Monthly Archives: April 2012

Planned Citi Field Anti-Internet Conference Fraught with Internecine Rivalry

Major media outlets such as Jewish Daily News, The Jewish Press and The Huffington Post finally picked up the Haredi Anti-Internet Conference story (it may have been picked up from our original report on March 13 in which we initially erroneously named the venue “Shea Stadium” — hence the same error persisted in their original reporting).

By now, however, some serious structural problems with this whole campaign are emerging, chief among which is the virtual impossibility of uniting a substantial portion of the deeply fractious haredi sector under a single banner. No matter how hard the organizers tried and continue to try to steer clear of petty rivalry among the hundreds of different subsects that comprise Ultra-orthodoxy, by satisfying some groups others will automatically feel snubbed and thus boycott the conference.

Admittedly, the organizers did do their best to remain above the fray and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They chose the Skollenner Rebbe as the leading representative and anticipated orator at the conference on the Hasidic side. The Skollenner Rebbe, R. Portugal, is currently the oldest Hasidic Rebbe in Borough Park. He is considered “non-denominational”, above and beyond politics; all Hasidim in Borough Park –be they Satmar-Zalman, Samar-Aaron, Bobov or Vizhnitz– venerate him to some extent. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, a dean in the prestigious Lakewood Yeshiva was picked to represent the Lithuanian community on the assumption that he is a uniter for that constituency, not a divider.

A petty Rebbe speaking at a pre-conference meeting of Rebbes in Borough Park

The reality of the situation, however, is that there are considerable disgruntled rumblings already being heard by jealous and cantankerous elements both within the Hasidic and Lithuanian camps. Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum is reportedly griping that “by us the vessel [=the computer] is forbidden altogether”. Other Hasidic Rebbes of sects such as Satmar-Zalman, Bobov, Skver, and R. Rosenblum (Shaare Yosher Yeshiva) are cool to the idea if only because they don’t stand to benefit personally from it. If they perceive themselves as being relegated to play second fiddle  to other, more prominent Rebbes, why play the fiddle at all? Endorsing and appearing at the conference isn’t exactly a salaried position, although it is rumored that the Skollenner Rebbe’s son does stand to benefit handsomely monetarily from the campaign.

The campaign is a costly one –$850,000 just to rent the Citi Field stadium. Tacking on the cost of promotion and logistics it is estimated to cost nearly 2 million dollars. The principal donor on behalf of the Hasidic sector can be found in Mr. Hershel Schreiber, the owner of the famous photographic retailer in Manhattan, B&H. An ingenuous and unassuming individual and an admirer of Rachmastrivk for its sincerity and its non-entanglement in Hasidic politics, Mr. Schreiber likely sees in this campaign an opportunity to genuinely accomplish something for yiddishkeit. He is probably convinced of the righteousness and universality of the cause, which appeals to him as the most suitable sphere for the allocation of his outsize “tithe” money. Mr. Schreiber reportedly donated an estimated 1 million dollars towards the campaign.

An unnamed Lithuanian philanthropist and ally of R. Solomon donated an even greater sum for the cause. But the question remains: how will R. David Feinstein, R. Feivel Shustel and R. Shmuel Kaminetsky react? They don’t seem enthused. They are already dismissing it as bittul torah – the interruption of Torah study.

Petty Rebbes seated in a circle so as not to offend anyone

Both donors insist on universality –on an aura of pan-haredsism, and it is now becoming increasingly evident that there are too many rifts between petty, petulant and eternally-bickering rebbelekh for this sort of unanimous endorsement to be achieved.

For the activists and rabbanim who are organizing the event there’s planty of money and prestige to go around. But for those who are are reduced to nodding their heads sheeplishly and playing “follow the leader” there is no discernible gain to speak of (the spiritual gain doesn’t count).

A more substantive objection to the campaign, commonly cited by the more liberal and educated in the community is that its driving premise is inherently flawed. The notion that the more publicity the campaign gets the more likely it is that the plague of the internet can be uprooted and banished from the community once and for all is misguided, they argue. Bahurim (torah-studying lads) and other batlanim (those who don’t work) –many of whom have never used a computer before in their life– will predominate at the conference and may find the whole thing tantalizing. Baale-batim, on the other hand, working men and entrepreneurs –the ones who actualy have the wherewithal to heed the admonition and enforce the Internet ban on a micro level– will likely not show up for the conference, as they have better things to fill their limited time with. Moreover, organizers are charging baale-batim $10 for entry tickets “to defray the cost”, which may discourage some.

Besides, can the Internet or its undesirable parts really be universally and effectually banned? Even if one does subscribe to the Jewish J-net filtering service, that doesn’t prevent him from disabling the filtering software on a whim. Without J-net being the underlying Internet Service Provider, the filtering measures are inherently voluntaristic and it would be technically very difficult to roll the filtering software into a full-service Internet product.

And how effective is the filter? It is joked sarcastically that K9 –a rival non-Jewish web filtering firm– is not as good as J-net because it “still allows the daf haymoi (daily Talmud folio) through”. Of Course, searches for “wine” — a legitimate and required product in Ultra-orthodox Judaism– on K9 come up empty.

 

Satmar Brothers Dueling Over Summer Camps — 3,500 Zalmanite Kids Hang in the Balance

The Satmar Brothers Aaron and Zalman are once again at each other’s throats, this time over who would get to use the four summer camps in Ulster County, New York.

David Rosenburg has administered the camps on behalf of Congregation Yetev Lev (CYL) of Satmar  for many decades. After the Satmar Succession Feud erupted in 1999, Rosenburg continued to administer the camps on behalf of the Zalmanite Williamsburg leadership until now.

This year, however, the Aaronites once again seized upon the 2006 New York State supreme court ruling that declared the Zalman-Aaron dispute “nonjudiciable”, meaning that the court is not allowed to rule on the dispute since that would entail making a judgement on the question of what constitutes proper religious adherence as stipuated in the CYL congregational bylaws and would thus be a violation of the United States constitutional clause requiring separation of church and state.

