I once got into a debate with a friend about cults, and whether the Hasidic community qualifies as one. We were at a fancy-shmancy wedding, and we argued our way through some gnocchi appetizers, a delicious mushroom soup, and semi-edible centerpiece chocolates. Was it, was it not? Halfway through the meal and our animated debate,  we realized that, while we both were knowledgeable about Hasidic ways, we had never established an agreed-upon understanding of cults. What was a cult anyway? What did we mean when we called Hasidim a cult?

I regularly hear people call Hasidim a cult. On Facebook, it’s people who have left or live underground. On Reddit, it’s basement dwellers who also live underground, but in a much worse way. In the comments of the New York Times, where a lot of boomers with fairly homogenous opinions congregate to express them, all agree Hasidim are a cultsay so and you’ll get liked to the wazoo. And in real life, people will say it to me all the time. Just the other day I got to talking to a Jewish feminist woman at the gym, and we agreed on pretty much everything. Except she called the Hasidic community a cult.

The problem I have with the word “cult” is that it is a pejorative that is slung around vaguely, in the same way you say “she’s brainwashed” or “he’s crazy.” These insults are really meaningless. They don’t explain why we think someone is unstable or manipulated; you can use these insults on anyone, because there is no hard qualification. The word “cult” doesn’t tell us anything either, except that we think a society is hurting its people and pretty crazy. It doesn’t differentiate between a cult and a culture, or a society, or a religion.

Since that wedding, I’ve been thinking and reading about what makes a cult. In western pop culture, a cult is a sinister group that preys on the vulnerable, lonely, and feeble-minded, and recruits them into a society where one is forced to cut off contact with the outside world and comply in order to survive. Think of the Jonestown cult, which ended in 1978 when 909 people lethally poisoned themselves, because the higher-ups declared a “revolution by suicide.” Or the Manson Family Cult, where leader Charles Manson ordered his underlings to commit all sorts of crimes, culminating in the horrible slaughter of the pregnant actress Sharon Tate. These cults capture our  attention, because even cults that are entirely peaceful are so antisocial, so untethered from reality. The people who join these cults are nuts, carried away in their fervor and convictions to the point of self-destruction and a loss of their entire world for the whims of their charismatic leaders.

This kind of cult is so unmoored from reality that it’s become baked into our entertainment repertoire. As Guinevere Turner writes in her viral story “My Childhood in a Cult”:

“I’ve always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that sixties and seventies cults are portrayed in the media. In a nation fixated on individualism, cults and communes are easy objects of disdain—and perhaps envy. Their members are breaking the rules, discarding the sacred nuclear family. It’s libertarianism plus sex and drugs, and it’s wrong, but do tell me more.”

This pop-culture idea of the “cult,” which is a sensationalist take on strange subcultures and communes, makes for the most delicious satire. What’s not to laugh at in a bunch of overly-earnest, incredibly-easy-to-dupe, idiotic people who fall for the most obvious emotional scam? SNL has a hilarious skit about the cult they call “Neurotology,” which seems to suspiciously spoof pop culture’s version of Scientology. I have watched it a bunch of times, sometimes just for the terrific vests.

An even funnier take on this type of cult is the Documentary Now! episode on Batshit Valley, which is a spoof of Wild Wild Country, the original documentary about some Indian guru who set out to build a Utopia in the Oregon desert. The spoof had us crying in laughter. One of the most hilarious scenes reports that the cult leader convened with fruits and vegetables, and that a local non-cult member who sold produce at a farmer’s market tried to be a little funny by adding a cardboard sign to her stand that said that the cucumbers are “not the talking type.” This set off the cult members, as they were incredulous at this mockery. As if the cult itself wasn’t mockery enough. Hilarious.

 

 

 

The type of cults that these parodies represent are small, emotionally intense, led by a large personality, with unusual sexual morals (everyone sleeps with the top guy, hurray!). Some cults might be a lot less nutty than the examples that are etched into our memories because of the tragic ways they went up in flames. Oftentimes they resemble more a commune than a manipulative scam, as in the Lyman Family, which calls itself a family and runs a home renovation business out of Los Angeles.

