

This is not, however, true about Orthodox Jewish publications. With some exceptions, they are thriving. Especially 2 of the more popular Charedi ones. One of which is Mishpacha Magazine.

They thrive for one very important reason: Shabbos. Shabbos is a day where 2 things happen that are conducive to their success. One is that those of us that are Orthodox do not access the internet on Shabbos. Doing so would be a violation of Halacha. The other is that our means of relaxing on Shabbos is very limited. Which means that many of us often spend a good part of the day reading printed material.  

Mishpacha saw an opportunity and went for it. They (and other Charedi publications) have pretty much cornered the market. A market that consists primarily of Orthodox Jews. These magazines contain a variety of well written news stores, columns, editorials, op-eds, and feature stories – accompanied by pictures and graphics that rival the best of the publishing world.  All geared to the religious (mostly Charedi) market place where their success lies.

While Mishpacha tries to appeal the the broader Orthodox market, it has only had marginal success. The typical reader is Charedi. And the magazine’s religious standards are geared towards that demographic. Which is why it can get away with not publishing any pictures of women, no matter how modestly they are dressed.

Their reason for doing this is based on the view by those on the extreme right of Orthodoxy that believes publishing any picture of a woman is a violation of religious modesty standards (Tznius).

The truth however is that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews – including most non Chasidic Charedim (and even some Chasidic ones) is that there is nothing wrong with publishing a picture of a modestly dressed woman. This is proven by the fact that ArtScroll, the most succesfull publishing house in all of Orthodxy is Charedi. They publish pictures of women in their books. So does the standard bearer of the Charedi world, Agudah. The vast majority of Mishpacha’s readership comes from that world.

Mishpacha has been severely criticized for refusing to publish any pictures of women - no matter how modestly they are dressed. One of the most egregious examples of that was when they pixilated a woman’s face in a Holocaust era picture. They apologized for that error and said it was inadvertent. I believe them.

The truth is that Mishpacha is struggling with this issue. They are apparently beginning to realize that by satisfying the extremist right, they alienate – not only the more modern segment, but even some in the Charedi world. In fact some of their own staff is troubled by this policy. Including their managing editor, Shoshana Friedman (as reported in the Forward). The omission of women can sometimes be glaring. As recently as last week I noted that an article by Mishpacha columnist Alex Fleksher was not accompanied by her picture  as it was with all the male columnists.

None of this is new. What is new is that there has been a subtle change in that policy. From the Forward:
The Orthodox magazine Mishpacha appears to have reversed its previous policy against publishing images of women — at least on its social media channels.
In an email to subscribers last week, the magazine announced that it had begun to ramp up its social media presence. Breaking with precedent, the email included a picture of three prominent Orthodox women, including New York City judge Ruchie Freier. 
Unfortunately this does not apply to their print magazine. But it is a step in the right direction – small though it may be.

I am not going to rehash all the arguments about why the refusal to publish pictures is so wrong in my view. Been there and done that. Many times. If one wants to see a variety of articles on that subject one can find them at Frum Women Have Faces.

It appears that Mishpacha has finally listened to their critics in this regard and has done something about it. It may cost them some criticism from the right. I’m sure they are aware of that. But they have decided to do it anyway and stand up to their critics to the right. Which they have done before.

One may recall that during the last Presidential election Mishpacha published a distorted picture of Hillary Clinton on its cover. Mishpacha’s Poskim approved of it because a distorted picture of a woman does not breach their modesty standards. (Saying it was distorted is being kind. It was grotesque! But I digress.)

That brought about an critical editorial by a rival publication, Hamodia.  They claimed that it violated accepted Charedi modesty standards. Mishapcha subsequently defended their actions and withstood the criticism. But it must have stung since their readership is in large part the same as Hamodia’s.

There was in fact some discussion by Charedi publications about what hey would do if Hillary Clinton was elected.  They must have thanked their lucky stars that she wasn’t elected. And didn’t have to deal with the possibility of insulting the President of the United States by never publishing her picture when doing stories about her.

The question remains, ‘How far will they go with this?’ Will this be the end of the story? Will they stop short of including a picture of a modestly dressed women in their magazine while allowing it online? I find that to be inconsistent. 

I sincerely hope they ‘go the distance’. I hope they abandon a policy that has never been adopted by the vast majority of the Charedi mainstream  - and still isn’t. While it might be true that a lot of moderate Charedim would in theory object to their refusal to publish pictures of women, they don’t care enough about it to stop buying the magazine in protest. Most either shrug it off or don’t think about it.

But there are plenty of us that do care. We see it as unfair and even harmful. The subtle erasure of women from the public square can have serious consequences for children (both girls and boys) growing up seeing women treated as though they don’t exist. The reason these young women will be given? They are to be considered sex objects under all circumstances.

Which is utter nonsense. I think the editors at Mishpacha know that.

This issue underscores the need for a good Orthodox magazine that appeals to all of its segments. From Charedi to Modern Orthodox. Mishpacha has some good columnists with at least one that has an ivy league education. Jonathan Rosenblum was educated in both the University of Chicago and Yale. Even if one does not always agree with him, his education, intellect, and insight is there for all to see in just about every one of his columns. 

It would be a huge step in the right direction if they added a few distinguished columnists from the Orthodox center to broaden their perspective from being exclusively Charedi.  People like Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Meir Soloveichik, and Gil Student  come to mind. They would add an Orthodox perspective that is entirely missing from their almost completely Charedi one. I believe it would increase their readership.

All this being said, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen. Mishpacha will likley remain a magazine with a Charedi perspective – (albeit a more or less  moderate one - as a recent editorial by their editor in chief Rabbi Moshe Grylak demonstrated in strongly disputing the extremist and false narrative about the ‘Gzerias HaShmad’ of drafting Charedim into the army.) But that doesn't mean I can’t try to appeal to their editorial board. There are plenty of Charedi publications out there right now. Most of them are to the right of Mishpacha. With a little bit of tweaking along the lines I suggest, it may actually live up to its name: Mishpacha.  Because as observant Jews we are really all just one big Mishpacha.