The practical upshot of the 2006 ruling has been tens of millions of dollars worth of congregational property in indefinite limbo, with neither side having legal title over it and law enforcement being instructed to simply maintain order and the status quo. When the Zalmanites attempted to apply for a permit to occupy the new synagogue under construction on Ross Street in Williamsburg, the Aaronites successfully blocked it since the Zalmanite applicants were unable to prove that they had a legal right to occupy the land.

Now the Aaronites are applying the same technique on the summer camps of CYL, which require an annually-issued permit from the county health department before they can be occupied for the summer. When the Zalmanites first applied for the permit before Passover this year, the Aaronites immediately counter-applied and apparently received a permit as well. After considerable rancor between the parties over who should get the final permit the executive revoked them both and exhorted the parties to mediate the dispute between themselves.

The Zalmanites are refusing to give an inch; they insist on holding on to all four camps, even as it is likely that the Aaronites would be content for now if thrown a bone of merely one camp. Conversely, the Aaronites would be triumphantly victorious if the camps would lie fallow for the summer as a result of Zalmanite intransigence. They are bent on ensuring that gam li gam loch lo yihyeh — neither I nor you shall have it, if Zalmanites refuse to negotiate in good faith.

Both parties are lining up the big-gun political connections behind their representatives: Vito Lopez (head of democratic party in Kings county) supporting Rabbi David Niederman on the Zalman side and state senator Daniel L. Squadron supporting Aaron Veltz on the Aaronite side. Vito Lopez reportedly personally showed up this week at the Ulster county executive’s office to exert pressure on behalf of his Zalmanite constituency.

Some people familiar with the camp dispute saga believe that the larger bribe will ultimately win the day. Whichever side can palm or pledge more money to their elected officials and/or Ulster county officials will take the spoils. Specifically, the Zalmanite party –deep-pocketed, well-connected, and with the urgency of up to 3,500 kids who may not have where to spend the summer if the permit is not granted them– is likely to prevail even though neither side is legally entitled to a permit without the other sides’s consent. Is is rumored that Ulster county officials privately advised the Aaronites that although they feel compelled to issue the permit to the Zalmanites under political pressure, if the Aaronites challenge it in court, the county won’t defend its action.

 

Libby Pollak: A Star is Born — And With It A Revival of Hasidic Yiddish

Libby Pollak is no ordinary woman. Three years ago she was a newly hitched young veibele in Williamsburg, lost in the shuffle of thousands of Ultra-hasidic couples who get married and settle there annually. Now her star is rapidly rising with hordes of followers from the Hasidic community devouring with relish every word she utters on her various online forums, including her flagship self-titled Facebook Page .

Her string of media exposure culminated several weeks ago with a return to the non-judgemental all-accepting Chulent that incubated her and set her out on a course of liberty and exploration several years prior. She lectured on the topic of obscure Yiddish idioms and witticisms. See video of the after-event.

In a typical Facebook Post last month, she posted a photo of herself wearing a beaver hat and quipped (in Yiddish): For those who wonder what hat the Rebbe wears on the holy head, here you have the tall beaver hat; and from this hat of sorcery I draw forth my sophisms. A familiarity with Hasidic Yiddish culture is necessary in order to get the humor, as evidenced by her fans and followers who gave her 21 “likes” for the post.

In another recent post, Libby shows off her variegated fingernails and remarks: Every color, after every son of the evil Haman.

Libby’s allure lies in her knack for weaving in Yiddish aphorisms and lore into workaday life. She always has some witty Yiddish idiom or Talmudic adage to share. The fact that she’s a single woman and of diminutive stature only adds to the bemusing quaintness of it all. Is it possible that such a young, ostensibly docile girl would be so conversant in Rabbinic sayings? Is it conceivable that she has actually pulled herself up by her boots, outfoxed her detractors and trailblazed a new path in her life and in the lives of everyone on the Hasidic fringe — all in the course of a year or two?

Her journey started at the ripe young age of six when she one day “discovered poetry”. Her mother encouraged her to cultivate her flair for poetry, bragged about her to her sisters and extended family members who then commissioned the young girl to write poetry for them. In later years the school recruited her for all sorts of writing projects: creative writing, yearbook editor, weekly newspaper and lyrics for camp songs. She was even elected GO president and color war captain, at different points in time. “I was known as the poet”, she recalls.

In her Vizhnitz elementary school in Williamsburg she had relative freedom to pursue her talents, directing skits and plays and helping out with choirs. For high school, however, Libby wanted a better school and so she was sent to the Belz girl school in Borough Park, then under the principalship of the wife of Rabbi Hayyim Leib Katz, Satmar-Zalman Dayyan in Borough Park. “Vien [in Williamsburg] was considered too modern to my mom.”

But as fate would have it, the Borough Park school wasn’t at all liberating. The principal attempted to establish new strictures such as the requirement that pupils wear stockings WITH seams as prevalent in Satmar. Singing was banned, there were no extracurricular activities and the distance between pupil and staff widened. Libby was taught that wearing a heart necklace is equivalent to giluy arayoth (incest) and any form of sheitel (wig) –even the shpitzel– is a grave transgression. Only complete removal of anything that even looks like hair is acceptable apparel for a married Jewish  woman, she was taught.

To Libby Pollak’s creative and free-ranging mind, conditions at the school were stifling. “I hated school; it felt like a prison to me. I used to get heart palpitations. My stomach was literally turning once when I went back to retrieve something years after graduation.” It’s not that her academic credentials and artistic talent went unnoticed; they, rather, refused as a matter of principle to allow her an expressive outlet.

