You can learn a lot about what a society values and prioritizes based on how it makes stories and entertainment out of historic events. Take the Titanic for example.

I will sometimes ask my tour participants this question: When you think of the story of the Titanic, what do you think of first? Invariably, I hear, “a love story.” Or people will call out “Kate Winslet” and “Leonardo DiCaprio.” Of course, neither Winslet nor DiCaprio had anything to do with the infamous wreckage of 1912, and they are mere Hollywood celebrities. The reason people associate the Titanic with these people is obvious: They starred in the classic movie based on the crash.

It’s very telling that the memory of this event is embedded in the secular mind as a tragic love story. It reflects a cultural emphasis on the individual, but more so, society’s focus on romantic love above all. Let’s remember that the concept of romantic intimacy is a fairly new one and was only made possible by technology and increases in wealth that allowed for marriages to evolve from arrangements between families for loyalty and convenience. But in our secular minds, romance is the central relationship in life, and we can’t imagine a world in which love stories aren’t the central stories.

On one of my tours, I explained that in the Hasidic community, the genre of romance doesn’t exist. Not in music, not in books, not in stories. A tourist from Siberia, who’d been wrapping himself around his girlfriend for the entire tour and was clearly so in love that there were constant stolen kisses, asked plainly: “What’s the entertainment without romance?”

I tried to explain that topics might include personal development, interpersonal relationships, faith, stories of miraculous recoveries, and surviving hardships, but I felt like the people on my tour thought my answer was a big “meh.” I feel like a little old babushke as I think to myself: “Now they are in luf, so they tink it’s everytink!”

I don’t know if my cynicism comes from not having been socialized from such a young age to believe that every happy ending involves a heterosexual couple kissing and laughing and being in luf. I think it’s partially my natural rebellion against dogmatic norms, and partially that I wasn’t trained in this hierarchy of importance. I didn’t watch the movie with DiCaprio until I was well into my twenties, maybe even later. But I did watch our own version of the Titanic, a Hasidic entertainment classic, a well known production by the same name. It was a dramatic slide show of old fashioned slides, with a separate cassette that had to be turned on for the sound. It was a story whose values were a far cry from the hedonistic romance arc. I remember watching the riveting film on the wall of our school’s large dining hall, the lights out, a projector in the middle of the aisle with all those little slides in the ring on the projector, going round and round.

The slide show was recently being shown again, so I took a picture of the “movie poster.” The Yiddish above says, “Live along with a historic event on the sea and be amazed like never before!” and also, “Dear mothers, give your daughters an opportunity to see, hear and appreciate what God wants of us of during these days, to overcome temptation along the way, to appreciate the privilege, to be drawn closer throughout the voyage.” Very different from, “The action-packed romance set against the ill-fated maiden voyage!”

Here was the story the Hasidic Titanic tells (cue the dramatic music): Scientists said they would build an unsinkable boat. They believed themselves now wiser and smarter than god. They reveled in their creation, boasted about its luxury. But alas, as we say in Yiddish, Di mensch tracht un di bashefer lachtMan thinks and god laughs. The boat approached an iceberg, could not be diverted, and went down.

The lesson was simple: We cannot control the world or become masters of nature. We must accept that in the end, God’s directives trump all. In other words, the theme is faith, or humility toward higher powers. This is a distinctly Pre-Enlightenment way of thinking, because it denies that engineering can answer everything. It rejects science or reason and the power of humans to know it all. A Tower of Babel story.

Of course this view is now considered absurdly backward—and mostly it is. But if we consider the message, we can see how this type of moral tale has value and why the theme can be found in other old cultural legends. Some humility is not a bad thing. We do overestimate how much we know, how much we understand, and our human capacity to defy nature. We are exploiting the planet’s finite resources in order to overcome the discomfort, uncertainty, and tragedies of nature. We say that we can easily take on icebergs. We drill into them and drive big ships through them and melt them away. Ignoring these lessons isn’t going well.

There was a time when I thought the Hasidic and secular cultural stories would be opposites, that where the Hasidim tell stories of blind faith, the westerners tell stories of human reason. What’s been so shocking to me is that it’s usually not this way at all. Consider again the Titanic. The dominant story that we westerners associate with it is a romantic fictional tragedy about two people and some side characters. Sure, we made more than the one Hollywood moviethere are documentaries and riveting books and a long Wikipedia page on the Titanic. But what’s lodged in our collective minds as the story is one of feelings and luf. Not a very intellectual approach at all. That being said, the Hasidic version will never ever ever be as sexy as Kate Winslet, so I don’t think we’ll be throwing shade on the classic anytime soon.

In November 2017 all major newspapers ran a top story like this one: Some Brooklyn Children Have Blood Levels Higher Than Kids in Flint. Specifically, the Brooklyn children found to have such high blood levels were the Hasidic kids. As WNYC reported: “The highest rate was found in South Williamsburg, in the tight-knit, ultra-orthodox Jewish Satmar community.” The second highest rate came in in Borough Park, another Hasidic enclave.

