Hasidic Jews and the Internet | A Documentary

Hasidic Jews and the Internet | A Documentary

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The internet is full of pockets of cultures from the deep dark net to the crocheting world, is full of many micro societies. And here's one micro-society that you might not have expected: the Hasidic internet. The story of the Hasidic internet is a fantastic saga of the forbidden, the embraced, the changing… of thousands in protest against technology, and thousands more who quietly embraced it. Of societal enforcement and a half a century of negotiating modernity. I hope you'll join me for a tour of its story. If you stay to the end I will share something personal by taking you back in time to the early days of the web. I was a young Hasidic mother then; 21 years old with a little baby boy living

in the Satmar Village of Kiryas Joel. My experience with the internet, as it was then, changed my entire life. Stick around and I'll tell you about it. But first, let's tell the larger story. I want to preface with a small note. While all Orthodox Jews contend with the internet as a challenge, this story I share today is specifically about the most insular Hasidic sects. For more about the Hasidic sects, see my other YouTube videos. We begin our tour

at the CitiField Sports Stadium in New York City. It’s the year 2012 and something intense is happening inside. It’s not Sports. The stadium is packed with some 40,000 Orthodox Jewish men from various subsets of religious jewry and they are here to convene about the internet. About its dangers. “The internet is no longer a tool or a device. The problems are no longer just that it's an easier or quicker way for someone to access inappropriate material. Today the internet is a culture! It’s a psychology! It’s a way of life!

Thousands... of our men and women god forbid... who are actively involved in the social media, which is the technological equivalent of the generation of the flood!" Orthodox Jews intuitively understand that their way of life cannot survive in the middle of the 21st century urban centers if they are immersed in its culture. Modern life is the dominant way in America; it is the direction of the river so to speak; the default way. But is also one that swallows up other traditions and cultures. It has led so many immigrant populations to lose much of their language, values, and identity. This loss, which is

essentially assimilation, is that odds with the values of Orthodox Judaism; which is to live the life by the edicts of the Torah, to uphold tradition, to live in observance of Jewish law in service of God, family, for future generations, for the hereinafter, and ultimately for the messiah's coming, which is the redemption. In other words, to quote Filler on the Roof "And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! TRADITION. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do." Many aspects of the modern world are seen as a threat to these ancient traditions. Here is the age-old battle between the old and the new. And to Hasidim the old remains something worth fighting for.

Ass a result, Hasidim are constantly in a complex dance with modernity. Engaging with it only selectively; keeping the parts that are seen as safe and rejecting the parts that are seen as a threat to their traditions. And what could turn up the tempo in this dance more than the invention of the internet? What could be more... modern? In this enormous Sports Stadium on this day in 2012, Orthodox Jews fully appreciate that the internet is an existential threat. Speaker after speaker stands before the mic with dire warnings: something must be done about the web. When Hasidic refugees first came to the United States after the Holocaust and found an American culture in which families gathered around a box to imbibe hours of entertainment, the rules became clear-cut: verboten. No TV. It is called the tumene keyle; which is Hebrew

for the Unkosher device. No one in the Hasidic Community had a TV; there were none of them in sight in our homes when I was a child; movies were also entirely forbidden; and the entertainment that was read and listened to were entirely censored and approved and often in Yiddish. But see, the problem wasn't Technologies but the Western values that they funneled in. So Hasidic Jews created a whole vibrant culture of their own, and kept Western culture

out. But at the same time my Hasidic grandparents and their peers welcomed many modern trappings that they found here: the car, the telephone, the typewriter, the sewing machine, the cassette player, the fax machine, the cash register, the camera, the printer, the washer dryer, fridge, microwave, and Bush Machine, factory equipment, CCTV cameras... These were all embraced, appreciated, a part of life. They were wholly good. Hasidim were insular but by no means lutites. "Computers are supposed to make life easier. About one in three American households has

bought into theory and purchased a PC. But what they didn't tell you is that life does not get easier right away..." Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s when I was a little Hasidic kid in the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel. The computers came around. They were, as I remember, seen as harmless. As upgraded typewriters. When I was very young we had one in our home. In

our playroom. In the same room as all the holy books. The computer was an enormous hulking thing that ran a difficult-to-use program called DOS with command shortcuts, it had no mouse, it was very slow, it was mostly pixels and letters, and at its most interesting, we had a floppy disc with a game Snake which we played with a keyboard. The Game Boy, another new import of my time, was much more luring. When I was a high schooler we had computers as part of the curriculum of our Satmar Hasidic school and we learned how to navigate Windows and Word and when I left school I went to work in an office with a big hulking computer that had email. All of us girls that graduated Satmar girls school were proficient in the high art of printing mazel tov signs on multiple pages with 3D word art. But then, see, over the years, as I matured so did the computer. It became more colorful and faster. About the time I was coming into adulthood, getting married in a traditional marriage, becoming a mother, the worldwide web came to many computers.

