An interesting sign caught my eye. I have recently been interested in how charity differs in modern society and in the Hasidic society, and I an going to go out on a limb and guess that this particular type of donation is unique to Hasidim. What is it? A collection of airline miles for the ill. Here’s some of the text:

“Your airline miles can save lives!”
“Donate your airline miles and use it to save lives.”

“Miles for life provides airline tickets and booking services to sick Jews and their caregivers who have to fly to hospitals in order to find their total cure.”

This canvas “streetsign” went up all over Williamsburg during the Hanukah season of 2018. It alerts consumers of the TAG Company — Technology Awareness Group, the company that provides kosher technology solutions — to various issues (bugs, if you will) with tech-based Hanukah gifts:

The cameras might have wifi and video that needs to be disabled…

The Gameboy might have wifi…

The iPod might have radio that can’t be removed…

Reminds me of the kosher camera. People always have a hard time figuring out what a kosher camera might be!

 

These posters tell us so much about the way Hasidim navigate a world of technology. The solution is not, like Amish communities, to reject or prohibit technology, but rather to modify it so as to benefit from some parts of it without embracing the elements that might result in “apostasy”, or a shift in one’s thinking.

 

This popped up on Lee Avenue this winter, 2018. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the community’s zealots busy themselves with the cause against smartphones. It seemed as if the matter had successfully moved from some extremists making noise through posters and such to the entire community changing its attitude towards smartphones, so the posters stopped appearing with that same urgency. But now a new angle: posters warning against flip-phones that might not be kosher either.

An innocent little door to HELL

The first sign shows a picture of a phone and it warns that it leads to hell. In the small text the people are warned that community activists had proof that individuals had been ruined by “innocent looking flip phones” that are in reality “treif”, pork, chazer.

The other shows us a cheeseburger and warns that treif meat might be cheaper, “it costs pennies and could be found in Walmart for bubkes”, but it isn’t kosher. The message, as I understand it, is that one might find a flip-phone at Walmart at a good price, but if it isn’t a “kosher phone”, then it is treif and “be careful, with a few buttons the filter could be removed”.

Maybe the author is a Hasidic kosher phone retailer with an economic incentive to steer business towards the kosher phones sold only by Hasidim. I’ve often marveled at how well the economic motive and the religious motive together make very expedient partners…

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.