Ms. Pollak on her recent Passover vacation to Florida

After high school, about half of Libby’s class took on elementary school teaching jobs in the community. The pay was a meager $125 per week (hours were about 3.5 per day for 4.5 days) which was sometimes paid partially in the form of food vouchers, and the job grueling. Why do it then? “They teach only for the shidduch (match)”, Libby explains.

Eager to chart out an alternative course Libby opted for an office job with the newly emerging Satmar-Aaron bureaucracy at 76 Rutledge St. It was a 9-5 job for which she was paid $265 per week, half of it in food vouchers (USDA food stamps?). But she did not find her place there. Girls were admonishing her not to utter even a single word –such as imma (mom)– of the unclean language “Ivrit”. Their ameratzus (ignorance) was revoltingly glaring, such as misquoting the verse in Proverbs 9:1 “the wisdom of a woman builds a house”, as hokhmas binah banethah (wisdom of understanding builds…).

One year after graduating from school, Libby was pushed into an engagement she detested. “He was an exceptional loser, chain-smoking, very controlling –he demanded I cut off contact with my family. He called me all day that he was depressed”. When she complained to her family about it, they advised her that “love follows” and that “only a blind or lame person would marry you if you break the engagement.”

Libby then managed to enlist the sympathy and support of Rabbi Benjamin Zeev Fleisher, a Vizhnitz dayyan and activist in the community, and the green light was given to break the engagement, preferring that to one of the alternatives that were bandied about by friends: why don’t you get married and get divorced?

At this time the possibility of leaving the system altogether had yet to cross her mind. “I wanted to have 20 children”, she recalls. A new match was thus promptly arranged for her with a boy who had likewise a broken an engagement. Family and friends rejoiced in it being a true inve hagefen be-inve hagefen –grapes of the vine intertwined with grapes of the vine, love has met andy hardy.

But the match proved foreboding once again. Her fiancee showed signs of mental instability. He would bounce around strange suggestions regarding his desired venue for the wedding, ranging from a boat to a restaurant to “not being sure he wants to get married at all.”

Activists once again intervened and explained to her that it’s “completely normal” for Hasidic grooms to be nervous. He was put on psychotic meds and she was urged to proceed with the marriage. Even her backer on her previous marital mismatch, Rabbi Fleisher, wouldn’t support her quest to bail out this time.

It quickly turned out, however, that the boy had zero interest in an amorous relationship. During the height of her wedding celebrations, the sheva brakhot (seven blessings on seven days), the groom was still preoccupied with chasing prurient material online, even taunting his bride that “she would die to look like Bar Rafaeli”. Libby realized that she had been duped once more. Even though she had conducted her own investigation prior to her engagement to him, trusting the reports of mutual friends who knew them personally, it turns out that they had deceived her concealing things from her out of pity. It became apparent that the boy, an Israeli, married her merely for the green card.

After enduring “four months of hell” they finally separated. At first her husband took off with all her personal documents and withheld granting a get until a ransom of $30,000 was paid. After some haggling back and forth, a price tag of $15,00 in cash was reached as the price of the divorce.

Those were harrowing days for Libby. She still “didn’t even talk to men” and wouldn’t dare entertain the possibility of violating Jewish law to remarry without a religious divorce. She was forced to collect money from friends and acquaintances in the community who would sympathize with her, a poor agunah (bound woman), leashed to her husband who would not surrender his property without due remuneration. “The agunah concept was the first thing that made me realize that the system is rishus (evil) and bullshit; very sexist and very open to abuse”, she recollects.

In the meantime, Libby kept herself busy holding down respectable jobs in the community. When she first got married she was a hair stylist. But then, For the Pesach 2009 season she began working at a local Matzah bakery under the management of one Naftali Schwimmer, 50.

After all the agony surrounding the attainment of her freedom from a husband whose only exercised marital function was his extortion of her for the right to be free of him, Libby needed a break. In May 2009 she went on a short vacation to Miron, Israel to partake in the renown international celebration at the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Baomer. A new job prospect, offered by her previous boss Mr. Schwimmer, was waiting for her upon return to the states: working as an assistant at a communal summer camp office.

One day her supervisor approached her with an earnest plea: his doctor “instructed him that it’s very good for women to play with him 4 to 5 times per week.” Upon her retort “why me?” he responded: veil di bist aleins (you are alone, a.k.a. single). Libby declined.

With sexual harassment in her workplace, Libby wasn’t going to take it lying down. Activists, including such members of the KJ “modesty committee” as Yaakov Kelner, got involved, ostensibly to help her. Mr. Kelner chatted with her hours upon hours over the phone, spilling all the dirty secrets of intra-communal disreputable escapades in the process, seemingly in a bid to get close to her. Mr. Kelner encouraged her to report the harassment to secular governmental authorities but he wouldn’t promise to back her up publicly or provide testimony in court if needed. With the threat of being left holding the bag in such a fraught situation, Libby chose NOT to report it to authorities. “He (Mr. Kelner) acted creepy. He wanted to stay in touch with me. I was very vulnerable.” Mr. Kelner did, however, get Mr. Schwimmer to quit phoning her and begging her to “come back to talk to him” after she had quit the matzah bakery job.

Her next gig, seemingly an outgrowth of her sexual harassment ordeal, was manning a sexual abuse hotline in the community, called SOVRI, in preparation of which she underwent a rigorous 45-hour training course. Additional exposure to more modern cultural paradigms was gained through a stint working in “Pesach hotels”.

By 2010, Libby was no longer married to a man, had relocated to the more modern Borough Park, was free to dress as she pleased, read whatever she wanted and pursue a career of her choice; but she did –for the meantime– remain married to her wig as customary in the community, notwithstanding that halakhically she is not required to cover her hair now that she was no longer married.

It was the 2011 Birthright Israel trip that finally jolted her from her stupor. When she arrived for the trip she assumed that she looked fashionably modern. “I was MO-dressed, with leggings (as opposed to stockings) and a short skirt. I was still wearing the sheitel, [albeit] with hair underneath. I took off the wig at the airport and never put it on again in my life. That was a critical point. I felt like a free bird; I felt five years younger.”

