Jerusalem cannot be called a university city. The two large campuses of Hebrew University are pretty self-contained, and, for reasons including that most are post-army and many are settled with partners and families, students here blend into the general population. But there is something that Jerusalem has in common with university cities and college towns: posters, posters everywhere.
Posters entered my life when was I was an undergraduate in the late 70s. As publicity officer of the Oxford University Literary Society, it was my task to produce and hang posters advertising our events. I have no idea how I made them; I didn’t have a type-writer, let alone a computer. But I do recall weekly visits to the print shop to collect a pile of very basic posters — dark blue ink on light blue paper, red ink on pink paper — bearing the details of a forthcoming lecture by this or that famous author, and an image selected from my postcard collection. Then came the tedious part — cycling to every single Oxford college in search of spaces to hang my posters on their overcrowded student notice boards.
There wasn’t much call for posters in mid-town Manhattan or the investment bank I worked at there after I graduated from university. But posters returned to my life when I became a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge in the late 1990s. As founder and convener of a weekly lunchtime seminar in which undergraduates, graduate students and fellows gave accessible 15-minute presentations on their research to an audience drawn from the entire college community, I asked presenters to provide me with a pithy title, a one-line summary of their presentation, and an illustration for the poster. On one occasion, our brilliant, right-brained Principal, Baroness Onora O’Neill, sent me the material I’d requested for her upcoming presentation on a subject in bio-ethics. The title and one-line description were fine, but in place of the eye-catching image I’d envisaged for the poster, she’d written: By way of illustration, I shall consider the case of …
In my first week at King’s College London, where I went to teach Bible and Jewish Studies in 2006, I spent hours pacing the corridors armed with drawing pins, sticky tape and a stack of posters advertising the Jewish, Christian, Muslim sacred text reading group I co-founded and co-convened there. This time, I didn’t make the poster myself, but enlisted a graphic designer, a member of our synagogue in Cambridge, to help me. It looked beautiful — glossy black paper with the striking image of the British Museum’s famous ‘ram caught in a thicket’ from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur.
My first experience of posters in Jerusalem involved writing about them. This is an extract from Lamentations Through the Centuries, a commentary on the ‘reception’ of a biblical book, that I co-authored with my friend and colleague, Paul Joyce.
5:16 The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us that we have sinned!
Visitors to Meah Shearim, the dilapidated, over-crowded, maze-like Jerusalem neighborhood that is home to the city’s most isolated ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects, may be struck by the many posters that are plastered haphazardly on walls, doors, and any other available surface. In a community that makes little use of modern technology, these posters take the place of the myriad modes of instant communication upon which the rest of the world depends. More or less uniform in size and design, the striking black and white posters — known by their Modern Hebrew name (taken from the Yiddish), pashkevilim — impart information on a wide range of topics of importance to the local community. Their subjects range from opportunities to learn Torah from great rabbis, through warnings about moral threats to the community (usually emanating from the outside world) and condemnations of members who have gone off the straight and narrow (as perceived by community leaders), to information about where to buy arbah minim, the four types of branches and fruit required to celebrate the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles).
But the posters that are seen most often on the streets of Meah Shearim are death announcements. Posters reporting that a member of the community has passed away are immediately recognizable (to a Hebrew reader) by their formulaic headings. In most cases, the heading takes the form of the phrase used according to Jewish tradition to report or respond to news of a death: Baruch Dayan Emet, Blessed be the True Judge. But when the person was a great teacher or highly respected in the community for his Torah learning, the poster announcing that he has passed away begins with half a verse from Lamentations: ‘The crown has fallen from our head’ (Lams 5:16). In its biblical context, the crown should probably be read as a generic symbol of honour or glory. The pashkevilim are quite specific: the crown of a Jewish community such as those in Meah Shearim — the source of its honour and glory — are its great teachers and scholars. The sense of loss to the community when such a person passes away is often extremely intense, and it is no accident that the words chosen to announce it are drawn from the biblical book most closely identified with collective calamity.
In contrast to the pashkevilim of Meah Shearim, the posters in our neighborhood, German Colony, are multi-colored and diverse. Many are posted on official billboards by the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Theater or one of the city’s other major cultural institutions.
Many are posted by a smaller cultural, religious or social institutions and organizations.
And many are posted by individuals, such as this pair posted by someone very enterprising called Yossi!
My own hands-on experience with Jerusalem posters began about a year ago when I and three other women decided to organize a series of meetings in which we invited ordinary people from the neighborhood to share part of their life story to anyone who wanted to listen. A Bezalel Art School student volunteered to design a simple poster, and three of us hung them on local streets.
The main challenge in Jerusalem, as in university cities and college towns, is finding a space for your poster amidst throngs of others. But I soon glimpsed a darker challenge. As I walked along Emek Refaim one day, I noticed a poster I’d put up myself a couple of weeks earlier. Since the event had already taken place, I paused to take it down. A man who’d been walking a few paces behind me turned back as he passed. What was it about that poster that you objected to, he asked politely? Nothing, I replied, and explained what happened. Oh, he said. I assumed it made you angry.
It’s a sad comment on Jerusalem, but I knew what he meant. I’ve seen posters I’ve longed to tear down, but never have. In the meantime, though, I’ve been on the receiving end of poster rage. The first time was when, in consultation with the volunteers who run it, I put up signs in Hebrew and Arabic at the ‘Reading Station’, a Bezalel Art College community art project near our apartment, saying that books were available in Arabic. Those notices were torn down as soon as I hung them up, and eventually I gave up.
The second time was a poster against racism at the Jerusalem Day Parade last spring, designed by my wonderful in-house designer, Emily. I feared the worst when two teenage boys with large kippot muttered, smolanit, leftist, as I taped a poster to the lamp-post next to the bus stop where they were waiting.
Then there was a poster advertising a free open-air Shabbat afternoon lecture by a female academic in preparation for Tisha B’Av the next day. And a poster for an open-air Shabbat afternoon variation of our neighborhood story meetings. And most recently, last night, I saw that some of the posters (also designed by wonderful Emily) announcing our next neighborhood story meeting that I’d hung just before Shabbat …
… had been removed or ripped — not to make space for other posters, but just because …
It’s hard for me to figure out a rhyme or reason for this; perhaps there is none. But seeing my sad, torn poster doubled my commitment to our goal of encouraging strangers to share their stories. And since this is Jerusalem, people have amazing stories to tell. At our open-air event, the speakers — not pre-invited, just people passing by — included a young Ethiopian from Petach Tivka who spoke about his Jewish identity; a young Palestinian from Beit Safafa who told us how he’d fulfilled his childhood dreams of becoming a professional footballer (he plays for the premier Palestinian team) and a fireman (he works for the Jerusalem Fire Department); and Eliezer ben Yehuda, grandson of THE Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, who spoke about growing up, not far from where we were sitting, in a house shared by a Christian Arab family, a Muslim family, and the Ben Yehudas. I can’t promise that much diversity tomorrow night, but if you’re in Jerusalem, please come!