When I read this news, I was totally surprised. Hasidic women are almost all stay-at-home mothers, and their kids are the center of their worlds. The kids we see in the community are dressed to the nines and seem quite alright. I didn’t understand why there should be such high rates of lead poisoning. I wondered if there was a cultural issue that might contribute to the lead poisoning rates, but this is all the explanation the media offered:

“Several factors contribute: Old housing, built long before the city’s 1960 lead paint ban, now has peeling paint. Poverty rates are high. And many residents speak Yiddish as a first language, which can make it more difficult for city health workers to do outreach. “

This simplistic story doesn’t satisfy me at all. Because with regards to old housing, New York city is replete with old housing and Hasidic kids are hardly the exception. With regards to poverty rates — I have heard a million times from the media that the poverty rate in the Hasidic community is high, but I don’t understand why they take the reported incomes at face value and don’t account any for the variables that make the community poverty rates seem so stark. There is a whole book to write on the complexities of the Hasidic economy, but I touched on some factors here. I hope to one day be able to write more on that, but don’t expect to have the time or energy anytime in the next decade. But for now, without going into the many reasons why I dispute this simplistic assessment, I’ll say that Hasidic kids are not growing up in impoverished situations. They all are well fed, dressed, housed and cared for. Medical care is widely available through medicaid doctors, and kids don’t go without treatment. I don’t see any relationship between high lead levels and Hasidic financial challenges.

And as for the language barrier – nah. Yes, Yiddish is a first language, but adults understand English full well and get by with various degrees of teeth breaking, but all in all, just fine.

Whenever the city decides that they will use Yiddish to reach the Hasidic community the results are either mildly comical or absurd or strange. But most of all, they give away that the gap between Hasidic Jews and westerners is not language, but culture.

I took this picture yesterday in Bushwick: a poster from the City department of health, hung upside down.

I love when the park translates the rules to Yiddish. It’s just bizarre. This sign before a Williamsburg park tells Hasidim exactly how to comport themselves with their dogs, even though none of the Hasidim have dogs.

Back to the story of the lead poisoning, I tried to ask around and do some of my sleuthing, but no one could explain why Hasidim have such high rates of lead poisoning. I spoke to some health reporters back then and hoped they could explain, but they were content with these superficial narratives of “poverty” and “yiddish”. Which, by the way, one walk down the full length of Lee Avenue and you’d have a hard time accepting this narrative.

So I didn’t find out. And I still don’t know.

I did cut this story out of the paper a few weeks ago, and it tells people about a campaign to raise awareness about lead poisoning that could result of paint, but that didn’t answer anything either.

But — yesterday on my tour we were discussing superstitions, and I mentioned blei gissen, the process of pouring lead to ward off the evil eye . The evil eye is generally considered to be a kind of bad omen or karma that comes from the envy and ill-will of others. The evil eye could often afflict those with striking beauty, money, smarts, etc. No one ever thought I was afflicted with the evil eye, so I don’t have personal experience with the various voodoo treatments like blei gissen, but I regularly see classified ads in the local papers for this service:

These ads are all for experts who proclaim they could help you “remove the evil eye and breathe easily” and “extinguish the evil eye by pouring lead”. Usually, the “expert” is Israeli, a travelling healer of sorts, who makes the rounds through US neighborhoods collecting fees for various opaque cures. My mother has insisted for years now that a birthmark I have on my face could easily be removed for the quick transaction of $400 between me and some Yerushaleymer miracle worker, and I’ve insisted that I’d very much like to hold on to my birth mark and my four hundred measly dollars. But I know my mother will fork over the moola to these itinerant wielders of Bubbe Maysos (sorry, I’m a cynic, it’s the truth) even as she knows full well there’s more than half a chance that it’s some kind of sharp sabra’s ruse. My mother is an intelligent woman and a part of her faith in this witchcraftery is the faith in the placebo effect: the simple belief that if this man will make me think I’m cured, then I will be cured.

In these magical men’s (or sometimes women’s) bags you’ll find various other treatments, like natural ointments or swinging pendants, palm reading and wrinkle reading, or reciting special prayers at specific sites. But the blei gissen seems to be especially popular, because not a week goes by that I don’t see an ad for it in the paper.

Here is a description of the procedure, which I found in a profile in the Jewish publication Five Towns:

To perform blei gissen, Rebbetzin Miller takes an ordinary looking pot, places a small bar of lead in it, and begins heating it on the kitchen stove. She gives out a laminated sheet with a tefilah on it to read while the lead melts. She does this in a typical kitchen with foods baking and children walking through. When the tefilah is finished and the lead has melted. Rebbetzin Miller casts a thick, off-white sheet of cloth like a tallis over the person. The molten lead is poured from the saucepan into a pot of cold water above the person’s head as the Rebbetzin speaks softly. The lead crackles and pops as it hits the cold water. The sheet is removed. The lead has fragmented into long pieces that look like silver twigs. If some of them have bulbous ends, the Rebbetzin explains, “Those are eyes. There is some ayin ha’ra. We have to do it over.”

Sometimes a curved piece can emerge that the Rebbetzin says is a “bird,” which signifies an imminent simcha. She repeats the process one more time to make sure all the ayin ha’ra is gone. Then, for good measure, she takes the names of a couple of the person’s family members and pours lead in their names. She concludes by pressing a few red strings from Kever Rachel on the subject along with a sprig of ruta in a tiny plastic bag.

Hmmm. Hum. I’m part intrigued, part scandalized– the entire procedure seems rather fascinating and I want to see a movie about it.