The BRI folks were very sensitive and supportive of her evident transformation unfolding in front of them as the trip progressed. “My mind burst open. I suddenly allowed myself to think. I had a million questions. I realized that I’d been living my whole life by default. There’s shomer shabbas, shomer negiah, so many different types of Judaism; and who said Judaism is the answer?”

"One must be vigilant with regard to the Seder plate egg -- it could be an easter bunny!

With spring 2011 came a renewal of sorts on a personal and communal level when she first encountered the Thursday Night Chulent community, a ragtag confederation of intellectuals, artists, yuppies, hasids, atheists and misfits. Through her new acquaintances at Chulent she was referred to the modern secular Yiddishisten such as Alec Burko and Yankel Peretz who work at the Forverts and preside over a “Yiddish House” on he edge of Williamsburg wherein only Yiddish may be spoken by resident and visitor alike.

Another community and resource, one that she initially met with tepid success is Footsteps, whose stated mission it is to ease a transition to the mainstream for haredi individuals who choose to leave their communities. When employing her Yiddish humor in among Footsteps participants she was greeted with sneers and derision by some individuals, to the point of bringing her to tears. “The staff is extremely cordial and I have many friends at Footsteps, but it’s not made for everyone”, she reflects, adding that “most of my fans are within the system. I’m all for art, language, culture, zemiros (songs), delicious food and tradition; I am NOT for organized religion.”

Libby first started posting her humorous musings, typically drawing on Rabbinic or Yiddish maxims and lores, on her personal Facebook wall about a year ago; and the Hasidim instantly went gaga over her. At one point, when she was first “discovered” by the plugged-in Hasidim, they reportedly spent five hours straight on their blackberries discussing the newly minted Yiddish literary genius. Who was she? Was she really a woman? how can she possibly know so much?

Ms. Pollak lecturing at Chulent on Yiddish idioms

The key to Libby’s phenomenal mastery of Rabbinic and Yiddish literature and the very Yiddish language itself is no secret, however. As she explained on Yiddish Voice, a Yiddish radio program from Boston, she avidly perused Yiddish books in her youth, nothing else being available or permissible to her. By reading anything and everything that came her way –which in the Hasidic community is bound to be religiously-themed– Libby not only became keenly proficient in fields typically limited to men but she also developed a literary Yiddish, one that comprises words that are virtually never used in the colloquial Hasidic Yiddish, known derisively as “Yinglish” — an adulterated argot containing many English and onomatopoeic words.

What she triggered in the Hasidic community as evinced by the overwhelming acclaim and interaction with her FB posts was nothing short of a new renaissance-like epoch in the community’s attitude towards Yiddish. Whereas secular, unadulterated Yiddish used to be regarded –even among those with deep roots in the community– with disdain, Libby showed her followers that Secular Yiddish need not be devoid of any Rabbinic or religious references or vice versa. By inventing a whole new genre of literature whose aim it is to couple a pure Yiddish with Hasidic mores and references, Libby has fueled a new interest in studying and using the language correctly. It suddenly “became cool to speak Yiddish”.

In December 2011 a small cadre of die-hard New York secular Yiddishist survivors took note. Desperate for some fresh blood and eager to bridge the gap between the dying breed that is Secular Yiddish and the thriving Hasidic Yiddish, they welcomed her with open arms as the missing link in the continuity of the Yiddish language. She was interviewed by Rachel Schechter from the Forverts and featured in a subsequent article.

From her Chassidish Yiddish (201 members) Facebook page which she helped build along with its founder, Frieda, she moved on to the Kava Shtiebel (210 members). The idea was to keep the discussion in the former focused squarely on the topic of exploring the etymology and meaning of Hasidic Yiddish expressions and allow all sorts of cultural dialogue and gossip in the latter. Then, in a quest to consolidate all her precious wisdom into a single place, the self-titled Libby Pollak Facebook Page was created. She scored 100 followers overnight (twice as many as HN currently has!) and is currently “liked” by an impressive 434 persons, with “121 talking about this” (whatever that means — ask facebook).

Now, with a degree in Psychology in the pipeline, Ms. Pollak’s future looks bright. Independent and appreciated, soft-spoken and confident, she is poised to take on whatever life throws at her and is determined to shape her future in accordance with HER values and her unique talents. We wish her good luck and thank her for sharing with us her frank, heartfelt story, which we are confident will inspire many within the community and without for years to come.

Congressional Redistricting Will Shake Up Jewish Neighborhoods in Brooklyn

Since 2010 census data show that the New York State population did not proportionately grow as rapidly as that in other states, it is forced to forfeit two representatives. Accordingly in the new congressional elections to take place this fall everything will be shaken up and congressional lines redrawn.

In other news pertaining to the Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY10th district representative Edolphus Towns recently announced his retirement from Congress. Towns represented Jewish Williamsburg for many decades, along with the core of the black ghetto in Bed-stuy. Now both Towns and his district will vanish from Hasidic Williamsburg. Towns successor, likely NY assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, will not represent any Jewish neighborhoods.

NY 7th new congressional district will represent Hasidic Williamsburg

Instead, Hasidic Williamsburg –which encompasses both South Williamsburg and what is now colloquially known as “New Williamsburg” (south of Flushing Ave.) among the Hasidim– will now be part of the 7th district and it will be represented by Nydia Velazquez of Hispanic ethnicity. Hasidic Williamsburg’s population, approximately 70,000, is not large enough to elect a Jewish representative. Representation will thus shift from the African-american Towns to the Hispanic Velazquez.