The Chabad Hasidic sect might have some semblance to these “ecstatic” movements, because it maintains the zeal of the convert, because there are many “converts,” or baal teshuvas, and that creates a dynamic of propaganda and enthusiasm. The Bratslav sect, which I call the Hippies of the Hasidim, definitely has the zeal of the convert, but they are far from representative of mainstream Hasidism.

The Hasidic groups in Williamsburg and Borough Park consist almost exclusively of people born into the faith, and there is a stark absence of the “convert” brand of endless enthusiasm; no one is being recruited or swept up or manipulated into the lifestyle. People are only born into it, which means that some people feel it more so the way that an American might feel patriotic than how a Scientologist might connect to extraterrestrials. Many people are internally criticalthe religion is just an accidental setting for their lives. Most people in Williamsburg seem much more consumed with buying Bugaboo strollers and Ferragamo shoes and Coach bags than with spreading the word of their religious superiority. The Rebbes of Williamsburg are no more cult leaders than the Pope is, or the Queen of England; they are aristocracy. And most of all, people don’t stop their lives in order to live out their religion; the religion forms the backdrop in which they live their lives. That’s not a cult; it’s a culture, a religion.

***

I’ve also seen cults defined in more specific terms. Steve Hanson’s Bite Model is very popular. Hanson defines a cult as a society that cumulatively engages in BITE, which stands for: B=Behavior Control, I=Information Control, T=Thought Control, E=Emotion Control. Hanson is, ironically, a bit of a cult figure in online circles that love to call things a cult, because based on this model, it’s very easy to call any social organization a cult. Let’s see if Brooklyn College is a cult: Is there behavior control? Yes, you have to be in places certain times, be dressed somewhat appropriately, spend long nights working on their evil homework. Is there information control? Obviously, you get curated textbooks that leave out The Truth and make sure you never find it. How about thought control? Of course; all those books assigned at colleges will certainly brainwash you. Is there emotion control? Just try failing a class, handing in a paper late, not making a payment for your tuition. Oh, you will be very hurt. 

So if Brooklyn Community College is a cult, and the Hasidic community is a cult, and my Orange Theory gym is definitely a cult, and Bernie Sanders is a cult, and LGBTQ is a cult, and Ecoactivism is a cult, then what does the word even mean? This model is faulty because it fails to acknowledge that the factors it calls a cult are simply factors of human social organization. In every society there is socialization, the imparting of values, the censures and norms of its own world. I get frustrated with it because it is very adept at seeing problems in other societies while exhibiting zero self-awareness about its own problems. When you spend your childhood hearing about Jesus having been born to a virgin woman and watching over everyone all the time despite being dead, it doesn’t sound as nutty as a belief in an apocalyptic end-time marked with the arrival of a UFO.

In fact, when we use the term cult, we often give away our own biases. We show that we think our normal is the objective truth and that anything foreign is by definition stranger than our own insanities. This is what bothers me about the anti-cult movement: It denies that we are all in societies that influence us. It pretends that modern society is made up entirely of individualistic, rational, and self-driven actors who are never vulnerable to peer pressure, social contagion, cognitive biases. It’s wrong not because of how it sees the cults it diagnoses, but in how it sees itself. 

There are also people who feel that all passionate beliefs are cultish. You believe strongly in animal rights? You’re in the vegan cult. You watch Fox News? You are in the Trump cult. You are a feminist? Ditto, man-hating cult. The person who cries cult at all movements—especially all movements outside the Overton windowuses it to dismiss all passionate beliefs as irrational. He holds himself up as a wiser person for being apathetic and non-committal. Essentially, he is a cynic, someone who comes close to having no soul or having squashed whatever he has. This person is, of course, in denial of his own emotional investment in his ego, in risk aversion (so as to not having espoused anything that turns out to be the wrong side of history) in seeing his individuality as apart from the collective plight. This person might be, if we follow his own definition, in a cult up his own ass. His disdain for “cults” is merely disdain for those who stand for something.

***

 In “How Cults Made America,” Tom Bissel describes the difference between a cult and a religion as merely a matter of the passage of time. 

“At its core, the only difference between a cult and a religion is antiquity. But antiquity amounts to a lot. Among other things, it allows followers to live and believe within the parameters of a complex intellectual tradition. A human claiming to be God, and making concomitant demands of his or her community, falls into a much simpler intellectual tradition: the cult of personality.”