Well, I actually didn’t know any of how this Rebbetzin Miller or the other peddlers would do their work. I just mentioned blei gissen in conversation about unscientific “healing” and a German woman immediately offered to explain blei gissen – how it’s done and how you read the shape of the cooled lead as a way of diving what’s to come. Blei gissen is a very popular New Year’s custom in Germany. It’s written Bleigiessen but pronounced the same as in Yiddish. The full fancy word for the concept of pouring lead for learning special information is called Molybdomancy, a custom that can be found in “Finland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

The woman in our tour told us that one year, she hosted a New Years party in New York, and wanted to have a good time with the pouring of lead and the whole tradition. She couldn’t find the lead kits folks typically use (because it’s outlawed, I believe) so she ordered some lead pellets online. To their utter disappointment, the pellets wouldn’t melt. So we can assume the sign for their upcoming year to come was that of a pellet, which I assume is not a good prophecy. That’s just my thinking; I’m not an expert till someone offers to pay me $400 for my reading.

While I get a bitter kick out of the absurdity of such customs (they just don’t make sense to me, and border on exploitation), I also worry that this custom is simply not safe. On Wikipedia, you’ll see plainly in the first paragraph: “Some versions have been found to have potentially harmful effects on human health.” Specifically, the version that uses lead. There have been efforts in other cultures to replace the metal with tin, as described in the Telegraph:

Another charmingly suicidal German New Year’s tradition is molybdomancy – the posh word for divination using molten metal, or as the Germans call it, Bleigießen, pouring lead. Never heard of it? Quite rightly, since the British decided a long time ago that smelting was an activity best carried out in the open air – preferably somewhere very wet, like Wales. But in Germany, kits are sold with small burners and spoons and, in what looks to the untrained eye like a scene from Trainspotting, friends and families gather round to watch what form the molten metal makes as it hits the cold water, referring avidly to a checklist of shapes to see what the new year holds for the person who poured.

Given the toxicity of lead compounds, there have been efforts in recent years to convince the German Gypsy-Rose-Lee-wannabes of the virtues of tin, but largely in vain. 

I don’t know if the Rebbetzin Millers and Rav Teitelbaum’s of the Hasidic world use lead or tin, but odds are high that the earnest smelting and pouring and divining why a gorgeous little Hasidic boy is always sickly is happening with lead. I also do not know if this contributes, in any way, to the high rate of lead in the blood among the Hasidic population. Obviously I’m in no position to make such claims, but also obviously — the weekly arrival of a new lead-pouring guru can’t help.

I think the blei gissen industry should be a part of the investigation and education campaign on Lead Poisoning. But the larger point is that blei-gissen is but one example of a hazard found in the Hasidic community that doesn’t (mostly) exist for their New York City neighbors. If we try to diagnose and address problems afflicting Hasidim – ie the measles – we cannot expect an effective outcome if we don’t understand the holistic cultural situation from which the problems arise. A lot of the measles crisis could have been dealt with more effectively had they investigated beyond plugging words into Google Translate.

Shtisel, the 2 season Israeli TV show on Netflix, is a hit. It was first released in Israel in 2013, and even then everyone in our circles of New York orthodox or ex-orthodox Jews was buzzing with the show. Now that it’s streaming on Netflix with English subtitles, the show has become a global phenomenon, and I am running across it in my own media sources (The New York Times, The New Yorker) and folks on my tour regularly report that they are into the show. There’s serious talk of a third season, although that rumor seems not-quite-fact-yet. The most unusual part is the convergence of audiences: people who never before heard of Hasidic Jews love the show as much as Hasidim in the most insular, New York communities, like Kiryas Joel. It’s appeal is universal.

It’s a masterpiece because it is accurate.

I have been looking for authentic, insightful representations of Hasidic life in secular media for a long, long, looooong time. I was maybe twenty years old when I first spoke to a reporter with the hopes that I could make them understand. It was Michael Powell from the Washington Post. He came to my house in the Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, met my Hasidic husband, my baby, my cooking of Hungarian pulichintas, and recorded us while I tried to explain what life was really like. And yet, when the article he was working on was published, I felt humiliated and flattened into a caricature. A friend who had also spoken to him emailed me frantically to say how embarrassed she was. We recognized nothing in the depiction of ourselves.

In the many years since that first experience, a lot has changed — namely, my leaving and spending the next decade trying frantically to get on my feet and nothing being like it was planned — but this has not: I’m always frustrated by how flattened ultra-orthodox Jews, and Hasidim in particular, are in popular media. This frustration is surely what drives me on this pseudo-masochistic project of returning to the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg near daily for my walking tours.

But much of what’s told to secular audiences on Hasidic life remains extremely skewed, misleading, tilted to the negative, from the eyes of someone with a lot of biases. It isn’t necessarily literally incorrect. I’m not troubled by technical errors in accounts of daily rituals or generalizations about different subgroups. I’m bothered by how inauthentic and unrealistic and cold and dead these stories feel.

There are books like Joseph Berger’s The Pious Ones which lay out for us all the details. The book is just a collection of laws and customs; so formally laid out, it totally misses the forest for the trees. Any reader would come away with a lot of details and very little clarity. There are also books like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, a bestseller that will soon be a TV show, that gives us a story designed to impress the twenty first century reader — they don’t give us the story in every attempt as it was. Many of the memoirs are very revisionist and reductive and that makes them feel incredibly insincere to me. I can more easily feel the American reader in Deborah Feldman’s book than I can feel the everyday Hasidic person.

