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Breaking From Hasidism, Online

Exploring the Internet led me to knowledge, questions, and, ultimately, leaving the Hasidism I’d grown up with

F. Vizel
July 10, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock.)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock.)

In my Hasidic community, people knew me as 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 education.

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.

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F. Vizel is a cartoonist and essayist at Oy Vey Cartoons and contributing author at Unpious.

F. Vizel is a cartoonist and essayist at Oy Vey Cartoons and contributing author at Unpious.