This again brings us around to the idea that a cult requires the zeal of a convert in order for it to stand apart from religions. If we consider how deeply problematic religions can be, ordering for killing of heretics and prescribing hell for harmless deviance, it’s not at all hard to see that religions and cults are quite similar: Both can be deeply flawed, yet both can offer community and meaning to their followers. But the technical category the near 300-year-old Hasidic movement falls into is the one that’s been around a while.

In a more academic sense, the term cult can mean something neutral: a subculture that’s very different from its parent culture. If you want to say that the Hasidic community is a cult in this sense, you’d be rightbut you’d also probably very misunderstood by everyone who thinks cults equal crazy people in boxy vests who talk to pickles and have communal orgies. But if you want to use the term cult as a way to highlight the community’s problems, we’ll be arguing long past the wedding dinner and into the couple’s last dance.

The question reminds me of an old cartoon of mine:

But don’t be too hard on yourself if you assume that a Kosher phone is something like this. I’m sure that’s something too.

But in contemporary Hasidic parlance, Kosher phones are phones that have been restricted in some ways, so as to ensure that they don’t provide access to various apps and sites that are considered problematic. Some kosher phones might be modified smartphones, like the following: This smartphone has Waze, camera, calendar, weather and the “Seal of Trust”. Although it is very restricted, with few apps and no browser, it is still a rather advanced phone.

But the kosher phone I have is one of the most restrictive phones. It is a flip-phone. The original device is the LG VX5500, which was released in 2008. It comes with talk, text, camera and, I believe, a browser. The unmodified phone can be ought on ebay for $20.

**

Here is the kosher version. It’s listed on Venishmartem, a website for recommending internet solutions for Orthodox Jews, as follows:

Some of the features:

1. It has a symbol of kosher supervision.

2. The symbol sits on the camera eye, so the camera is disabled.

3. Where the messaging features should be, we have various shapes.

If you click on them, you are told they are disabled:

(here is the unedited version of the LG’s messaging feature)

4. Whatever features used to be at the first tab, it’s now named “colors” and various color options are available. If you click blue, you have several options of blue. Then you hit the dead-end again.

In other words, the only features that work are phones, contacts and settings. As simple as a flip-phone can get.

Naturally, the resistance to text and internet spurned a whole industry in phone news and phone information. I remember as a child we used to call “800-tellme”, before that was discontinued and replaced by the web. Within the Hasidic community, a thriving industry of hotlines cropped up, and serve as ways to get instant information without having internet access. I am guessing that this is why we see so many people walk around with their phones on their ears. Most of them aren’t even talking. They are probably just doing the equivalent of the subway full of riders with their eyes glued to their screens. Here it is ears.

Intro note: to understand what restrictions there are on the internet for Hasidim, you have to understand how restrictions work in the Hasidic community. Unlike, say, in China, where the government can point-blank block domains, Hasidim who live in New York City cannot simply physically be blocked from using the internet. Instead, customs are enforced among Hasidim through a combination of social “awareness” raising, ie – touching on the community’s deep set of value to make people see the internet as problematic, as well as by enforcing rules that people must abide by, or-else their place in the community can be jeopardized.

The story of internet among Hasidim is interesting. It crept up on us slowly, almost unnoticed. It didn’t show up one day in full color with pictures of nude models and non-stop hedonistic entertainment the way the television did. It came fumbling, through telephone lines plugged into PCs, beeping and wailing and taking forever to establish a connection to the internet, which was slow and not really user friendly. The devices the internet came on – first computers, then phones – were mostly seen as harmless. When I was a kid in the late eighties and nineties, we had a clunky computer of the antique variety in our home. Let me tell you, besides for playing that snake game if you had the floppy disk for it, it did nothing. It ran DOS, had no mouse, and only the most advanced users knew how to use it. Phones too were seen as benign. First everyone had and loved the corded phones with which you called all your relatives, then the cordless came around (overhearing the neighboring ladies yapping on the phone, what harmless fun!) and then came those big car phones. And in about the 2000s, the chunky mobile telephones.