I remember how rumor passed among several friends in our Hasidic village of a username and phone number that could be used to dial up to the web. And many of my free hours were spent trying to get a line through my phone cord, rendering my actual telephone busy. There was now a browser where you could read things and even go into chat rooms with actual other people. The computer. once so innocent. was suddenly very different. But the computer was not the only harmless device that became dangerous. Telephones, the beloved telephones

of hours of yapping on it, of wearing it under your turban, it also went off the path. Telephones had been so innocent when they were wired. When they invented the cordless, it was embraced. When it was the enormous car phone, it was also embraced. Also the mobile phone. It was embraced too. But then as phones got quarty keyboards and rolling little balls for a mouse and a touchscreen, phones became well, less and innocuous.

And then suddenly The Whole World's information and entertainment was available lightning-fast, in the palm of your hand. When I first started to work as a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg in the early 2010s the wireless era was really taking off. Technologies being rolled out at such a dizzying pace and things were changing so quickly, think when we first really adopted app stores and Bluetooth and wireless and non-physical keyboards, those heady dazzling days, that the people in the community didn't even fully know what the Technologies were, never mind what tomorrow would bring or how to handle it. While many people quietly bought new gadgets, many others loudly decried them. While the future of technologies was still muddled, it was quite clear to those in the community who keep their ears pricked against existential threats that something deeply threatening to piety was trickling into the community. A fight against the internet was building to a crescendo. Leaders, lay individuals,

organizations, entrepreneurs who sold tech... a lot of different voices made up a cacophony of alarms against the internet. Warnings were everywhere: in newspapers and in street posters, in lecture halls and in schools, against the computer, the smartphone, the internet. On my blog I documented so much of it; from the historic City Field anti- internet convention, to toys, art, cartoons, stories created to push an anti-internet narrative. Take for instance these children's collector's cards that someone with a mission has been producing. I have been collecting them for a while. These are anti-smartphone collector's cards. They

are like Baseball Card Set but this time with images that depict the smartphones as distractions that harm parents' ability to be present, fill the mind with distractions, and are far too addictive for humans to take on. These cards are someone's personal project. They are not something reflective of some singular monolithic community. It's one person or a group of people's passionate position. Mind you many Hasidic who sold me these cards,

toy store shop owners, personally told me that they disliked the puritanical messaging and the busy bodies behind these cartoons. For many, the cards are too extreme. In other words, there were many views and no easy answers. The rabbis could not simply bang a gavel and cancel the internet. "The internet is here to stay. We have to work with it. It's a fact of life. You can't do business today without it almost,

it's a fact of life. And it's a very scary thing to us because it it's the opposite of insularity. It opens up the whole world to us in ways that we really don't want." But over the following years, slowly a solution seemed to have emerged. And that is: to adopt the technology on a modified basis. It's sort of called KOSHER TECHNOLOGY. Kosher technology

is technology that is used in modified ways. In ways that protect piety and sanctity of religious life. Instead of banning things altogether or embracing things altogether, kosher technology is technology that is altered to keep the desired parts, and block the rest. There are many ways to modify technology and there are as many approaches in the Hasidic Community as there are people. There's no single solution of what to ban and what to have. But the important aspect is to adopt technology mindfully and judiciously. Today

there are many many options for making technology kosher a whole industry in fact from jailbroken devices to filters to rules of use. And each person will find his or her own kosher technology path. But for the purpose of this video I'll summarize three ways that the Internet was made kosher... the three trends that I think have been the most important. #1. In kosher

technology the children have no internet access. The children are considered too young, too impressionable, to have access to the web at all. When you walk through Williamsburg you are struck by the effects of this. It's a world as if lost in time where children

have no screen culture, spend hours and hours each evening after school playing stoops-side on bikes scooters with balls and ropes not a screen to be found. The home and the schools are both places for children and therefore these places will be most likely to be internet free. As a result of this, special internet kiosks have cropped up all over the neighborhood for adults who want to use the web for shopping, work, browsing without bringing the internet home. This industry is thriving and I see new cafes, like this one on Lee Avenue with

