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Once, life in Boro Park and Lakewood was simple. Today, it is not. Within the ancient walls, a desperate struggle plays out as leaders and rabbis, educators and parents battle to push the world back, back to that place where they’d put it, behind impenetrable walls. It is a community with two opposite impulses: defensive preservation crashing into a yearning for unmitigated exposure in the neighborhoods and centers of our grounds.
But the guardians of our gates have not sat in silence. In sermons, mandatory school meetings and across the front pages of our newspapers, they shout in anguish about the fatal danger, as the ghosts of our ancestors loom everywhere. From the offices of every Bais Yaakov and yeshiva, countless forms are sent for parents to sign, affirming that their homes have no Internet access. And in a show of unity last May, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attended a gathering at Citi Field stadium in Queens to heed the rabbis’ calls as they emailed, texted, Tweeted and browsed from the stadium seats above.
To naive outsiders, fighting technology might seem like a lost cause, but as a product of this world, I can tell you that it is not. Throughout our tumultuous history, the community has often suffered from ideas and movements that have threatened to tear down the shtetl walls: the Enlightenment, the Haskalah movement, Zionism. Yet we have prevailed. Throughout the long exile, there was always the outside world knocking, knocking on our doors. Yet we are still here, our numbers growing by leaps and bounds. Yes, the ultra-Orthodox will suffer their losses. There will be a shifting and shaking of once stable ground, but in the end the wall and its people will stand.
After Chani left home, her seven siblings and parents cut her off completely; they were not taking any chances. Though the computer had long been discarded, the questions in her mind had remained, doubts growing with every forbidden book she read. Such a girl was dangerous in a pious home; her influence toxic. The heartbroken mother wept, grieving the loss of her eldest, but she knew she had done the right thing.
It is like the wise Bobover rebbe once said, when rejecting an offer of millions by a rich supporter to build a state-of-the-art science lab in a Hasidic girl’s high school: “Perhaps they will be good scientists, but what we need are good Hasidim. The loss of a soul is greater than the gain of any knowledge.”
And that is why my people fight the Internet, because if we don’t, the shtetl will die. Because perhaps we will gain independent minds, but we will lose our ancient souls.
Today, for every family with a computer in Boro Park there are three who have none; for every person buying an iPhone there are 10 holding cell phones with censoring devices, and for every dark flaw revealed on a blog there’s a ready and reassuring explanation to put the collective mind at ease.
Yes, wires snake underneath our homes, and satellites soar above, but the sturdiest walls are those entrenched in the deepest recesses of the mind. Technology can trample on this way of life, claim some souls here and there, but the well-shackled mind is ultimately stronger than any knowledge thrown at it. Sacred ignorance has survived the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, democracy, world-changing scientific discoveries and women’s liberation. It has endured two millennia of knowledge and change. It will survive this, too.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. “Inside Out” is her essay series about life in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is based on true events, but her characters’ names and identities have been changed; some are composites, comprising several real-life people. Visit her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/judybrownhush.