Shtisel is different. It comes from the premise that there is a richness of life and drama worth exploring from within. It uses the best video storytelling techniques from prestige TV and employs them for stories that are almost kosher. What’s so mindblowing is that the stories are gripping even while the creators didn’t ever even do an on-screen kiss, nevermind talk about the real sexual dramas. They believed in the drama even without going over those lines. The creators shrewdly knew the tremendous creative potential within Hasidic life, where the stakes are always so very high, the tension so raw. In a world where you have one partner and marriages are arranged and there is so much of human desire that is kept tightly under control, the storytelling reward can go so much farther.

The show pays incredibly close attention to detail. Not in a superficial way. The correct clothing and expression is meant to please the critical know-it-all-audiences, or to show off, or to check some box. The details, like how Rachumi brings home a yellow star for a school performance about the holocaust or how Akiva gets into renting heaters in memory of his mother, make the narrative twists and turns and all the dramas believable. Plot twists that would feel outrageous and absurd otherwise make sense when the pieces leading up to them are assembled so carefully and thoughtfully.

Here’s an example of how Shtisel does it differently. Let’s take Bubbe Malke, who gets a television. Oy yoy yoy!

This is of course a Haredi no-no. Here are Hasidim on an airplane covering the movie-screen:

In fact, some people criticized Shtisel for the bubbe’s television and called the show inaccurate for scenes like these. But see; if you know Hareidi world intimately, you know that exceptions to every rule. There is mischief and there are complex behaviors that will stretch and skew what should or shouldn’t be. It’s not black and white, yes television or no television. It depends on the circumstances, excuses and motivations. We need to understand how she came to have a television and how it fits into the actual experience of being Hasidic, and then we’ll understand if it feels real. I am not a fan of authenticity police who check all storylines against their own experiences. It doesn’t have to have happened to you for it to be true. It has to be believable; to make sense as a motive for that person in their circumstances.

a comparison of depictions/ haredim & tv:


1. Oprah Winfrey and the Never TV story

Oprah Winfrey met a Lubavich Hasidic family and asked them “Have you never watched television?? Never…? Your entire life….?

To Oprah, the family insists that they never watched television. Never.

Now I don’t know other people’s experiences; but on the “authenticity” scale, here’s why I’m a little “eh” about their testimony. First of all, because everyone is keenly aware that they are on camera and will be on television (ironically) and must make a good impression. This is not a setup for confession of sins. People are performing. This is a setup for fudging. After all, mom and dad are there! You expect the kids to say anything except “no”? The other detail that I have to content with is: as a Hasidic child who also didn’t watch television (pretty much never) we knew full well what it was. It was in doctor’s offices, in the hospital, it was once on a charter bus. It’s not like Hareidi people grow up in an opaque sack and go around not seeing anything at all.

So while it is true that Hareidim don’t watch television, I wouldn’t really say this feels like the most honest depiction. A PR savvy meeting with Oprah Winfrey is what it is, from any culture.


2. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman and tv gluttony:

The book The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, which was longlisted for a Man Booker Prize, has a female middle-aged Rebbetzin obsessed with the television. When her too-pious husband wants the telly to go — the story happens in London — she retaliates so:

Over the next couple of weeks, the Rebbetzin retaliated by visiting the station café which had a small television perched on the shelf in one corner. She would drop in during the early afternoon before the children came home from school, nestling in with a steaming cup of tea, as far away from the window as possible. Whatever was on she watched; it was the act itself that mattered. She imbibed a daily menu of news, second rate soaps, the flogging of suspect antiques in various market towns, the dullest of them all, dart competitions.
This small rebellion gave her a sense of vindication…

Her clothes stank of bacon grease and chip fat but she persisted in her transgression, enjoying every minute. Until Mrs. Gottlieb, her busybody neighbor from across the street spotted her through the window and marched in to greet her…

The Rebbetzin remained seated, desperately trying to see past Mrs. Gottlieb’s voluminous sheitel. But Mrs. Gottlieb would not budge.

In this version, the lady Rebbetzin has no life whatsoever, no interests, no relationships or redeeming experiences inside her world. The only thing she desires is the tv. Unless the woman is seriously mentally ill, how does that make sense? Who even does the housework while she goes off for her daily ritual of immersion in the bacon grease? I’m trying to wrap my head around a religious woman rebelling by seating herself in a strange, cold, café where she gets judgmental glances, so she can be before the small tv and watch dart shows. What is she gaining? In which reasonable world would a person express their rebellion by doing something so miserable day in and day out, in a strange place, just out of spite? And why would this be her vindication? It’s absurd on its face and totally unbelievable.

When I read this, I don’t feel the perspective of a religious woman in rebellion. I feel the author’s biases shine through. I feel how outsiders see religious people. To outsiders, censorship and restrictions are always worse than whatever misery sitting in a bacon café all day might impose. This author fails to imagine that there is anything in Rebbetzin’s life outside of television, so when the TV is taken away, it follows that any sacrifice should be warranted to regain this orifice of modernhood. Let’s believe that the Rebbetzin would bring a lawn chair to Time Square and live there through New York winters so that she can be ever so close to the telly and those friggin bullseyes.

The story is so unrealistic because Haredi life is much more complex and faceted than the existence or disappearance of a telly. I don’t believe this television story because everything around it reeks of bacon, I mean, secular viewpoints.


