Blogs Offer Glimpse Into Hidden Corners of Orthodox Life

By Izzy Grinspan

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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The blogger known as Nice Jewish Girl is a successful woman in her 30s. Like countless other single women who have Web journals, she writes about men, sex and marriage: her vibrator, her ex-boyfriends, her crush on the cute WASPy guy in her office. Unlike the stiletto-heeled masses, though, she has a more complicated take on dating. Nice Jewish Girl is Shomer Negiah: She won’t touch a man until she gets married.

Located at shomernegiah.blogspot.com, NJG’s blog is smart and moving. She approaches her deeply private subject matter with a voice that is both passionate and thoughtful. The anonymity of the blogosphere is key for her; it offers a venue in which she is free to speak her mind. As she explains on her blog, “I write about the not-dignified things here because I have nowhere else to go.”

From Modern Orthodox writers for whom blogging is just another part of a daily Internet routine, to Hasidim for whom online activity is generally frowned on, more and more Orthodox Jews are turning to Web journals as an outlet of expression. And they are using blogs in a range of ways, from NJG’s cry for help to Dina Orron’s outreach work.

Orron is a Lubavitcher Hasid who runs Dina Does Brooklyn (no relation, she said, to the 1978 skin flick “Debbie Does Dallas”). Orron calls her blog “a window into the holy shechunah [neighborhood] of the Lubavitcher Rebbe” and fills it with semiweekly descriptions of her life as a Lubavitcher woman: joy-filled stories about shopping, celebrating holidays and playing with friends’ children. Every Friday, she posts a Torah lesson.

Orron said part of the reason she blogs is that she wants to tell non-Lubavitch readers about the happiness she finds in her way of life. In an e-mail to the Forward, she described her writing “as a kind of shlichus (outreach work): If I, as a Lubavitcher, have the ability to make a blog, I should make sure that I am reaching out to Jewish people, because my mission is to reach out to Jews in everything that I do.”

With their blogs, both NJG and Orron are doing something that would have been unthinkable before the rise of the Internet: They are inviting the world to witness their lives as Orthodox Jews. Jewish blogs are a fast-growing phenomenon; Jewishblogging.com, a new aggregator, lists nearly 200 of them, one-quarter of which are Orthodox. For many people — the guy who sits next to a stranger on the airplane and launches into his life story, the girl who announces to the clerk at the supermarket that she thinks President Bush is a moron — there’s nothing foreign about the way that blogs broadcast personal details and opinions. The very religiously observant, however, don’t usually take part in the culture of exposure. With the rise of an Orthodox — or even ultra-Orthodox — blogosphere, secular readers, both Jewish and gentile, are suddenly getting access to what’s usually a closed-off realm.

But not all corners of the Orthodox world are welcoming the development with open arms. In many circles, the Internet itself is considered unkosher; many communities insist on using Web filters designed to censor trayf content. Reached by phone, author Hella Winston, who spent two years living in Hasidic communities in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and in upstate New York to write her forthcoming book, “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels,” put it like this: “The official party line — except for Lubavitch — is that they’re so caught up in how awful and evil the Internet is that they don’t even get to the blog issue. They don’t like the fact that there is a window into these communities: Why are you exposing this stuff for all the world to see?”

Which begs the question: Who is looking? Take the case of the blog A Hasid and a Heretic and its author, who calls himself Shtreimel. Married with several children, Shtreimel still lives in the Hasidic community where he was born. He continues to go through the motions, but on his anonymous blog he records his frustrations with Hasidic life. Shtreimel’s first posts addressed a secular audience, giving readers a sarcastic primer on Hasidism. As his blog evolved, though, it began to attract a religious audience. “Most readers are from Brooklyn or other frum [religiously observant] concentrations,” he estimated by e-mail. (Most of the anonymous bloggers contacted by the Forward would communicate by e-mail. The exception was Nice Jewish Girl, who worried that doing so could lead to her being unmasked.)

Dissident Hasidim such as Shtreimel have formed a small blogging community online, connecting via their comments sections. “More than anything,” Winston said, “I’ve come to think of these blogs as a way for people on the inside to talk to each other. That seems to be one of the biggest functions they’re serving: a way for people to connect.”

This is true for more devout bloggers, as well. Religious writer Dov Bear told the Forward that the debates in his comments section are a point of pride. “My favorite moments are when the comment threads fill up with people from all different corners of the Jewish world — from haredi [ultra Orthodox] to atheists — talking about a community issue that matters to us. We’ve done a few posts like that, with comments numbering in the hundreds. And providing a place where all these different types of Jews can yell and scream and argue and learn from each other and — hopefully laugh a little bit, too — is far and away the most satisfying thing about being a blogger.”

In a way, Orron’s window metaphor might be more appropriate than she knew. Like windows, blogs allow outsiders a way to see in, but they also can serve as mirrors, offering insiders fresh perspectives on their own communities. Of course, these perspectives are a little skewed, as even the most conservative blog is a break from a tradition that prizes discretion and modesty. Ultra-Orthodox Internet communities are still in their infancy; while many Jewish bloggers are very religiously observant, not many fervently Orthodox Jews blog.

Still, online expression has signaled a change in the frum world. Much has been made of the way blogs opened up journalism, allowing the average person a voice in public debate. In the world of Orthodox Jews, blogs are doing much the same thing.

Izzy Grinspan is managing editor of Jewsrock.org. She frequently writes for the Jewsrock blog, the Yiddish Invasion.






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