a fun pun as its name, LeeWork, open every few months. These kiosks are kosher, that is, the internet here is modified. It is filtered to ensure that there's no pornography and other content that is considered inappropriate. #2. In kosher technology adults must use filters. Adulthood is typically considered to start at marriage which is at about age 18-20. And unlike children adults can use the internet for work and maybe other things like for shopping and entertainment, but according to the religious authorities, the internet must be filtered. This doesn't mean everyone filters their devices, but this is the official stance. I've tried

a few filters over the years. For instance, I've downloaded the Gedar Filter which Reb Aaron Teitelbaum endorsed in his speech. The program uses artificial intelligence... and it reads contents... and scans images to block inappropriate material. The Gedar filter prides itself on pre-vetted lists of thousands of kosher sites for news, shopping and more. Gedar filters are highly customizable with options ranging from everything

blocked except for the inbox, to choosing select apps if you want images, if you want to have access to appropriate videos access, to industry-specific categories, and so on. When I downloaded the Gedar filter it blocked all the images on my blog, it blocked all the YouTube clips, but when I requested access I was granted access to my own YouTube clip. Gedar is just one company. There is also Meshimar and Tag and whatever many other companies

that will innovate filtering startups, each in its own way. All the computers in the kiosks for instance will be filtered. #3. In kosher technology smartphones are worse than computers. There's a big difference between having internet on a computer at work and bringing the internet with you everywhere, especially into the home. The smart culture of being constantly connected to the web, being dinged at all hours, scrolling while waiting in line in the grocery and while at events, connecting cars and kitchen equipment to the web, is much more problematic. Especially because there's a Shabbes, a day of disconnecting the 24-7, this community isn't as extremely online as the rest of the world, even the most liberal of them. So we need to differentiate between the Internet and the smart culture of everything always online.

"The time is ripe. To overcome evil inclinations." "A Jew won't eat anything that isn't kosher certified." "And likewise you can't have a device that isn't kosher certified."

"Anyone who needs it... for business nowadays... they are obligated to install a filter." "Then there are small ones... you carry in your pocket. Those are dangerous." As you can hear here, the Satmar Rebbe Reb Aaron Teitelbaum makes a statement against pocket devices, while permitting internet with a filter. So how to deal with a world where pretty much everything is web enabled? Here we find the invention of kosher gadgets. Take this phone. For people who want to feel completely disconnected when they go about life, or for teenagers, these devices are peace of mind that they are not web-enabled.

And they promise no Monkey Business by having a 'hechsher', which is a kosher symbol on it. This means that a rabbinic authority, a respected individual or organization has reviewed the device and has given their approval that it is indeed modified. A whole industry has emerged of kosher versions of all sorts of gadgets, which means the gadgets are internet free or Internet-filtered; like kosher cameras and kosher phones, kosher GPS, and kosher MP3 players, many of these will be sold to children or teens but adults will buy them too. Meanwhile Hasidic hardware stores don't sell smart appliances and even a Tesla is a problem because you can't jailbreak its web. Still time will tell if the smartphone culture won't win out with adults. Recently I observed the following ironic scene: two short advertisements were

made with the same actor. In one he's an extremely online streamer documenting his world travels, and in the other, he has, you guessed it: a clunky flip phone. Which of these men are the future Hasidic Jews? Probably both. And so, the internet has settled into this world. Much of the early fervor has died down and recently a new fervor arose around the next menace: chat GPT. "Who gave this to you?" "I let him search it on the AI. What's the problem?" I now rarely see posters anywhere against the internet, and I see thousands of phones with Hechshers. I think we can say that with

kosher technology, a compromise has been found. And as Pearl says: "The internet is here to stay." Even many of the most sheltered or old-fashioned people who don't have any internet access who don't go to kiosks, still often are aware of the web going ons, that is: from other people. This is a lovely Williamsburg Oldtimer. I call him Mr. Blue-shirt because he's one of the only men in this neighborhood without a white dress shirt. "It went around on the telephone recently the interview you had Purim. PURIM! I didn't observe it closely. But then there was an interview where you spoke to me here in the hardware store.

This is what's circulating now? I gave the segment to you on a USB stick. Yes, I know, I know. But it just now went around on the telephone. Yeah, I'm having a moment." He doesn't have web access but here he knows that there is a video that is going around from my YouTube channel. Other people show him the video on their devices. This is now a world that's connected in more ways than one: the virtual and the physical are like a tightly braided challlah. Forgive the pun,

I couldn't resist it. The famous Youtuber Drew Binsky visited Hasidic Williamsburg in 2022 with ex Hasidic guide Abby Stein and when Binsky learned that Hasidic internet is censored, he gasped. "You go in you pay per hour, or half hour, whatever... "like an internet cafe in other countries internet cafe..