I was still in my parents house when my father’s mobile phone started to have an online word game on it. Oh, I remember that. The moment shabbes was over, when we were allowed to touch technology, and when I knew my father would stay in the synagogue for an hour wearing his nice weekend suit, I knew I could sneak out the cellular he kept in his weekday pants pocket. I’d play some word game with ten other online users. I can feel excitement now as I write this, oh, the memories! I remember myself locked in the bathroom feeling intoxicated by the wild experience of competing with these ten mysterious players from far far away. Everything was in black text and blocky letterings, it was very simple. Still, phones was seen as harmless enough to be without a password.

Then the innocent little phones morphed into qwerty keyboard phones, then full smartphones. The Blackberry had a big screen with icons and a browser, and suddenly every other yokel had it. In 2005, when my son was born, I got one too.

That’s when the more zealous elements of the community really woke up and raised an alarm about this danger. And boy did they start a campaign. The first, and most important thing these grassroots fanatics did was to clump the internet into the same category as television and secular entertainment and other seductive forces of entertainment that lead to assimilation. The Hasidic culture has a very raw spot for this. They have been battling modernity for a hundred to two hundred years (since modernity infiltrated their European communities), and have seen the majority of pious Jews assimilate. It is something people respond to emotionally. Just making people aware of the internet’s capacity to assimilate is a powerful tool to discourage its use.

A lot of this type of awareness raising can be seen in the street signs in Williamsburg, where I’m a tour guide. Here are a few:

1. “Every day we hear, sadly, new tragic destruction of Jewish homes through the barbaric smartphone. How many more souls must me the Jewish people sacrifice to recognize that the smartphone is a blood-soaked device?”

2. The below sign brings a quote from Lamentation, the Jewish poem of mourning for the destruction of the temple. It quotes in bold from the poem: “She (Jerusalem) sobbed at night and shed tears on her life.” In the rest, the authors warn that tens of young men have been using these unkosher devices and that “in recent times fifteen of them lost faith entirely, god forbid.” The piece lists in Yiddish the words “smartphone, endroid, eyefone, bleckberry, and so on, they are entirely forbidden.”

3. Here the sign addresses the issue specifically with regards to unmarried boys. It again uses language of rescuing the boys from the lure of technology and loss of faith. “with [cellphones] one can destroy the whole life, especially with the internet cellphone and smartphones, which is known already ruined numerous Jewish souls….” The piece then suggests that if you see an unmarried boy with a cellphone, that you “call and leave a message”. It also suggests you speak to the boy and make him realize that he is playing with fire.

Young umarried men are seen to be at a greater risk than married men, who already have families and are tied to a wife and children, who are likely to hold them back from pursuing recklessly the hedonistic world.

3. Here the sign addresses the issue specifically with regards to unmarried boys. It again uses language of rescuing the boys from the lure of technology and loss of faith. “with [cellphones] one can destroy the whole life, especially with the internet cellphone and smartphones, which is known already ruined numerous Jewish souls….” The piece then suggests that if you see an unmarried boy with a cellphone, that you “call and leave a message”. It also suggests you speak to the boy and make him realize that he is playing with fire.

Young umarried men are seen to be at a greater risk than married men, who already have families and are tied to a wife and children, who are likely to hold them back from pursuing recklessly the hedonistic world.

4. Another target of the cell-phone campaign has been the female population. This purportedly because the women are the ones educating the children, and when women are corrupted are more liable to pass on the “rot”. It says “A woman, a Yiddishe Mamma, who wants to raise pious Jewish daughters, good Jewish children, needs to know that there is no reason AND NO EXCUSE FOR A JEWISH WOMAN TO HAVE A SMARTPHONE. No matter if with a filter, and of course not without a filter.”

On the same note, this notice refers to 422 (I’m sure an arbitrary number) teenagers who lost the faith (OTD means off the path) as a result of their mother’s smartphone.

5. This is targeted at fathers: It says “The internet is Satan himself!” and shows a man not only drawn in himself, but infecting his kids too.

The reason why most of these posters refer to smartphones and not computers is because it is easier for Hasidim to have access to the internet through smartphones than clunky, hard to hide and problematic computers. Also, computers were easy to ban from homes; they are after all not necessary and too much like TV, while smartphones remained pernicious, because people needed cellphones and phone carriers were giving this new smartphone type. So the root of the alarm in all of these posters is not the cellphone itself, but that the phone leads to the internet.