3. Bubbe Shtisel and her guilty pleasure

In Shtisel, yes, the Bubbe gets a TV. You can see that scene here. We see it happen in a way that makes sense. Bubbe moves into the nursing home, and upon seeing that the other woman, Rebbetzin Ehrlich, has such a thing in her room, promptly has the staff install one in hers as well. She is a defiant little lady, but her actions are not absurd. A little bit of convenience because the option for a TV is available, a little bit of social permission, a little bit of permission for her age, and she has convinced herself that this action is benign. To her children and grandchildren, it isn’t. But she is the Bubbe and she is the elder, and they can’t be disrespectful and tell her what to do. She is not forced to pick between world’s. She simply does a little bit of rationalizing and smoothing things out to make this indulgence okay. At one point, she explains to her grandson that these Americans are not bad at all, because they don’t just have two children and a dog, but five children! She then seriously, and to us, hilariously, lists all the children of this Sitcom family as if they were her kin.

Of course the children and grandchildren express a lot of unease about this. And Tzvi Arye goes so far as to plot to distract her and unplug it. But it’s the small actions that make my skin crawl with recognition. When Shulem does not name the TV, but calls it “such a thing”, and we realize how undone he is by his mother’s transgression, that we believe this could happen. That we can feel this happening to us. That we almost understand the discomfort of the family members. It’s all in the little intimacies.

I have been looking for a special set of cards up and down Lee Avenue. The Hashomrim card collection series are in stores for Hasidic kids to buy, collect, organize, swap, give away, show off, get tired off, get shocked by. They are like baseball cards, pokemon cards or in similar Hasidic markets, collectors cards of Hasidic rabbis, factoids of the world or emergency vehicles. The kids get pretty into their card collections.

I first learned about these cards from this good old fashioned sign on Lee Avenue. The sign was up one day, gone the following day when I was back. Sign turnover is high in Williamsburg!

This poster tells the kids that if they help fundraise money, they might get some of the newer style scartch-off version of the collector’s cards. If you look closely, there are pictures of some of the cards. Cartoonish pictures that I wanted to see. I do have a tremendous fascination with the ways in which technology are improvised and partially rejected in the Hasidic community.

The problem was that I had a hard time finding shops that sold these cards. I went into a Judaica first, and this lovely old Hasid told me “you vant diz cards? but you have to trow away your cell phone den, no?” (I might be exaggerating the accent a bit for effect)

I told him I didn’t really have to throw away my smartphone, and that I wanted the cards anyway. He said he doesn’t carry the cards. They are too extreme. “Too much”. He didn’t carry it and doesn’t plan to carry it. He could sell me cards with pictures of Hatzalah ambulances in various dramatic poses of lights-flashing and all that jazz.

I found the same problem with the other Judaicas and toy stores. The shop keepers said they didn’t like how radical it was, and they were surprised that I, a clearly not religious woman, was interested in something so extremist. Some stores told me they might get it at some point, but I’d go back again and again and they still didn’t have it. I think I checked six stores that generally sell this type of thing.

I finally found a little toy store where an Israeli lady told me she had it, but tried to explain to me that it was Yiddish and I wouldn’t understand. She asked “you speak Hebrew?” I said something that resembled a mumbling yes, and walked off with a stash of some twenty packs of cards. I don’t know that I can collect all – although the dork in me would want to! There are just too many duplicates. I need someone to trade with me!


Here are some of the cards:

“I wish I was a smartphone. They’d hold me and look at me the whole day…”


“I don’t understand why the Rabbis make such a fuss about the unkosher devices… A PERSON NEEDS TO BE ABLE TO CONTROL THEMSELVES, AND THAT’S IT!”


“Maybe flowers for shabbes will help save my shaky marriage!”


“Talking to the Lamp”


“Ahh, the video clip looks so real, I almost feel like I’m getting wet!


“Daddy can I have this, daddy can I have this?”
“Why does dad allow us to buy everything?”


Rabbi: “And the namer of the newborn child shall be….?”
Distracted dad reading the news exclaims “Trump!”





Themes running through these cards:

Warnings that smartphones result in dangerous neglect of priorities. The most common and recurring theme in these cards are the consequences to relationships when “smartphones” are brought into the equation. The relationships almost always referenced are parent-child.

Distraction as a danger. A lot of tragicomic very-bad things will happen when one is distracted by gadgetry. Accidents, work neglect, children thrown into the dumpster instead of the trash, it goes on and on!

Work is just an excuse. There is a series of cards called “for work” in which the argument that someone needs a smartphone for work is mocked by showing terrible work mishaps when the employee is distracted by smartphones.

Shaming. Shaming, the old tool for creating social conformity, is still a very usable weapon here. Shaming can hardly be effective in social media societies, but in Hasidicville it works. I find it cruel and hard to witness. With the Shomrim cards, adults are called “babies” and depicted in juvenile settings with their smartphones. This company also recently invented a word: Smartists. Which I guess is supposed to be like Communist and Socialist and god-forbid Zionist — bad words. A Smartist is a smartphone addicted person.

A message about self-control: it won’t do. Many of the cards depict individuals as out of control and make it clear that self control cannot overcome the addiction. This is something I see recurring in Hasidic culture and that interests me a lot: the values seem to belie a belief that individual control is useless and that only external control can overcome desire. This is so contrasted with Americanism and our belief that the self can overcome anything (“just do it”, as Nike says). I see these contrasting underlying values at the heart of why Hasidim are moving in such a different direction vis a vis technology.

Desecration of tradition. Many cards show the smartphones contrasted with important religious rituals. The self evident message is that one spoils the other.