"And you get filtered or slash a kosher version of the internet." "So it's like North Korea!!" "Yeah pretty much." Several community members took to the comment outraged by the comparison to a tyrannical regime. According to the commenters there's no similarity because for Hasidim, internet limitations are entirely self-imposed, and hence voluntary. But it is not so simple. In these pious enclaves it is neither a free-for all nor rules enforced by an all-powerful higher up. There is a complicated system of accountability that is part bottom-up, part

top-down, institutional power, and individuals within. So how are these technological expectations enforced? There's nothing as wild and dramatic as is often depicted in movies and stories... where the violators of Hasidic rules get forcefully taken to a committee of rabbis in order to be forced into line, grabbed off the street, put in an SUV, brought before a Rabbinic tribunal and a grand Rabbi lobs accusations, like in this ridiculous Woody Allen movie. Or as it's depicted in the Netflix show Unrthodox where the grand Rabbi himself involves himself, decides who can and can't have a smartphone, and the followers follow so devotedly, they even have a picture of the Rebbe as their wallpaper. Well, no... It's the schools. The Hasidic community has its own system

of private schools where children are socialized for the pious way of life. The schools have criteria for what parents are allowed to do in their home life, arguing that in order for the school to be able to effectively educate the children to be sheltered in a very modern world, the children can be exposed to the world of smut at home, the parents can be contaminated by it either as that will then influence other children in school, which is in direct contrast to the mission parents have in enrolling their children in these private schools. And so the Hasidic schools issue whole rule books, and the rules are issued with a threat of expulsion to families that violate the rules. This book for the Satmar sect on the more extreme or conservative end, has a whole section on technology. Let's have a look at some of it. "Here we we bring down several rules that

are the responsibilities of the parents to be able to raise our children pure. In the situation that there needs to be a computer in the home, it needs to be entirely disconnected from every opportunity to go online. And this has to be inspected by experts and confirmed by an organization that we will appoint. It is absolutely forbidden to have internet in the house, entirely, even with a filter, even if it is locked, even in a basement, and so on. If you need a smartphone for work then it has to have a filter on it. It is the rule of our congregation that the smartphone should not be brought home, only there should be a separate basic phone that can be used at home. The mother is not allowed to have a smartphone

under any conditions, even with a filter. So many Jewish daughters and young boys have already been harmed simply from text messages, because with a text you are allowed to write things that you would never dare to say. These rules are very strict and they carry serious weight because they come with a threat of expulsion. But many parents will do what they want as

adults and the school doesn't have to know the rest. Ultimately, despite the everpresent friction between the school administrators and parents, both sides largely agree on sheltering children. Ezra Freelander expressed it to me as follows: "I don't need the Yeshiva to tell me don't have internet. I would I would never allow

my kids, even if the Yeshiva said expose them to the internet. I would said no absolutely not. Cause I'm doing them a favor. But when they reach a certain age, hopefully they'll be able to handle it, you know. Meanwhile Ezra, like many others, can be found on Twitter tweeting away. And so, finally, we arrive to what happens when people from such a different world go online. They congregate. They form spheres with Yiddish, Hebrew and English. There are discussion forums

you'd never know exists, music scenes, social media scenes, private groups and major personalities. It is sometimes elicit, sometimes kosher, sometimes very male, sometimes entirely female, sometimes pushing the envelope, sometimes downright changing this society, often changing its users lives profoundly. Let's take a small trip through the Hasidic internet, to just the tip of the iceberg. There are several lovely forums and we will visit them first. To reflect the deeply gendered culture they are also gender segregated. imamother is an English-language forum for mothers, for women. It isn't Hasidic only. There

are many types of Orthodox women on there, but we can see how different the Hasidic women's education is by how the women default to chatting in English. Meanwhile, men, who learn very little English, have their own forums in Yiddish. The major, very pious, heavily censored discussion board is called ivelt. Ivelt discussions range from Community News, to world news on Ukraine, Trump, just about anything. An alternative

to Ivelt that is more open and pushes the envelope on many issues is KaveShtibel where men can discuss controversial issues and where incredibly juicy pieces of Yiddish writing can be found. But some people won't even go to a censored ivelt, they feel like browsers are bad altogether, so they will elect an email-only approach. That's how my work computer was set up for a while. Which leads naturally to emails getting very interesting. There's

actually a whole industry of Email Sending Services where you can get regular emails with news and Yiddish pictures of rabbis, embedded video clips, announcements, and of course ads that pay for it. It's a whole entertaining email service. WhatsApp is where everything is happening. Many people who have filtered webs will concentrate most of their exposure to Whatsapp groups, news streams, family chats, private chats, and so on. It's a social media