Borough Park will remain under the Jewish Rep. Jerrold Nadler, albeit his district will now be the 10th (as opposed to the 8th) and will encompass parts of Jewish Flatbush. Other portions of Flatbush farther removed from Borough Park will be represented by Yvette Clark whose district will now be the 9th (as opposed to the 11th).

NY 10th new congressional district will represent Borough Park and parts of Flatbush

Although Jewish Representation of Jewish communities is not always the case in congressional districts, it is usually not cause for consternation in New York City. That’s because the districts in Brooklyn are invariably Democratic and on the Federal level a Democratic Representative from New York City will always vote for the same slate of urban renewal projects, welfare for the poor, housing subsidies, afterschool programs and other popular inner-city programs championed by the Democrats in the U.S. congress. There isn’t much to be gained by a Jewish congressional representative over a person representing the interests of any other particular city ghetto ethnic group.

On the state level, by contrast, senate redistricting that will result in Jewish representation of just one district in Brooklyn and is being sharply decried by local leaders and politicians. They would prefer strong minorities in multiple districts and leverage their block-voting tendencies to their advantage.

See The Jewish Week Report here.

Polar Reversal of Ultra-orthodoxy in America Well Under Way

The signs are ominous. Decadence is omnipresent. The jadedness irreversible. Ultra-orthodoxy has seen better days.

Like the economy, it’s hard to detect its heyday before it’s already over the top and perhaps on a precipitous decline into the abyss. I don’t think that Ultra-orthodoxy in America will plummet as sharply as our economy but we can now see clear signs of a reversal of the post-WWII decades-long trend toward greater piety and observance in America culminating in the late 90′s.

The culprit? You guessed it, the Internet!

In approximately 2005 the blogosphere rose to the stratosphere. And the Ultra-orthodox and Hasidic sectors were not about to miss out on the party. The Internet ban self-imposed by the Hasids never really took hold, and with the proliferation of secular –even heretical– information on the Internet, some elements in the community started asking questions. When and how was the world created? Who is the author of the bible? Did Hasidic Rebbes really perform miracles? What’s wrong with watching TV? The questions go on. And the answers are far from being as simplistic as the fundamentalists would have wanted them to be. Avantgarde Internet readers wouldn’t take “but Rabbi Aaron Kotler was most assuredly smarter than Christopher Hitchens” as a satisfactory answer. They kept digging.

Ultimately the dirt they dug out of the hole was sprinkled wholesale in the blogosphere. It was initially an exercise in cathartic expression –a simple release valve for the pressure of heretical ideas percolating in their minds that could not, under any circumstances, be let out amid their brick and mortar communities. Blogs such as Hasidic Rebel, Baal Habos, Daas Hedyot and A Hasid and A Heretic proliferated, and like wildfire caught the attention of those in the community who were plugged in.

A vigorous conversation ensued thanks to the newly employed ability to easily comment on Internet content, which provided instant psychological reinforcement to the bloggers. Haredi-critical Bloggers became celebrities virtually overnight and their ideas were the talk of town even if dismissed by some of those reading them.

Most of the readers, however, seem to have awoken out of a slumber by their exposure to those blogs. They suddenly realized that the questions that had lain dormant in their psyche for so long, violently bottled up by dint of their being “evidently”  flawed since the Torah and the gedole hador (giants of the generation) say otherwise, are legitimate and that they are not alone in posing those “ridiculous” questions. “Hey if I’m gonna be crazy, it’s comforting to know there are other locos locked up beside me in this lunatic asylum”, they reasoned.

Many of the early heretical bloggers have since come out of the closet. The most prominent example perhaps is Shulem Deen, author of the Hasidic Rebel blog, who has now morphed that blog into the popular and well-organized Unpious.com website in which other like-minded individuals are invited to chime in on the debate by posting original content of their own.

But the biggest threat by far to the long-term viability of Harede-ism in America is not the folks who have made the transition, however difficult, from the cult-like Hasidic social structure to the liberal world of secular education, pluralism and sports –among other shocking new disciplines that must be mastered by inductees to the American mainstream. The biggest threat, rather, is those who decide –for various reasons– to remain within the community and live a double life.

The phenomenon of “marranos”, has returned to the Jewish diaspora, but this time under persecution from the fundamentally religious within the Jewish community itself. There’s just too much to lose for somone who was born and raised in the community who is weighing the option of leaving. Often, not only will they lose their job, their friends and their basic moral compass, but –if married with children– they will lose them as well. It is essentially the equivalent of the Jew in 15th century Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella being sent packing from their home and country for failure to convert to Christianity. Ironically, in both cases the two options are equally detestable: lose your conscience or lose your security. See Ynetews for an in-depth report of life as a Hasidic Marrano in Israel.

For numerous reasons the heretic who chooses to leave pays an exorbitant price. If leaving before marriage, one has to deal with enormous financial pressures in a society where with no education and no social connections there is little chance of landing a promising, fulfilling job. For individuals married with children who leave, the latter will usually remain in the custody of the spouse who remains within the community, for stability purposes. Even if one does secure an education and a job and custody, the questions linger: Where does he live? What school does he send his kids to? What community or congregation does he choose to affiliate with, if any? What about a rudimentary network of friends and acquaintances? Those need to be acquired all over again! It’s truly like an immigrant in a new country.

And so it happens that many heretics remain in the community to slug it out. Maybe they are hoping that one day THEIR messiah will come and redeem them from the true hellhole they are steeped in. More likely, they are making do with what they got; they are playing out the hand dealt them. Leaving the community doesn’t seem to be a viable option to them –but neither is the community eager to see them go. After all, each and every person who leaves, further begs and reinforces the question: is our lifestyle really superior to all else? do we really have a monopoly on God, truth and wisdom? It’s more convenient to co-opt the heretic into the system, as long as they’re not outspoken about it. As a further benefit this allows the children to be securely raised within the community and not be exposed to the malignancies of a joint custody arrangement with a wayward parent.