Perspective taking on smartphones – they’re silly in the larger scheme of things. Some cards show people on their deathbed, or smartphones deflated like a big pool floatation device that lost its air, as if to say “it seems important, but is it really?”

Controlling adults through the kids (!) A lot of the cards seem geared towards kids; they seem to coax the kids into policing the adults out of their smartphones.

I made a video. You have not seen a video this ammueture since 1997. I wanted to try video instead of writing, because I thought it might be more enjoyable. So I spent an hour ranting into my Samsung Galaxy camera and then cut out all the times I got up to pet the dog, etc.

The video is on the measles outbreak, and all major theological, philosophical, economical, medical and other tangentially related issues to the measles or to things tangentially related to the measles. I tried to address many questions about the measles outbreak in a Q&A format. It was a panel with just me.

Here is the text, which I ended up writing anyway.



Is it safe to tour the Hasidic community during the outbreak?

I am no doctor, so I’ll tell you what my doctor told me: “Make sure you’re immune and you’re good”. If you were vaccinated, you are probably okay, but you might want to get a blood test to check if you are immune. They call it “titers”, with a hard I, like tiger, tights, like aie yaiy yaiy (per So get that – the tay-ters. I got mine and have evidence of immunity to measles, mumps and rubella and I feel good about that.

If you have a baby who isn’t vaccinated, then talk to the pediatrician. A couple of people with babies changed plans because of the measles, and I get it. I’ll totally work with you if that’s your situation.

So the outbreak is scary. What’s going on?

Looks like a recurrence in several countries around the world, from where it spreads. It reached the New York Hasidic community via Israel from Ukraine, where there were more cases than any other country. From February 2018 to March 2019 they had 72,408 cases; in 2016 the WHO reported only 42% of kids were vaccinated.

I read about Hasidic anti-vaxxers. Is Hasidism anti-vaccine?


The Williamsburg Hasidic community is pro-vaccines. There are always individual opinions and dissenters, as anywhere. They are an asterisk. I will talk about them later. But they are the exceptions, not the rules. You can say Americans embrace individual freedoms, and you can say Hasidim embrace vaccines. In both instances it doesn’t hold true for every single dingle person, but it is a correct generalization.

But Hasidim are anti-science and anti-modernity?

Nah. You can’t generalize like that. Maybe we can say Hasidim are against Enlightenment values and philosophies. But they are very much a modern phenomenon, shaped in the womb of modernity.

When it comes to many medicines, Hasidim are very eager to embrace the latest technologies – even if these technologies were developed by understanding evolution. Read about Hasidim doing in vitro fertilization in this really fascinating article in the Washington Post. The Hasidic charity organizations for the sick, Bikur Cholim, were in the news because Hasidic volunteers pushed for extending life which seemed to clash with NYU’s counseling for, say, patients on a ventilator who are only alive because of machines. From Jewish Breaking News; “They say that the NYU health system’s approach to end-of-life care has changed and conflicts with the Orthodox Jewish approach to issues surrounding ending life support and administering palliative care — and the hospital doesn’t want observers witnessing decisions that to Orthodox eyes may fall short of extending life by any means available.” Or check out Dor Yeshorim, an organization that performs genetic testing before marriage and according to their website, “successfully eliminates the agonizing occurrence of fatal and debilitating genetic diseases in Jewish families worldwide through its premarital genetic screening program.” It is as if Hasidim have almost no religious comments on many life-saving sciences, because once it is life-saving, it is usually “kosher” by definition. Think of the expression pekuach nefesh docheh shabbes, which means that to save a soul, the shabbes can be desecrated.


But Hasidim are anti-science in other way; they reject life-saving changes to circumcision practices or education. Isn’t this vaccine issue the same?

Dear New York Times: not the same. Ugh, the Times loves lump one Hasidic issue in with another. An annoying op-ed by some suspiciously unknown and supposedly Hasidic person, Moshe Friedman (who is he/she really?), brings up these two frequently cited parallels:

1. Metzitzah b’peh (the part of ritual circumcision that exposes the newborn to potential transmission of herpes.)

“When Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2012 introduced rules that required parental consent before an infant could have a form of ritual circumcision believed to be linked to the spread of herpes, some rabbis denounced those efforts as a blood libel or “the evil plans of the New York City health department.”
Some rabbis derided the health department’s scientific expertise, and one respected rabbi went as far as to question the health department’s statistics. “

2. Education (the Hasidic community’s minimal secular curriculum for boys)

“In more recent years, when the Department of Education pushed for an increase in secular studies in the city’s yeshivas, some of our leaders once again instigated their community to oppose these much-needed reforms.”

3. Vaccines: .

“We see this same approach now among some of our leaders toward vaccines. Some rabbis are contributing to the spread of disinformation, repeating unfounded claims about the health risks of the M.M.R. vaccine.”

So Friedman concludes:

“Whether out of shortsightedness or strategic malice, some of our religious leaders have directly fostered an atmosphere where thorough research is sneered at, the scientific method is doubted and the motivations of professionals are assumed to be nefarious and steeped in anti-religious animus.”

I don’t even know how to write a straight sentence without grinding my jaw down. Such sloppy simplifications. We can see from other examples that Hasidim clearly are not “doubting the scientific method” or assuming that the motivations of professionals are nefarious. Because surely that adds up with the Hasid who is going to top doctors for a transplant. “I’ll go to the top doctor. The top nefarious doctor!” Thought nobody.

