December 24, 2020 #2 of podcast: why Hasidim don’t do lockdown or masks
Why don’t Hasidim abide by the public health measures and lock down or wear masks? In this episode I examine this question and come up with a few explanations: they have too much community and too little technology to make it happen.
- #LINK: Data on NYC positive cases from New York Times data section
- #HASIDIC: My video post during the holiday season, in which I show more data.
- #BOOK: Frank Furedi’s book ‘The Culture of Fear’ of safetyism
- #LINK: The Leiby Kletzky tragedy
- #WIKI: Third places, (sorry I called it spaces instead of places!) the sociological concept that describes communal spaces that are neither first places (home) or second places (work) but are third places, communal.
- #BOOK: Jane Jacob’s idea of community, the humanistic vision contrasting the sterile “safe” technic city is very valuable here. I also quoted from her book ‘The Life and Death of Great American Cities’.
Hi, I’m Frieda Vizel, and this is Radically Human.
In March of 2020, pretty much all of the world shut down in response to the Coronavirus. It was such a profoundly traumatic experience because it was so global. Very disruptive measures were enforced everywhere from Australia to Africa, all of Europe, France to UK to Spain to Russia, Argentina and India, and of course, here in the US, especially in the city regions, and where I live in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, I thought that this thing couldn’t last very long. It wouldn’t last more than the two weeks to flatten the curve that we set at the time because life was so disrupted. But I was wrong. And it’s now December 2020, and things are still very, very disrupted. Yet, there’s a community in New York City, where since April or so, life has gone on as normal, the old normal. Schools are open, no masks, streets are packed with bare faces, weekends, holidays, weddings, funerals, everything goes on. You walk the streets there and you think this is the old world. And I am of course talking about the Hasidic community, the community in which I grew up and the one that I now visit on my walking tours. So, the big question is it’s been many thousands of people that were mixing germs willy nilly in the Hasidic community, what’s going on? They’re defying lockdowns and mask measures. What’s the story?
In this episode, I’ll take a deep dive into what’s going on – why Hasidim aren’t shutting down, how they are getting away with it, where they are hiding the body bags – I jest – and so on.
Okay, pet peeve time. Let me dispel some myths, okay? In the mainstream newspaper, you will read accounts on Hasidim that will purport to answer all the questions that are the subject of this episode. And I made a video during the high holiday season, which is September/early October, at the time when there was a huge brouhaha because Hasidim were seeing a spike in cases. And at the time, I talked about these myths. The media has not changed this story. In fact, nothing much has been written in the news about Hasidim. And that’s because Hasidim have had relatively decent numbers. Now, let’s look at them. As of today, December 24, the official map for New York City shows Staten Island and Queens as hotspots, which for those not in the know are not Hasidic regions. And North Brooklyn, where Williamsburg the most conservative Satmar enclave is, Williamsburg is barely yellow. Borough Park in Southern Brooklyn is a bit more orange. But still, it’s not a hotspot.
And the fact that Hasidim are not being written about when they are doing fine is itself substantial. Because then the media’s question is framed like this: Why are Hasidim having bad numbers? Instead of asking, why are Hasidim doing things differently and what is the outcome? So that this community is hammered with media when they are easy pickings and are then ignored when things change is itself a red flag that the narrative is biased. But to cover again what I had said in that video and briefly summarize what does the media tell as the story, the basic arc is this: Hasidim are not following the rules and are hard hit. Why aren’t they following the rules? A couple of explanations are given. They are not properly informed. They’re not educated in science. They don’t trust authorities.
All of this, please forgive me, but it’s a load of bullshit. I shouldn’t even have to bother to explain why this is elitist narrative making. Hasidim live in New York City, and even though they share a lot of our entertainment complex, they are fully adept at navigating the most modern of modern of science. One cursory check with medical professionals, busy hospitals, and just with people in the community confirms that. I think the general public has this concept of the anti-enlightenment Hasid as a creature of the Middle Ages. And this assumption that Hasidim don’t get the news or don’t know how to navigate the medical system with savvy comes straight out of this caricature. And as for the claim that Hasidim don’t trust authorities, I honestly don’t understand why anyone should. Figures of authorities were always human to me; they don’t earn respect for being authorities in and of itself. They earn respect for showing that they came to leadership through ethics and merit. The majority of people in leadership are not more talented than you and me. They’re just more sociopathic. That’s the honest truth. So why would anyone just trust authorities?