This cooptative policy is not implemented gratuitously. Those marranos who remain in the community while harboring doubts and resentment toward the system are invariably indifferent about religiosity, to put it mildly. They refuse to reinforce and defend religious teachings imported home from cheder and Yeshiva by their children. They couldn’t care less if people do or don’t carry with an eruv in the city on shabbat. Subway sandwhiches feel just as esculent as a piece of challah and gefilte fish. If the wife insists that the husband go to shul on a Friday night, he may indeed leave the house but that doesn’t mean he’ll wind up in shul.

Do their friends pick up on these telltale signs of lackadaisical adherence and moral bankruptcy? Of course they do! But you know what? They themselves are not as willing to take up the cross as was the previous baby-boomer generation. There’s often a tacit don’t-ask-don’t-tell detente between the parties. Even school administrators who “know” that a certain parent has questionable worldviews is encouraged to overlook it for the sake of the children’s stability within the community and the school.

In the meantime, apathy and cynicism fester and eventually rub off on keen associates. Rebellious cliques are formed –people who no longer see themselves bound by the edicts of the Rabbis and by rigidly traditional forms of observance. On Penn Street in Williamsburg a recently established shtiebel tucked discreetly in a 19th-century rowhouse basement is flowering. They call themselves the “Carlebach” shul, but analysts say that it’s really a euphemism for simply being cool –chilled out. Their real objective is to turn the religious shul institution into a social club. There’s dancing after prayers, spontaneous singing breaks out sporadically without any prescribed rules, and strangers who do not don the conventional shreimel and bekisheh are slowly trickling in and being enthusiastically embraced by members. When members are asked who runs the show they smile raffishly and point at someone as random.

Communal and congregational fragmentation further adds fuel to the fire. In the Satmar Succession Feud, it has now become de reiguer for one faction to routinely oppose the other camp on any major controversial socio-religious position they take, if not on principled grounds then on political ones. If Zalman says you can’t carry on Shabbat, Aaron says you can; if Zalman advocates a particular housing development, Aaron balks. If Aaron calls for a conference on banning the Internet, Zalman abstains; if Zalman insists on anti-zionist zealotry, Aaron is eager to affirm the power of peace and reconciliation. In a post-monopolistic Williamsburg, one can always find some faction, some shul or some rav that will accept them as they are, especially if the price is right.

Doctrine is no longer the driving engine animating the community. Hasidic communities have now largely shifted into the a fashion-oriented exhibition of their traditions. Hand-matzah is eaten on Pesach because it tastes better than machine matzah and the white socks and silk overcoat regalia are worn because they confer the sensation of glory and transcendence onto its wearers.

In an environment as such, it is only a matter of time until the empty shell of Ultra-orthodox observance implodes and shatters to pieces.

State Rebuffs FOIL Request on KJ Penisgate

New York State Police issued its final rebuttal on Apr 6 to HN’s request to obtain police reports relating to the Johanan Cohen death case, about which rumors circulated at the time of death in January 2007 that the boy’s body was found with a severed penis by the Hatzalah, the volunteer ambulnace corps in Kiryas Joel.

The event was first popularized by Deborah Feldman in her blog which she subsequently incorporated in her book, Unorthodox, released last February. The book’s release unleashed another round or recriminations between those inclined to believe the report and those who opt to dismiss it as ludicrous.

Hella Winston reported in The Jewish Week that she “investigated” the allegation and found it groundless, but she only pursued leads that were favorable to the suicide claim, which is the cause of death  reportedly listed in the death certificate –obtained by Winston through a cooperative family member but NOT revealed to the public.

Both David Lerner in a guest post on Frum Satire and I on HasidicNews.com have argued the case that the allegation ought to be taken seriously and Winston has actually done more harm than good by conducting a biased investigation and presenting a partial report on the matter.

Winston reported that she had possession of the death certificate but she refused to release information other than the favorable report that it was “confirmed” a suicide. She wouldn’t for example, tell us or show us the date the certificate was issued. If the state issued the certificate AFTER the body had been buried, it wouldn’t tell us much beyond a rubber-stamping action by the state of reports by village officials and family members.

Since by New York State law death certificates are only obtainable by blood-kin of the deceased or by permission of the kin, HN attempted to investigate by seeking access to state police reports pertaining to this event. Unlike death certificates, police reports fall under the New York State FOIL (freedom of information law) act and so the state is required to disclose requested records unless exempted by special provisions in the law. See PDF file of our FOIL request.

But our request was rejected on March 23, 2012, based on the section 89, clause 2 exception, allowing the government to withhold records “to prevent unwarranted invasions of personal privacy.” See accompanying image scan of rejection letter.

We vehemently disagree with the agency’s interpretation and application of the “unwarranted invasion of privacy” exception clause, on several grounds:

1) Whose privacy? The records pertain to a person who is dead. A dead person does not have the right to privacy. In fact, they have no rights at all to the best of my knowledge. The exception clause makes no mention anywhere about protecting the rights of FAMILY members of the subject. Moreover, if family members and/or others are protected, where do we draw the line? There’s always going to be someone who is offended and wishes to invoke “invasion of privacy” protection.

2) The law in subsection (b) spells out numerous examples that would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”, none of which apply to our case. They mostly refer to information about an individual that the public has no legitimate  interest in, such as a medical record or a social security number, in which case ONLY the parts that are of no use to the public may be omitted in the disclosure. The withholding of an entire police report is not discussed.

3) How is this “unwarranted”? If a crime is alleged to have been committed, especially such a grave crime as murder, and there’s a possibility of a murderer on the loose who may attack again, how is this not a sufficiently important reason to VIOLATE the suspect’s privacy and release the information to the public so that the public and government agencies can take appropriate action to protect itself. It is preposterous to suppose that a criminal or even a likely criminal has a right to have their police records withheld from public knowledge and scrutiny based on privacy; this clearly was NOT the intent of the law.