without the likes culture, without the Facebook outward-facing-ness... it's heavily used. This is where many of the ads I post on my YouTube channel are circulated. I'd love to show you what WhatsApp is like but as some of you know I only have a flip phone... Yeah I suppose that's part of the Kiryas Joel I have taken with me... The deep feeling that with technology you seek

to be in control of it, not it of you. In case you're curious... I do have full web on my computer though. Finally, we arrive to the full browsers experience for those who are all out online: On YouTube, Twitter, Instagram. Hello to all of you. Here for instance on our very own YouTube we see how this population forms a network of its own entertainment for its own consumption. A whole new pop culture explosion is happening made possible by the new video mediums. You

can watch all sorts of videos. There is an enormous Hasidic music scene with celebrities and huge production-value videos with a clear bit of borrowing from World influences, short sketches to advertise companies and products are spawning a whole acting and production genre, the birth of Hasidic Hollywood, there are influencers and podcasters... Even one Hasidic woman, Raizy Fried who has a cooking show and a talk show and who has been dubbed the Martha Stewart of the Hasidic community. Mind you she

also posts her videos to her own app, presumably so Housewives who have filtered internet can spend their midday watching her videos without needing to browse and engage with a bottomless scroll. There are also enormous amount of videos of rabbis and of ceremonies... personally as a sucker for weddings I love watching the emotional arc of acidic weddings in videos of tear-jerker Chuppahs and wild dancing.

And of course there are my own videos which I think makes a small slice of this new sphere, as it is watched by many Hasidim, as I learn by walking around the neighborhood and being told by locals that they see my videos. Hasidim are also now on Twitter making for a noisy contingent now unafraid to clap back to the relentless negative attention. These little spaces together offer just a glimpse, but enough to illustrate that the Hasidic Community has expanded beyond the borders of the material world, into the virtual world. And here too it has attempted to create degrees of isolation and insularity. Here too there's a Kosher corner of things. Here too,

as in the physical world, we see a push-pull dance between modernity and traditionalism. Only time will tell how this new frontier will change Hasidic society and beyond. But I think that this is not just a story of how one community has formed a unique relationship to the web, it's a story I think with wider implications. It is an illustration of how Tech might be embraced discriminately instead of accepting it all as inevitable. This community has shown what it's like to pick and choose what technologies are allowed in. It has said

no to children and teens on social media, no to being extremely online, and it leaves us with the incredible question: If it is within our power to define how much of technology do we truly want, is truly to our interest, and what would we leave behind if we could? Now for a trip back in time as promised. October 2006 was of my early days into the internet. I was a young mother and we had this computer. This is more than 16 years ago and it was a desert out there online. None of the

things we just saw in our Internet tour existed yet. There was no Hasidic internet. There was however one tiny corner... the first corner I believe, of Hasidic online. This I found out when one day when I was online instead of shopping for baby clothing or trolling Yahoo answers, I Googled Chasidim. To my absolute fascination and shock I found a website where a man who claimed to have left wrote about his perspective.

This was a time when anyone who left the Hasidic Community was essentially never heard from, and we were left to wildly speculate about their lives. Here I not only was reading a firsthand account but I could talk to the man directly by writing a comment. Which I did. And so I got sucked into a little internet bubble, the only at the time,s far as as I know, where Hasidim wrote - mostly deeply critical of their world. It was the Hasidic blog sphere. I made my own blog under the pseudonym Shpitzle Shtrimpkind... some of you, very few but a few of you, still remember those days. In fact, the whole blog is still online. This was my first post:

Here I meant here the two brothers split in the sect Rabbi Aaron and Rabbi Zalmen This is my very first blog post. It's interesting to see how much I was always bothered by what felt like an unfair portrayal of this community. But looking back I remember much more than that that. This blog which was at first so innocent, completely changed me and thereby my life. It started me on a journey of writing, reading, communicating that ultimately was the life change that opened the door to my leaving. I'll leave you to speculate then what the takeaway is on the power of the internet.

But without a doubt, today's internet is not the internet of my day. For perhaps unlike then, when the internet was all Anonymous Mischief, nowadays we can even say there's a Kosher Internet. Or Kosher Internet... is that the ultimate oxymoron? I hope you feel like your time on the internet today with me was well spent. I don't take it for granted that you invest

your time with me on such long-form projects and I hope I earned it by putting an enormous amount of research and time into it. If you appreciate my work please subscribe, hit the bell, upvote, and leave a comment with your thoughts. Thank you and bye bye. [Music] [Music] bye-bye

2023-11-13 22:50

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