Two things happen here vis a vis controlling the internet:

  • People get very scared that their children/family members/loved ones will be led down a path to scandal and upheaval if they have unfiltered access to the internet. See how much of the language is about destruction.
  • Women and unmarried children become the more important targets of these campaigns because they are the key to future generations, so the influence of the internet on them is more feared.

There are many, many more propaganda-esque publications linking the internet to undesirable things:

Here, a boy is told by his father to bring the smartphone, but the child is so repulsed that he wears gloves and holds it at a distance. (euuuw, right?)

Here a graph (not so scientific, I bet) shows why good Jews are disgusted by the smartphone. Sorry, the first is obstructed. But one of the primary reasons listed (at 95) was gossip/immodest-sexual-stuff. Maybe this means pornography? Or celebrity pornography? I don’t know. The other big one is that it causes marital problems. (Who is to argue with that. Especially with all the celebrity pornography! 🙂

Here it is depicted as an addiction. You see a lot of criticism of the smartphone as an addiction.

This deformed guy below is “sadly so addicted that he hardly speaks, hardly sleeps, hardly eats, hardly moves. Hardly lives. Poor thing became a klutz glued to his screen…”

(This might be me, although birds haven’t nested on me yet.)


  • Creating a culture wary of technology is only one part of the way Hasidim restrict the internet. The other way is through rules that are enforceable.

    The rules are, in general:

    • Computers are not allowed in the home, even for work.
    • Computer are allowed at work, with the approval of a rabbinic authority and a proper censor/filtering system.
    • Smartphones must be kosher, in other words, modified to limit its use – a typical kosher smartphone would be an Android with Waze, weather, banking, camera, basic texting (no whatsapp) and no MMS. Like this:
    • Kosher phones are preferred. Those are the old school, basic flip phones.

    How are these things enforced? The primary way the rules are enforced is through the schools that the children attend. The Hasidic private schools have strict conditions for enrolling pupils, and the gist of it is that they are trying to keep the children pure, and if one family is exposed, they pose a threat for the entire school. At least that’s what I was told when my son Seth was enrolled in the Satmar Hasidic school in Kiryas Joel.

    My then-husband and I were called over to an office above the synagogue and we were made to sign a document of conditions. I remember we were in a room full of men, and they sweet-talked their conditions as if they really-really couldn’t help it that the families in their schools made demands on them that they keep the schools clean, right?

    Right. So I signed it. Here it is, I cropped off our signatures.

Partial translation to English:

“We the undersigned sign off on the following conditions, and if we will not abide by them, we will not have any complaints that our children will be removed from the schools here in the Hasidic community, even in the middle of a school year, and as soon as the rules will be neglected. Because understandably, it is harmful for the education of our institutions.”

Then, item number 6:

“We won’t have in the home any internet even for business and no video or unkosher CDs, DVDs, unkosher books, magazines.”

Number 7:

“My children will not have access to a computer even one without internet.”


So what does this mean in reality?

1. Lots of people have flip-phones, kosher phones. BUT many people, I’d guess especially men, have a second phone that they hide from the kids (or even wife/husband). In recent years I’ve seen maybe a handful of people openly use their smartphones. Most people don’t walk the street looking at screens, most will have a flip-phone to their ear. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a juicy little internet enabled device in the back pocket.

2. There is a huge growing industry of filtering and modifying solutions. One of them is Cubicles, an internet cafe with filtering, where you can use computers for 15 minutes intervals. Another is a filtering system. When I worked for a Hasidic company, my internet at work was blocked, but some sites were whitelisted, like Cigna, because we were an insurance firm. But you’ll notice even with Cigna, the filter picked up skin color and covered it (in green or black).

3. Some other creative solutions are:

A service that sends recordings with news; with options to get many alerts or only the very important ones. Think CNN alerts by phone.

Or a service that allows you to send emails by voice, so you don’t need email service:

4.. And yet! Despite all that, there is a growing presence and organization Hasidim from these sects on the internet. There are numerous, numerous online services for Hasidim, like options for news. Almost every Hasidic company has a website, even the internet filtering companies like TAG and Meshimer!