By the way this author also incorrectly identified the leader of the largest sect in Williamsburg. He clearly has no expertise or insight. He seems to get all his information about Hasidim from the New York Times. Even if he is Hasidic, and of the sect in question, he does not add any information that an outsider wouldn’t have – so what’s the point?

But vaccines are not kosher…?

Again the New York Times: “some view vaccines as a violation of kosher restrictions and a danger to children’s health.”

And is a kosher phone edible? And are kosher cameras properly slaughtered? And are kosher pigs properly vaccinated? These are questions that should keep you up at night.

But then why aren’t they cooperating with the city?

They are. 21,284 doses of the MMR vaccine have been administered to people who are under 19 years old in Williamsburg and Borough Park since October, per the New York City Health website.

Seven yeshivas were closed, but they were also reopened.

Maybe not so well-organized. Maybe not willing to get into big wars with parents. But not not cooperating.

When the Hasidic community decides not to cooperate, like with the New York Sate education standards, there are mass protests in huge stadiums and outcries on the front page of their newspapers and the streetposts fill with posters warning people about the impending danger from the outside. They court politicians and the rabbi meets with the bigwigs and promises votes. It’s a ruckus. With the measles outbreak, there is nothing in the newspaper. Most of the anger is directed at anti-vaxxers, not people from the outside.

Then why is the outbreak so bad?

Let’s look at BAD in perspective. Let’s say there were 360 cases – an estimate. That’s out of a population of about 100,000. That’s .36% of the population. Measles will infect almost any unvaccinated person it comes in contact with. A rate of less than a half percent shows a huge, huge success rate on the part of the vaccine.

But there are many more outbreaks among Hasidim. Doesn’t that prove they have more anti-vaxxers?

More measles cases does not mean more anti-vaxxers.
Hasidim are a more vulnerable population than the rest of society for two main reasons:

1) They have a younger population, which means there are more babies. Let me put it to you in numbers. I’ll use the census data from Kiryas Joel, a Satmar village north of New York City, because we don’t have any census data for Williamsburg Hasidim — their data is mixed with that of other Williamsburg residents. Kiryas Joel is more insular but in all important ways like Williamsburg, and there the median age is 13! Thirteen! This means that half the population is thirteen or under. Compare that to the median age in New York as a whole: 38.2. So the simple math is that Hasidim have far more very young children. Herd immunity depends on a high percent of the population being immune. If 95% of a population is immune, the virus won’t spread. But what happens if 90% of the population are under age one? It’s more likely the measles will spread.

2) The extremely close proximity of Hasidic kids. Let me illustrate how close Hasidic kids come to each other. If a Hasidic kid is not vaccinated and is infected, he will be around an average of eight children in his family, he will go to school on a bus with twenty (six days a week), he will be in a classroom with thirty, at family celebrations with fifty, in the synagogue with hundreds. The opportunity to pass contagions is enormous.

But Kiryas Joel had much fewer incidents of the outbreak.

This is super interesting and it proves a number of things. That Kiryas Joel is more organized. They collaborated with the Hudson Valley health department for a pro-vaccinate publication months ago. It is also much more authoritarian. People who don’t follow conventions are often so marginalized, they have to enjoy suffering to stay there. Most would move to Monsey or Brooklyn.

It also tells you that the outbreak wasn’t a result of some conspiratorial friendship between DiBlasio and the Hasidim. Or that Hasidim don’t want to vaccinate. Because if any of this was true, Kiryas Joel would be at the forefront and the virus would go viral (ha ha, hilarious).

So tell me about the anti-vaxxers. Spill on these juicy nuts.

Anti-vaxxers in the Hasidic community are mostly women who consider themselves enlightened about health and refuse to just follow the masses in these conspiracies they see all around them. They see themselves as smarter and more informed than the rest and refuse to “put all these chemicals” into their perfectly healthy baby’s body. They are a tiny subset of unwieldy rebels within the community. They are the same women who have home births and go to this crackpot and that witchdoctor for all sorts of jewelry-swinging cures. You know the type. People who are very busy with themselves and their special vitamins and juicing and many mishigasen.

But this Hasidic woman told reporters that she doesn’t vaccinate because it’s her “religious freedom”?

Religious freedom is an American concept. Just because one woman cries religious freedom doesn’t mean this is actually a religious issue for her. If she says you should give her a hundred dollars for her religious freedom will you also take her at face value? She is borrowing from the American vocabulary and is using it to her advantage. She learns that if she doesn’t want to vaccinate, she needs to request an exemption for religious reasons. It’s not rocket science. This same woman wouldn’t claim religious freedom to the community.
Let me give you an example: If a Hasidic lady wants to wear, ehhh, say skirts to the floor instead of mid-calf, and to the floor is not really a-okay, she won’t argue with her finger-wagging neighbor that this her religious freedom. She will try to make arguments to its religious validity – like “this is modest”. Religious freedom doesn’t fly here. What freedom? This is the Hasidic community, Lol. Concerns for freedom don’t course through its veins.

But… what about religious exemptions for vaccines?

What about? Were religious exemptions written into law for the Hasidic community? I’m sure not. Let’s dig up why it’s there – I’m curious. Again, we need numbers and details. How many religious exemptions are there and how many medical exemptions? 

Because as per the principal of KJ UTA, a lot of people will be so secretive about health problems that they will claim religious exemption in order to hide the fact that they need a medical exemption. So I don’t even know — how many religious exemptions there are on the books, and how many net exemptions are actually voluntary.