There are sometimes also explanations about community customs and poverty. But the media narrative about poverty, which is itself very framed to fit into the caveman caricature, requires a whole other conversation, so I won’t go into it. And the customs are just given perfunctory acknowledgments. So, I don’t think that that changes the public’s perception. But the main media takeaway for the public is things are bad for Hasidim. And they are to blame for it. They are to blame. You’ll see that all these stories focus away from things like population concentration, demographic ages, you know, inherent susceptibility, and it’s all let’s point fingers, they are not following the science.
And you might say but I know ex-Hasidim and Hasidim who say the same thing as the New York Times. Meh. If you’re exposed to the secular narrative, which the people you talk to probably are, then you just know what to say. Most comments that you hear from ex-Hasidim like of Naftuli Moster are molded by the expectations of the journalist. You talk to a journalist and you know what he or she wants to hear. And if you say more than what he or she wants to hear, then probably in the editing process, your comments will be reduced to the narrative arc. So, all of this is biased, or at the very least, miserably lacking in insight. So, let’s do it right and proper.
Let me tell you what is and what isn’t different about the Hasidic community from the surrounding neighbors. Hasidim are getting the news. They are getting the story. They are impacted by it. There was a lot of that talk of “Oi, did you hear?” And I see in the newspaper, which I get by email every day, the Yiddish news, they all are milking the drama of the Coronavirus and all the spikes and recorded new instances in these mediums, in these outlets. So, people are informed and they’re taking it to heart. I find it’s interesting that people now incorporate Coronavirus in their general conversation about whatever malaise might afflict them, so those with long term maladies or whatever chronic conditions people are dealing with, they would often now incorporate maybe COVID, maybe the long-term effects are playing into fatigue and various aches and pains and discomforts, which is not to be derisive at all, but to say that people are affected, and they talk about the Coronavirus seriously. But they are not taking the doctor’s prescription of lockdowns, shutdowns, and masking. That they are not. And there’s, to some degree that one plays on the other, if you’re not doing these things, then you’re not as afraid. But what I’m saying is the information is trickling in. It’s only the acting on it that’s really, really not coming through. And the question is why?
I would argue that the reason Hasidim are not shutting down is because the shutdowns are singularly a product of our technological mediated time. None of these preventative mitigative measures would have happened without the specific Zeitgeist of 2020. In 2020, technology is king. Silicon Valley are where the tycoons are. Tech nerds and tech bros have the money. We have the dreams of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, Elon Musk will fly to the moon. Now you can have robot therapists and lovers, and transhumanism is the fantasy of the future. In 2020, the human with all its fallibilities and the human community is passe. Mostly, we believe anything a human can do, robots can do better. So, then we have artificial intelligence in education, in dating and spirituality and career, in advertising, in entertainment, it’s endless. It’s in everything.
Just to find my tours involves a series of algorithms on Google, TripAdvisor, review systems, and so on that I don’t understand, I don’t know the code and the assumptions behind these codes, but that I need to work with in order to promote my product, right? So, it’s not that a potential customer would ring her friend and say, “I want to go visit a kosher bakery and a Hasidic toy store.” And the friend would say, “Oh, check out Frieda Vizel.” Or you wouldn’t just take that fat, thick, Yellow Page telephone directory and just turn the page to tourism. Now, everything is Silicon Valley mediated. So you go on Google, and you type in and then what you see has been decided by artificial intelligence. And the general zeitgeist of our time is that this move from the human and community to the techno futuristic is good. It is advancement. It is the progress. And that our social, emotional, spiritual, educational spheres can be made better by doing it through technology. It’s not just our work lives, it’s not just, you know, getting the clothes clean in the washing machine. It’s our humanist that can be mediated through technology.