Sites like Kaveshtibel and Ivelt are lively forums in Yiddish, mostly for Hasidic men. Plenty of Hasidim are also on social media, even if it’s forbidden.

Every so often someone will link to my tours on one of these Yiddish sites, and I’ll get an influx of clicks from the US and Canada (my usual clicks are much more global) and most of the users will be using either Windows or on IOS/Android. In other words, this is a demographic that is on phones and Windows computers. But mostly phones. Phones are easy to hide!


The result of all of this is that it’s not like people don’t have internet access, but that people use the internet much more sparingly, covertly, as if it is a sinful indulgence. Another result that I am noticing, and this is strictly just my observation, is that because men work in offices with computers, and have a lot more reason to be connected to the internet (with a filter supposedly) a lot more men are online than women. You definitely have a male culture in these Yiddish forums that you don’t see paralleled for women. So internet access isn’t even across the board. Unmarried folks are unlikely to have much internet access, and of those who are married, men seem to be online in much greater numbers than women. And considering that women are around their kids much of the time, I bet they have less of an opportunity to do so.

What does this mean for the future of Hasidim? It’s a fascinating question to mull over.

Remember, this is a community in New York of the USA.

The Jewish comedian Jackie Mason who grew up in NYC during the period of most cultural output from New York Jews (he was born in 1931 and was of the Borscht Belt generation), has recently been visiting Gottlieb’s restaurant in the Hasidic community for a bit of deli-style Jewish food.

This is where the deli food is moving to: the Hasidic and ultra-orthodox communities.

I know it hasn’t yet taken off, but you can find many of the specialties that people rave about when they think “Kosher pastrami” in the meat restaurants in Borough Park and Williamsburg. I’m guessing people will realize this sooner or later, and this will only further feed the Hasidic/Ultra-Orthodox kosher deli niche.

As others have noted, the delis disappeared because of changes in the culture. Many of the early immigrants assimilated and moved away, changed their diets, became more American. Now the mantel has been passed to the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who in resisting assimilation are holding on to their culinary imports from Eastern Europe.

We recently had divine chollent at Grill on Lee. I’ve had also excellent chollent from the Satmar Butcher. Deli rolls and kishka on the grill from VIP Grill. Dips and overnight kugel from Dips. Pastrami sandwiches and chicken soup and pickles and cucumber salad. So much kosher-deli food, if only you know where to look.

PS: I give food tours of this community. I’m going to start a regular schedule in Borough Park come fall 2018, so check out my website sometime and come decide for yourself.

For us ultra-ultra-ultra (ultra) Orthodox Hasidim, handshaking with the other gender was prohibited. No handshakes, no hugs, not even passing a paper to my boss directly into his hands. I’d put it down on a table, and he’d pick it up.

Now that I’m secular, I shake hands – not big deal. (I’m not so big on hugs though; they are a recipe for far too much awkwardness.) I am always humored when I meet a Jewish person with a kipa. My instinct is to not hold out my hand. My mind says ‘Orthodox person; handshakes not allowed’. But these orthodox people see in me a regular secular woman in slacks and a t-shirt, and they hold out their hand. The result is a pathetic, awkward, hilarious reversal.

*

I see the realtor from a distance and wave. He has a velvet yarmulke and I can see tsitsit dangling at the side of his black pants; his shirt is white but short sleeved. My mind goes ‘ah, so he’s Orthodox.’ I come up to him and say “Hi, I’m Frieda.”

“David,” and he stretches out his hand. I’m like, ‘woah! woah, he is giving me his hand! Ring the caught-you-red-handed alarm, quick.’ Then I think of ways to explain it. ‘Ah, this isn’t transgressive! He is offering his hand because he thinks… I’m not religious!’

Oh, right. I’m not.

My hands are in my jean pockets. I quickly pull ’em out. Ulp. Should I shake? I hear a voice inside scream ‘NO! It’s verboten!’

I think this: he is giving me his hand only on the mistaken assumption that I am expecting it.

I ask myself, ‘so? Therefore? should I say “sorry, don’t shake hands with religious men — It’s my – I mean your – religion?”’

Goodness this is messed up.