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!

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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!”

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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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.