And this is where Hasidim aren’t of the day because they have many old school ways of doing things still. They still have community. However repressive and however restrictive, it is still extremely central. And they still have schools that are not built around algorithmic education outcomes. It’s not a number that you get in a standardized test. They still have word of mouth, they still have third spaces, the places where people meet organically without going on Meetup and getting an artificially generated collection of people. You just go to the park with your children and chat with adults, you stand outside on the stoop or on the sidewalk and talk. Men go to the synagogue multiple times a day where you talk to each other, a real third space. Weddings, and all the festivities, the bar mitzvahs, the Upsherins, the [inaudible 14:15], there’s so, so many, they’re all third spaces for the community. And these retain extremely a central role in the social experience, which are no longer around. You don’t have to pay an entrance fee. You don’t have to be a member of a gym, you don’t have to belong. You just go to these places that are open to the community. They’re not open to the public. And that is no longer around in our tech mediated world where you make an appointment and you go to the gym, where you make a playdate appointment, where you don’t see children playing in the streets.
And I think most profoundly the way children are being raised and are not being entertained by screens is very, very central because there is a contrast between a secular world where children are usually only children or have very small network of connections, and families are very small, and children are then kept occupied largely through organized sports, artificially inorganically created entertainment, and of course, a lot, a lot of screen time which purports to be educational, but again, is educational through the mediation of this techno utopian mindset. So, in the Hasidic community, you have the contrast where families are very large, and children are not allowed to be on screens. So, the children are being entertained by socializing with each other, with the neighbors, with schoolmates in the street. And if you take these away, it’s pretty much impossible to take it away of people living right next to each other and all of these children living together, the community is organically there. I don’t know where you can even create a socially distanced situation in an environment where there are so many children living in one street and their only way of really keeping busy and getting off the parents’ nerves is by finding each other.
So of course, they didn’t shut down. How could they? A somewhat related, but also very uniquely important element at play here is also safetyism. Safetyism I would define as this situation where the culture sees safety and risk aversion as a moral priority. Frank Furedi in the Culture of Fear looked at how modern society is changing what we are afraid of and how we feel about fear. And here’s a quote from his book: “Fearing was regarded as a medium for cultivating moral values. Distinctions were often drawn between good and bad fears, and communities provided people with moral and practical guidance on the subject. Religious and moral codes praise the positive attributes of fear, so long as it was the right kind of fear. Today, when fear is itself often abhorred and dreaded, it tends to be medicalized as a disease to be avoided.” This is very interesting because he talks about good and bad fear in earlier culture. And in the Hasidic community, you do see the concept of the good fear, which is called [Yiddish 18:10], fear of God, and this is a good thing that fills you with the right focus. And indeed, Hasidim don’t… aren’t yet, yet, really overwhelmingly a culture of safetyism.
Seen in Williamsburg, for instance, will be, you know, on a typical day when I’m there, you’ll see bikes and strollers, often very expensive bugaboo strollers and good children’s bikes and often with little humans at the helm of either, you’ll see them outside in the street, without adult supervision. A lot of strollers, you will see a whole pack of strollers, none of them chained. Children from a very, very young age will be in the streets by themselves. This is very, very striking in New York City, and it is the antithesis of safetyism and is very connected to community. Jane Jacobs, who wrote the Death and Life of Cities and is just great, great, humanistic thinker, was a great, great humanistic thinker and published her book in the 60s, wrote about community and safety working together. And she said on community, “Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city are its most vital organs. And unsafety,” she said, “the first fundamental of successful city life is this – people must take a modicum of responsibility for each other, even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson no one learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of responsibility for you.” End quote. Which is to say that it’s actually a paradox, because in order to be safe, the whole community must partake in risk. This is where Jacobs was coming from, and this is how older communities operated and how the Hasidic community operates. But if everyone is risk averse, and you empty the streets and play CCTV cameras everywhere, and the children and the adults are suspicious of each other, and no one feels responsible for each other, then you can never be safe enough.
There was a really, really tragic story in the Borough Park Hasidic community I think some almost ten years ago when a little boy, eight-year-old boy, Leiby Kletzky, went missing. And the whole community was out searching for him. And this was, of course, international news. There was a very heartbreaking and tragic conclusion to this saga when Leiby’s body was found dismembered in a suitcase in a dumpster and parts of him in a freezer. It’s very heartbreaking. But what had happened was he was kidnapped, he was taken by a deranged man who had somehow done that to him, an Orthodox Jew. And when that happened, the dominant take, what people were saying was, oh, what a loss for this community where children feel safe in the streets, that now they will no longer be safe in the streets. And I read the same sentiment when there was that hikikomori in Japan – hikikomoris are the male recluses, the insoles in their culture, of which there are many – there was this loner male who just went out with a knife and slaughtered people. And what do you read in the New York Times was [inaudible 22:07], what a tragedy that they will lose the sense of safety. And I don’t know what happened subsequent that in Japan, but in Borough Park, you walk the streets now, and you see just as much people feeling safe in the streets and continuing to do their thing. And that is just an outcrop.