Our objections were articulated in a letter dating March 30, 2012. see copy. The appeals board responded to us on April 6, 2012 affirming the original rejection of our request without any further explanation.

Government agencies are known NOT to be very eager to positively respond to individual citizen’s requests when there isn’t any urgency or public outcry. But our Penisgate case is a bit over the top. The question we are asking isn’t merely whether the state interpreted the law correctly. We are suspecting that KJ village officials had alerted state officials to potential inquiries on the case and have reached an understanding that the state will keep the lid on the case so that no potentially scandalous details leak out to the public. As we all know, the technicalities are then only a matter of course. There’s always some clause or some subsection that the agency can lean on administratively in defending its position.

In fact, the morning after HasidicNews.com first published the name of the deceased, Johanan Cohen, I received an urgent call from Kiryas Joel public safety director Mosha Witriol. He wasn’t as much angry at me for disclosing the name as he was eager to know WHAT ELSE do I know about the incident. Caught off guard, I assured him that I don’t (and I indeed didn’t) and I expressed my wonder why he was asking me about the case when he is the one who would know or have easy access to information about the case. I realized later that the urgency of his tone of voice and his concentration on what I know rather than rebuffing the arguments I had made in the HN article, were sinister signs that cover-up is in progress. It seemed that he was about to threaten me or offer to pay me off if I had information that was even more revealing.

Hence, we have reached the conclusion that a cover-up is taking place here. We are once again urging the state to disavow its defense and cover-up of an incident that clearly contains a smoking gun. Our activism in this continues. We are prepared to sue the State police in court to compel them to release the appropriate records.

This is NOT about Deborah Feldman. This is about a possible murderer –someone guilty of filicide– who is out and about with his shreimel and bekisheh, a teacher in the holy village of KJ. It is against state law, against Jewish law and against common decency to allow a son-murderer to avert punishment, all for the sake of preserving the image and repute of the village. The village should do the right thing: open up the kimono on the case and eject the murderer from its midst if there is one, as the Torah says:

Num 35:33-34 So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell: for I, Jehovah, dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.

How to Outfrum your Opponent? No Congregational Coffee for Passover!

The Zallies have figured out a way to give — or should I say NOT give– the people what they want and at the same time bolster their ranks and popularity: no coffee in shul for Passover.

“Frum” means religious; frumkeit is the noun — the quality of being frum, and the more the merrier. The Haredi community in America has for decades now progressively inched heir way into a more and more restrictive interpretation and adherence of the law. Any transgression of the strictest interpretation of the law being portrayed as a cowardly submission to the allure of the “Golden America”, the contest has been raging for many years now. Who can be the “frummest”, par excellence? Who is the greatest kashrut observer?

“You eat OU? get outa here — my family buys only hasan sofer or better”, one kid in school would boast, to which the other would respond, “I can beat that, my family is so frum they only eat either edah hahredith or hithahduth.”

But the year round braggadocio pales campared to the boasting opportunities presented during the Passover holiday season. In addition to the bragging rights of having the latest-finishing seder in the class –it would have to be in the vicinity of 4-5 a.m. to even be a contender for that title– kids can also compare chametz-avoidance strictures, such as to what lengths a family goes to prevent any liquid coming into contact with the matzah (there’s a possibility that some flour remains on the cracker and it would then surreptitiously conspire with water to rise into the wicked and forbidden leaven) and how far daddy would go in applying the rule that “men misht zich nisht” – we don’t mix: even families within the same congregation, who would otherwise trust each other on keeping a kosher home, wouldn’t do so on Passover, the only time of the year when even the minutest scrap of chametz renders an entire food mixture unfit for consumption –it is not declared cancelled in sixty parts as would be if it were pig, for example. And worst of all, the punishment for consumption of such a smattering of chametz: “Kareth”–permanent symbolic banishment from the community and/or presence of God. So, the best advice, goes the conventional wisdom, is to be super super careful. How careful? Try to add something to the list of strictures that your parents and friends could have never imagined, such as not eating any processed products including dairy or peeling every vegetable twice instead of once.

In the case of the Zallies (Satmar faction under leadership of Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum), there is an additional motive. They need to distinguish themselves from the enemy camp, that hated Aaronim. Why are they –the Zallies– better? Why should someone on the fence choose them in this increasingly democratized Satmar of the new Millennium? What is the “value-added” component they offer to their constituents? It’s a new interpretation of the no mixing rule! Not only can you not eat food prepared by another congregant but you cannot even trust the congregation itself! Who knows what the shamas (sexton) mixes into the coffee or sugar when nobody is looking?

Yet, in Satmar you can have your cake and it too… yes, even on Passover. And so, there are reports that the Bene Joel (who are allied with the Zallies) in Kiryas Joel pay a “coffee visit” to the grand Satmar synagogue under the direction of their archenemy Rabbi Aaron, since their own synagogues don’t supply the daily pre-morning prayer coffee fix.

And Aaron is left pondering: is it compliment that the Bene Joel DO need him after all; they must resort to his services one way another. Or, are they “exploiting” him under the reasoning that they are too devout to have coffee in THEIR shul. But since Aaron is offering it anyway and has already succumbed to the temptation of NOT being sufficiently stringent, then it’s okay for them to then utilize that as an opportunity to satisfy their coffee needs.

teiku, let is stand!

 

New TV show on ex-Hasidic Divorcees in the Works

A new reality TV docu-drama show is in the works, this time bringing the obscure Ultra-orthodox culture and lifestyle to the bedrooms of mainstream Americans from the perspective of rebels. The cast is currently led by our very own Perry Reich, who is waging a public battle against her Hasidic husband for custody over her children (trial coming up next month). Other recruits for the show are her boyfriend Shauli Grossman, an ex-composer for Hasidic albums and Luzer Twerski an actor and model. The producers are still looking for others who are in the throes of the transition to join the cast.

