Gentiles at the Gates

The Internet Changed Everything in the Hasidic World

Lisa Anchin

By Judy Brown (Eishes Chayil)

Published October 25, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Chani’s mother knew something was wrong as soon as she came downstairs. Only an hour had passed, but she knew a terrible thing had happened when she found her daughter hunched over the computer screen, staring at emaciated children, some with limbs hacked off, others lying still on the ground, large eyes staring blankly at the lens. Miriam knew she’d made a horrible mistake in allowing Chani to go online when she saw tears streaming down her daughter’s face, tears that were not for Jews.

Miriam immediately shut off the computer, but Chani had gone into shock. When Miriam wasn’t looking, she searched obsessively for the genocides of the past century: Sudan, Rwanda, Armenia, Serbia, Cambodia, Pakistan, Guinea. Miriam realized this only two weeks later, when she checked the browser history. But by then Chani had questions, questions about God, misery and the stunning discovery that Jews, after all, held no monopoly on suffering.

It was a betrayal devastating to her faith. Up until that evening, Chani had known with certainty that only Jews really suffered, because we are the chosen people. The rest of the jealous planet, therefore, wanted to destroy us because they hated our morality.

But now, others suffered horribly, too. So, were they, too, chosen? And if not, then was suffering indiscriminate, random, thrown on innocents by God? The agony she had seen could not be a punishment for hurting the Jews, because the Sudanese toddlers had never hurt the Jews. In fact, the Germans, who nearly exterminated the Jews, suffered no such fate, and were indeed doing better than ever.

It was a traumatizing ordeal for a devout Jewish mother, watching the daughter she’d lovingly raised to care only for her own show the same compassion for others.

Eventually Miriam had had enough. She wanted her daughter back. She wanted the pious Chani who cared deeply but for the right folks, who had a generous heart but clear priorities. She wanted the girl for whom the world ended where her knowledge did, and who did not care about what she was not supposed to know. The computer had done a terrible thing: It had allowed her child to encounter humanity up close, eye to suffering eye, and in the deceiving light of that reality, it was impossible to properly tell the superior from the inferior. Agony looked the same everywhere.

Miriam tried explaining it. It wasn’t that others didn’t suffer, she said, but that we suffered more, and for better reasons. They because of sin, we because we were chosen.

So Miriam threw out the computer, as her rav advised her to do. Though a return to ignorance was difficult, he explained, nothing was impossible. The gates of repentance were always open, and with time, they hoped, her daughter would forget about a country called Sudan and its suffering.


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