In fact, take a look at this conversation on the religious women’s forum imamother, from 2016(!):

Woman OP: “For my own reasons, I’m an declining the varicella vaccine. I do NOT want my children to have it. I know in public schools, you can claim a religious exemption, and they will be fine with the lack of vaccination. What do you do for a frum school? It’s not like I can fake a religious reason when there isn’t one.Has anyone gotten an exemption for a vaccine from their school?”

Internet Person: “The school doesn’t really care, so if you want to use a religious reason you can (mitzva to take care of the body, and you feel that giving vaccines violates that mitzva.) “

See how it goes? What comes first the religious reason or the vaccine hesitancy? Obviously not the religious reason.

But these Hasidic women wouldn’t believe such nonsense if they got a regular education.

Ehh… How do we me measure this even? Count the number of fringe folks in Silicon Valley? Look – these Hasidic women are incredibly versed in their mishigas. They are not coming to it out of innocence.

Every society will have its conspiracy theorists, its individualists who believe they are the smartest thing to happen to mankind, its walking illustrations of the Dunning Kruger effect. I’ve come to see that some people are just beyond reason. They can’t see past the end of their noses, their logic fails to account for big picture or to keep risk in perspective, they believe they understand everything and everyone else is being led like blind sheep. They form identities based on their being misfits and outsiders and relish their uniqueness. There are such people. They are just human. No?

So what do we do about these anti-vaxxers?

Make their likeness into a piñata and hit it to shreds? Shame them until their lightbulbs go on. Yeah? No. We create laws to deal with the balance between their right to believe whatever and the risk that such rights might bring to others.

The Amish also had a large outbreak in 2014. Is this like — the same cause?

I’m not any more informed about the Amish than you!

I’d caution you against extrapolating conclusions about one insular community based on information about another. Just because there are similarities doesn’t mean that they’re the same in all ways. As they will say on my epitaph: nuance, baby.

Has the media accurately portrayed the outbreak?

No. The coverage made me really angry. A bad kind of anger, the isolating, unhappy kind. Not the one where we feel really good and smart and self-righteous after ranting. I’m exhausted of my anger.

It was a coverage bad for its omissions.

It was as if the reporters simply filed the CDC press release as their stories. No context, no additional information, just whatever the CDC had as its numbers. I can look at the CDC website myself. I need the media to frame the numbers. But since they didn’t, we only learned two things:

• The number of confirmed measles cases. (Now at 764 for the US in 2019)
• That “The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.”

Journalists have been hammering on the “unvaccinated” part. But here’s the rub: they are using unvaccinated interchangeably with anti-vaxxers. Just because folks are unvaccinated doesn’t mean they are an anti-vaxxer. Think of all the people unvaccinated in a pediatric oncology ward. Or all the infants in the maternity ward. All of them are at risk and are unvaccinated! The CDC told us that lots of people who got measles were unvaccinated – but the media went straight from there to blaming anti-vaxxers. An article a day in the Times about how anti-vaxxers are all to blame, because they are unvaccinated.

Again, Williamsburg will have a greater number of unvaccinated minors. There is no greater proof of this than by looking at what the CDC did: they ordered that we vaccinate Hasidic babies at 6 months instead of a year. If the regular vaccine schedule alone worked, and the only problem was anti-vaxxers, than all we’d do would be make the anti-vaxxers vaccinate.

In fact, I asked around about specific cases and this is what some people knew of: a newborn baby who got the measles and ran a high fever for a few days (terrifying!), a sickly two year old who wasn’t able to be vaccinated and caught it, a seven month old who had already had one MMR, an adult who didn’t think they could get it. Etc. Many unvaccinated, but not anti-vaccine.

What bothered me was that we never got figures or perspective, so everyone was left with the impression that Hasidim have as a group at a large rate passed on vaccines. But the media never gave us numbers. They never provided more information. This kind of omission created hate and misinformation. Zero sympathy from the public, all blame. I find this scary.

Why do you think the media has been covering this so poorly?

Because Hasidic anti-vaxxers … are you kidding me? A double-whammy of the permitted punching bag. Both anti-vaxxers and Hasidim are fodder for outrage culture. The stubborn single anti-vaxxer lady is red meat for the mob. The public loves to pick themselves up a little bit by collectively bashing those on the list of permitted hates. This must bring in lots of clicks for the newspaper.

Who is to call out the media for malpractice? Unlike, say, Jewish issues related to Israel, Hasidim don’t do PR campaigns to push back against the reporting. If the media doesn’t self-correct, what’s to improve this?
My ranting, that’s what. Of course.

So the coverage made things look bad. Why is it really a problem?

I think reporting should be fair and complete. On principal. Even if for no other reason that we don’t try to wing it with coverage if we can get away with it.
Don’t you want your news to be accurate?
Also – you are really kind of proving to Hasidim that they are right: the media is just out to hurt them.
Also – this is creating hate. A lot of unfair hate against Jews. Really.
Also – and most importantly – healthy coverage when inaccurate fails the public. By hyper-focusing on anti-vaxxers, the media missed an important part:

Some people need to be revaccinated. 200 cases of measles were of people who were vaccinated. This is the kind of information that the public health journalism is supposed to uncover and disseminate. They didn’t, because the media was too busy salting and delivering red meat. Here is a video created by a Jewish community in which one individual came down with the measles:

Update: CNN ran a story that illustrates how a humane story can look like. Watch here.