Tuesday, July 10, 2012
the young newlywed, mother of one, daughter of so-and-so, and married to such-and-such, with a scarf over my head and an apartment in the new
development. But on the Internet, I was anonymous. I was anyone. I was
everyone. I was a mystery, and I was hidden. I was whoever I wanted to
be, and I could say whatever I wanted to say without fear.
I didn't intend to create this dual identity. I hadn't been prepared
for what could happen to Hasidic life in the Internet age, because no
one knew. My husband purchased a laptop with Internet access for some
business ventures, and when I used it I chanced upon some blogs by
fellow Hasidim and soon after created my own. It was an impulsive act.
The topics of conversation online were enthralling and broke every
taboo. It broke the prohibition of men and women conversing and
shmoozing, it broke the barriers that divide those who left from those
who are in the community. It gave anyone a space to be heretical and
outrageous without the social repercussions that usually come with it:
ostracization, having your children expelled from the Hasidic schools or even worse, your parents sitting shiva over you.
The social environment online was diverse and gritty, and I was there anonymously. I could finally say things, express my opinions and
confusion and use my own voice, which had been trained to be silent. No
one knew or would ever know that indeed I was so-and-so's daughter, the
pious-looking woman who swayed to and fro in prayer like everyone else
in synagogue. Under the guise of an authorial pseudonym, I commented,
posted, and debated. Not for many months after I began blogging did I
realized that my little literary adventures on the Internet—on those
dawns while the challah was rising and my Hasidic family was still fast
asleep—were life-changing acts.
The contrast of my Internet and Hasidic identities was dramatic. By
day, I shopped with my friends in the busy shopping center where we
looked for the finest ingredients for our gourmet cooking while we
talked in Yiddish about our babies' eating habits and our husbands'
eating preferences, both of which we were expected to please. By night,
or by dawn, or sometimes even all night, I sat with the laptop and
wrote. With time, I wrote less and read more. Then I read even less and
began thinking more—much more.
I was not raised to think. I knew what I needed to know: about tznius and that modesty is, or should be, my most important preoccupation. I
knew that striving to have seven or 10 or a dozen children and being a
good and pious homemaker is the pinnacle of achievement for a woman, the thing I was brought into this world to accomplish. Secular education
was frowned upon. More than frowned upon: Being educated, oifgeklert,
was a shame, a blight on the family. There was the very bare minimum of
secular education, of course: reading and writing and elementary math.
But even that was an afterthought. Fear of God, being a good girl, and
growing up a pious Hasidic woman was the meat and potatoes of our
On the Internet, I cared about so many topics, yet knew that I still
knew so little. The world, the physical boundaries, the world of ideas,
the world of dangerous questions and of even more dangerous answers
seemed big, wide, and endless. It was a world of things I never imagined and never even dared to try and imagine.
I got to know some people on the Internet. A rabbi from Brooklyn,
father of six children, emailed me that he read my questions about the
prohibition on birth control and that he would be glad to show me the
rabbinic sources on the matter and that a lot of what I was taught in my Hasidic girl's school might be not be true. A woman, Modern Orthodox,
responded to my description of the Hasidic ritual of shaving the head by asking, "Why in the world do you do it?"
Because you have to, I said.
"Because we have to!" my husband said, stunned and frightened, when I later asked why I needed to do these things. But by then his answer
wasn't enough for me. I had new answers that I learned online in
conversation, there in the cloud, inside the boundaries of my
10-x-12-inch screen, where there were pseudonyms and no walls.
Eventually my thoughts began to come fast, new and sharp and
revelatory. Every day when I woke up the world looked somehow different, a tad tilted, the effects of the change in rotation, from the sun
around the earth to earth around the sun. I lay in bed lost in thought,
the paradigm shift making me woozy. I thought about evolution and rabbis and choice. I thought about my parents my husband and my son and how
devastated my family would be. I thought about myself and my
possibilities, for the first time in my life.
In the community individuality was impossible. Not that thinking is
necessarily proscribed. But striving for anything not explicitly prescribed by the community is just … weird. Why would someone want to do anything else? Where, indeed, would they get these foreign ideas from? Being an
artist or a scientist or a lawyer or a doctor or a garbage collector was unthinkable. These career options were for those other people, those
living on the outside, just on the periphery of our awareness. Those
poor souls not lucky enough to know what the bashefer truly wanted of
us. For those of us growing up on the inside it was impossible to
imagine even wanting to be any of those things, or even wanting anything at all. Wanting was irrelevant. You were going to be what you were
taught to be, and that was that.
What I read online shocked me, but it also clung to me. It wasn't
right that I should keep having children, that I should never go to
college, that I should decide who my son should marry upon his 18th
birthday. "Because we have to" suddenly rang hollow, because what we
have to do is live our 70 years of life with a few messy mistakes and
the lessons learned and in the process figure out who we are and who we
want to be.
My deviances grew larger, and the tolerance for my deviance from
family and community grew smaller. When I boarded the bus and got a
copper birth-control device at Planned Parenthood, the pit in my stomach told me that this is the beginning of the end, that I was growing out
of the community. One early morning, while the laptop lay on the floor
between our beds, my husband packed his tzitzit, his black hats, his
long coats, and the white socks, and left me for good. My heart ached
with terror and longing but I couldn't cry. I couldn't run after him and stop him because I had logged into the world of knowledge, and I knew
my innocence, like my marriage, was gone forever.
I left the community with my son, taking our computer along. We left
for the world outside, for the world I had glimpsed through my computer
screen. Now in a different world, I am not the daughter of so-and-so
with the headscarf anymore, but I continue to don the cloak of anonymity in order to visit, and comment upon, the worlds of my past and my
future that merge and coalesce on the Internet. I cling to the hope that if I take off the veil slowly, and very gently, my family will be able
to see me and come to terms with who I am.
I watch the numbers of venues and voices from the Hasidic community
online grow, as more Hasidim leave the community and many, many more
acquire web-enabled handheld devices. Online I find a smorgasbord of
debaters on literary sites and blogs, Twitter and Facebook groups and
Yiddish journals, where bigotry mixes with tolerance, misogyny mixes
with feminism, and debates take the tone for which Jews are notorious.
We often discuss the future of Hasidism in the Internet age, at a
time when you need only a few dollars to get a touch-screen phone, when
the walls Hasidism erected in the past century can no longer keep the
world out. The Internet can't be banned, like other mediums of secular
influence, despite attempts by rabbis to do so. It has become a
necessary part of life and of earning a living.
With the Internet, certain Hasidic communities will have to find a
better way to educate their youth than through enforced ignorance. A
belief system that is so easily refuted and based on so much
misinformation cannot withstand Wikipedia and Google. Times are changing for a community that has been fighting time. In the age of the
Internet, the Hasidism that I grew up in, and married in, and had
children in, now belongs to the past.