Once, life in Brooklyn’s Boro Park was simple. There was the inside and the outside and an impenetrable wall in between. Then came the Internet, and everything changed.
In the beginning, we did not fully understand. The computer seemed to be a rather innocuous box: glass screen; dark plastic, flat keyboard, and a cursor that moved with the touch of the strangely named “mouse.” We couldn’t have known that lurking within was the darkness of the entire planet.
At first we did not dwell on it. The World Wide Web was a gentile invention, and as with all gentile inventions, how good could it be for the Jews? So when I began working from home a decade ago and needed Internet access to do so, I knew that I would need a heter, special permission, from a rav.
My rav said no, absolutely not. When I explained how difficult this made work for me, he said maybe, he’d think about it, perhaps and finally okay. But only for six months. After that, he warned, the heter was null and void, and the world and its Web, or whatever it was called, had to go. He also told me to keep a careful watch on my then-husband to make sure that he did not watch impure things.
I did watch my husband. I watched him watch the Internet. It was fascinating, the Internet; less so my husband. When we clicked on the screen, magic happened. When we wrote words in the blank box, things popped up on command. Six months quickly passed. I emailed, researched, browsed, and the outside world, once dark and flat, grew in dimension and color, a faraway mythical villain that I could suddenly see and touch.
I no longer remember if we called the rav back for permission. The Internet stayed.
Once, life in Brooklyn’s Boro Park and Williamsburg, and in Lakewood, N.J., was simple. We knew who our enemies were. Our world was divided neatly into good and bad, and everything stayed where we’d placed it centuries before. We, the good, were here, and the rest of the world was there, on the other side of our impenetrable walls.
But the Internet changed all that. It happened over three, maybe four years, as thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews with a heter for six months forgot to call back the rav, and thousands more never asked in the first place. It happened when parents who did not realize there was more to the Web than email had teenagers who quickly did, and when husbands, hiding in cars, browsed secretly on their laptops, as their wives did the same at work. Within half a decade, the world we’d valiantly held at bay for two millennia came crashing silently inside.
It was a strange new thing. Suddenly it didn’t matter how high walls were, the wires snaked underneath. Suddenly it didn’t matter that gates were welded shut, satellites streamed overhead. Through wires and satellites, gentile society slithered into pious Jewish homes, with its corrupting magazines and TV shows, and its science, culture and art.
One day, the rabbis looked up from the holy books and there were gentiles running rampant on our streets. They, the guardians of our walls, had not even a moment to warn us, to pound on the podiums of our synagogues: “The goyim are coming! The goyim are coming!” because by then the goyim were already there. Abruptly we found ourselves living on a different planet. We, who survived the pogroms and the massacres of Europe, were succumbing to machines. We who upheld morality through blood libels and evil decrees, capitulated to porn and gambling.
But there was a greater danger: It turned out the depravities of the Internet were the least of our problems. My close friend, Miriam, a mother of eight in Lakewood, discovered this the hard way, after the Internet had left its mark deep on her daughter’s vulnerable brain.
What happened was this: Chani, Miriam’s 16-year-old daughter, was writing a report on the Holocaust, and Miriam, putting the little ones to sleep, gave Chani permission to search online. The teenager typed in the word “genocide,” and there in front of her eyes was a Wikipedia entry with phrases like “Rwandan genocide,” and “Armenian genocide.” So Chani, knowing there’d been only one genocide, the Holocaust, Googled the word again, and a few frustrated clicks later she found that the Internet’s mistake was even greater than she realized; now there was something called the Sudanese genocide, too. And when she clicked on it, photos appeared, taken days earlier, that showed Sudan’s genocide up close. Up very close.
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.
These actions might be difficult to understand. For those ignorant of our ways, this incident might be unsettling, even disturbing, but to us it’s justifiable because it is part of a larger, more sinister danger, one that threatens our very existence.
You see, for thousands of years, the pious Jewish mind had been communal property. Our leaders, our laws and our traditions decided what was put in and what stayed out. Then came the Internet, and the earth shrank. Our universe, once unfathomably large, was transformed into a planet shockingly small, forcing us out of our corner and into shared space. Now, the Hasid and Torah scholar, the growing teenager, crowding the same virtual room as the rest of mankind could absorb information from millions of sources, uncensored, unsorted, uncontrolled. Our ancient mindset, carefully cultivated generation after generation, was, in an instant, exposed for all the world to touch, stain and sully. Yet it was not the immoralities found online that posed a fatal threat. Rather, it was everything else: the reams of available information that hypnotized the unprepared mind, the once inaccessible books now easily accessed, forbidden questions swiftly answered; the unexpected encounters with the other kind.
Many are leaving the community because of this. They walk away when they discover, not porn, but that their minds are theirs to control. This foreign concept is plaguing the community and devastating it from within. For it is not those who have left whom our leaders are most afraid of, but those who remain, with hearts stripped of faith.
Before the Internet, there were few dissenters. If they existed, they lived in silence, alone and isolated in their heads. Then the gentiles came crashing through our gates with their inventions, and suddenly the religious Jew could speak. He could write his thoughts on a thing called a blog. The blog revealed his opinion, while safely concealing his face.
In recent years, blogs have proliferated. Thousands flock to them, to listen, share and connect in the only sliver of democracy that exists in their lives. On blogs there is open dissent, discussions of communal abuses, an underground community forming a dangerous network of dissenters — those still mingling among the pious. They are the religious skeptics, the bearded nonbelievers, questioning voices in the cyber underground with families of six to 12.
The pure strain of thought and faith diligently passed on to my generation has been contaminated by an inconspicuous wired box and the knowledge it holds. Thousands of children, both boys and girls, students at Bais Yaakov and local yeshivas, are being raised by parents who are skeptics. For the first time in our history, any man, woman or child can see the darkness of an entire society, our own.
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.