You know, there were a lot of tragedies in communities in the early 1920s. In immigrant communities, you just simply had to keep going because that was how the society continued to function. That was how children were brought up. That was what education for children was about, the street. And it was also something they didn’t have the luxury of changing until families got smaller and things got significantly wealthier and more atomized. So, in the Hasidic community, it didn’t change. And things are still relatively unaffected by safetyism.
When I left the Hasidic community in 2010, I remember the culture shock at confronting the safetyism, which is so pronounced. Someone had once called the cops on me because my son was by himself, which was just shocking because I was there, just not visible. And I just never thought I would have that confrontation with police. But then you realize that instead of a sense of the Jane Jacobs-obian safety in numbers, you feel paranoid from each other.
I’ll never forget that incident where we moved into this dusty basement and we shared a lawn with a trampoline. And my son, of course, was on that trampoline the moment we moved in, and there was a knock on the door. And it’s the neighbor and she said, “Your son’s on my trampoline.” I said, “Of course. Duh. He’s a kid, there’s a trampoline.” So, she said, “Yeah, but he’s going to get hurt. And I’ll get sued, and I can’t-” And it was just what? Because maybe he will get hurt and possibly a human event will happen, which is the process of life, you stop everything? But of course, that is the norm in a culture that prioritizes risk aversion.
Furedi wrote about the absurdity when in recounting an incident where he was trying to enroll his child in school, and the school told him our number one priority is the safety of the children. And he said, “Do you think I’m sending my child for safety? Why would that be your number one priority?” You know, if this is your number one priority, it makes sense then when there is a virus, when there are scary things, to stop life and stay inside. But if you do not have a number one priority of safety, if you have other priorities of religious, spiritual, or emotional life, then maybe you live with a risk.
What I’m saying is the important part of this story is that the shutdown is the antithesis of humanism and community. And we’ve been eroding the secular community for many, many years. The shutdown didn’t come out of nowhere, it’s been a workup towards alienation. It’s been a slow seeping, penetrating view that sees humans as sort of robots. It’s been the age of instrumental thinking, a concept that I’m sure I will flesh out in a future episode. Instrumental thinking makes us think that you can do Thanksgiving, Christmas, Yom Kippur, and schooling on Zoom, funerals and weddings and sleep overs on Zoom. I just read that the New Year’s tradition of jumping into a freezing Canadian Lake, which this obviously, crazy, intense tolerance test sort of thing, that that event will go virtual. The very idea of going virtual with a test of endurance like that is to say you can do even this without the human body. And it’s just so Elon Musk-ian.
Hasidic thinking just isn’t there, people just don’t think like this. And even if they did, there is the issue of the community’s priorities, the prioritizing religious over everything else. And there’s a very long legacy for the Jewish Orthodox community of this priority. And it’s on so, so intense that it is one in the same as the legacy of martyrdom, of burning at the stake and giving up life for this higher cause. So, you tell me how a family of, think, eight children of all ages in a New York City apartment, which has relatives a few blocks walking distance away and a synagogue down the street, and which believes that you’re not allowed to be on the internet, and which never ever turns on the air condition or any tech on Shabbat or holidays, tell me how a community like that would do Yom Kippur on Zoom. Zoom Yom Kippur – it’s an oxymoron.
There are many more intertwining, intersecting, and relevant factors, but I think we have covered the most important ones and the most eye-opening ones. So, let’s come around and do a big picture review. No, Hasidim aren’t resisting the shutdowns because of ignorance or poverty or unschooled savages. It is really because they have different values, very different values, and a very different way of organizing their society that makes it possible to live with these different values, meaning a lone person somewhere with Hasidic values can barely do anything about it, they just cannot resist the sensorium. But the Hasidic values combined with institutions that look more like 1920 than 2020 make it possible for life to go on in the old normal.