Hag Media Sameach?

Religious holidays are a testing time for Israeli journalists.  After all what can journalists – who by nature discuss the present – do about events which happened hundreds and thousands of years ago?

Hanuka, for example, is essentially a non-news event.   What can one say about  the newsworthiness today of an event that happened thousands of years earlier? But the media coverage of festivals raises the more general question of how the media as a whole covers  the rich cycle of festivals and fasts in Judaism. More importantly, given that much of the non-strictly religious Israeli Jewish draw  their religious identity  in part from the media – rather than the synagogue or religious educational institutions – media coverage has a role in the modern age in influencing religious identity.

And how does a journalist – who by training is critical, rationalist – write about miracles of God, `interventions’ in the natural cycle of nature?

Looking back on the Hanuka holiday, the Israeli press this year showed everything is possible.  In addition to covering lighting Hanuka candelabras such as at the President’s House as well as real time developments like one Israeli who suffocated from eating doughnuts, the media were creative. On the eve of the holiday Yediot Aharonot ran an item about those who were named Hanuka  including one family  `Zur’ who named their baby `Maoz’ – presumably thinking they were doing their son  a favour?  Some papers like Haaretz ran features about the tastiest doughuts.  Maariv ran a thoughtful essay of Chabad today, including  Chabad’s work erecting huge candelabras in public places worldwide. Mekor Rishon described how the Temple Institute in Jerusalem created, under tight conditions of ritual purity, the oil used for the menorah in the Temple.

For a religious holiday lasting more than one day – the journalist’s abilities are further tested to write something new each day.  Yisroel Hayom, reported Hanuka  each day from a different  Jewish community worldwide.

Some key festivals like Rosh  Hashonah , Passover, Sukkot as well as Hanuka  receive considerable media coverage . Media coverage of Rosh Hashonah features symbols of penitence like the Shofar.  Pesach concentrates upon consumerism, a clue to the removal of chametz and cleaning as well as symbols like matza. At Sukkot the media illustrate the holiday with arba minim and the sukka, but also with holiday-related events during intermediate days.

Other key religious holidays and festivals are notably absent in the media. Yom Kippur – though regarded as the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – receives much less news coverage than these partly because of the difficulty for the media to communicate  spirituality and theological ideas — which, in any case, have been communicated a week earlier for the related Rosh Hashona holiday of also of penitence.

Hanuka and Purim are relatively minor holidays in Judaism, marking events occurring after the completion of the Five Books of Moses. Yet both draw considerably media play, more so than important days like Yom Kippur and Shavuot. Dressing up and costumes on Purim are visually attractive and draw media attention.

Even if there appears to be some agreement between the secular media and the religious media regarding which holidays are “in”, and receive media play – Rosh Hashonah, Pesach, Sukkot and Hanuka and Purim – and regarding which holidays are “out” – Shavuot, and Yom Kippur – a closer look at the media shows wide differences in the themes about the holiday and fasts covered by the secular media and by the religious media respectively.

In covering the festival life cycle the secular media focus on commercialism, events, the holiday atmosphere , and holiday-related recipes and much less on the religious aspects of the holidays like  religious meaning and renewal, religious stories, and religious laws about  observance of the festival. The religious media gives a considerable amount to the latter religious aspects, and while not ignoring the commercialism and the events provide a therefore a more balanced overall picture.

Another feature of the religious media are charity appeals at holiday time like Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur – which are notably absent in the secular media.

Nevertheless, there is a need to be cautious in relating religious identity directly to media coverage. Surveys of religious behaviour, official and academic, have confirmed that some religious holidays – like the Pesach Seder, refraining from eating chametz during Pesach, and Hanuka candles — are observed by two-thirds to three quarters of the Israeli Jewish population and generate wide coverage. Other festivals like Sukkot generate wide media coverage but such religious activities like blessing the arba minim, sitting in the sukka, and hakafot on Simhat Tora generate less than 40% public participation. And while fasting upon Yom Kippur generates two-thirds to three quarters per cent Israeli Jewish participation the fast receives low media coverage.

What appears more certain is that in the future the potential impact of the media as a factor in religious identity, is likely to increase in the Internet age given that Internet comprises the convergence of text, the visual and the voice – enabling religious experience to be conveyed with greater feeling and emotion than, say, in the age of the printed newspaper.

About the Author
Yoel Cohen is Associate Professor, School of Communication, Ariel University, Israel (School Chairman 2009-2011). His research interests include media and religion in Israel and Judaism; religion and news; foreign news reporting; defence and the media. He completed a doctorate in political sociology at City University London. His book publications include God, Jews & the Media: Religion & Israel’s Media (Routledge); Whistleblowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy (Pluto) / The Whistleblower of Dimona: Vanunu, Israel & the Bomb, (Holmes & Meier); Media Diplomacy: the Foreign Office in the mass communications age (Frank Cass). His research has appeared in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics; Gazette; Journal of Media & Religion; Israel Affairs; Review of International Affairs; Encyclopedia of Religion, Communication & Media. He was departmental editor, Israel Media, Encyclopaedia Judaica.
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