The show seeks to shine the spotlight on the shortcomings of Hasidic marriages: how individuals are paired up into lifelong marital commitments soon after reaching adolescence without any prior courting or soul-searching about their purpose and direction in life.

Perry Reich

Both Ms. Reich –who has famously appeared on the Dr. Phil show to vent her frustration with the system– and her boyfriend, are very vocal about the their grievances. They are mincing no words in expounding the injustice and brutality of Hasidic marriages and the challenge in attempting to leave one against the will of the extended family and community who often see divorce as stigma par excellence.

Ms. Reich grew up in Borough Park and is the daughter of a petty but renown Hasidic Rebbe, R. Avraham Reich. Rabbi Reich thrust himself into the Jewish outreach arena in the 80′s when Russian immigrants began surging in to the States. They often eat at his table on a regular basis and he tries to instruct and goad them in the religious sphere as well. Ms. Reich herself was once involved in outreach, known as “kiruv” in Hebrew. She taught in one such a school in Starret City in Canarsie, Brooklyn, under the direction of Rav Avner German. She reports that the Rabbi once praised her that she was “the best educator there in 60 years”. The school seems to be following an “Avigdor Miller” approach to modern Orthodoxy.

Before and After Photo of Shauli Grossman

Shauli Grossman stems from a Belzer family and is a highly ambitious and talented young man. In his former incarnation as a Hasid he collaborated with the popular Hasidic singer Joel Lebovitsch (son of Rabbi Michael Lebovitsch, the “Nikolshberger Rebbe”, a highly controversial figure in the Hasidic community of Monsey, NY of the 90′s) on an album. He is apparently both a terrific singer and composer. See his composition and performance at the Youtube video titled “Ich vill zein a Rebbe”, I want to be a Rebbe — a parody of the seemingly ubiquitous craving among the rank and file of contemporary Hasidic Jewry to be either a Rebbe or some similar macher “with a cherry light in their car”.

Luzer Twersky, who similarly has some Belzer blood coursing through his veins, is the son of yet another petty Rebbe, the Foltichaner Rebbe. The latter projects an aura of superb saintliness and preoccupies himself with collecting ransom and reading petitions (known in Yiddish as going to a rebbe with a kvittel and pidyon). He sired a inordinately large family and is alleged to have been physically abusive with his children underneath the saintly persona put forward for occupational purposes.

Mr. Twersky is also the product of an arranged marriage gone awry with two children hanging in the balance. After leaving the community several years ago, he made a name for himself with his witty repartee and outspoken apostasy and a budding acting career. He recently acted in the film “Who is Joel Baum” which will be released soon by the filmmaker and producer Pearl Gluck and was extenseively featured in a recent National Geographic documentary on ex-Hasidim “Inside Hasidism”. He has recently done away with his trademark long beard he had retained for so long for acting purposes and is presently employed as a VP of Operations at a high-end suit retailer in the city.

The cast of characters is certainly rich and colorful. The actual show proposal, however, is still not clear. Questions linger as to what sort of content pertaining to Hasidism a general American audience is likely to crave and whether the present producers and cast of characters are able to provide that. Moreover, the producers are still shopping around for a Network to take their bait and so there’s no profuse money streaming in thus far.

New Trends: Chametz Truck and Chametz Soup Kitchen

It is reported that Rabbi Mottelle, the Vizhntzer Rebbe in Monsey has launched some cutting-edge new pre-Passover services to his vibrant community in Monsey, New York.

For one, women can now completely dedicate themselves to the gargantuan task of cleaning for Passover without worrying about satisfying their men’s growling stomachs. You wanna eat chametz? Go to the Soup Kitchen! For $5 per head anyone can have a meal from a public kitchen provided by the congregation. Separate seating is provided for men and women to conform to the rigors of Ultra-orthodox observance.

But it gets better. Mirroring the ‘ice cream truck”  of the mainstream –which is of course too modern and “goyish” for Hasidic sensibility– the “chamez truck” makes its rounds around town at meal time breakfast and lunch. Parents who want to supply their children with a chametz sandwhich for breakfast or lunch can rely on the chametz truck to sell it to them once their kitchen is no longer operational.

Sandwiches, including delivery are only $1.50.

Now that’s what we call a Rebbe. Go Mottelle go!

New Line of Kosher-certified Women’s Clothing Hit the Market

Do you want to be 100% on God’s good side? Then do EVERYTHING kosher. kosher water (no microbes), kosher vegetables (not washed before Passover), kosher clothing (no shatnez), kosher digital camera (no video functionality), kosher stocking (opaque and seamed), and now… kosher women’s blouses.

The new women’s clothing to hit the market in Williamsburg and Borough Park are certified kosher by a committee consisting of representatives from three Brooklyn Hasidic communities: Satmar-Aaron, Bobov and Papa. The committee employs a special certification emblem consiting of a purple rose with the slogan “designed with you in mind” on an oval tag attached to the clothing.

R. Aaron Teitelbaum’s foray into this field started last Passover during his annual Passover sermon to his Williamsburg followers at the Hooper Street Synagogue. He threatened to expel children whose parents use a computer at home and pleaded with his congregants to jettison their blackberries. Then, citing his great uncle R. Joel Teitelbaum’s incessant concern with modesty in women’s clothing he announced the formation of a committee to certify clothing for next year’s season.

Rabbi Teitelbaum may have been driven by competition against his brother R. Zalman who is generally considered a greater zealot. Not to be outdone by his younger brother, he may have thereby made a strong statement demonstrating to the world that he is just as frum (observant), and then some.

“Whoever wants to make money, let him know that he must sell only clothing that has been certified kosher”, said R. Teitelbaum. “If there will be demand it will be successful.”

There are unsubstantiated reports that the first 20,000 kosher-certified garments were sold out quickly in recent weeks after the community eagerly and fervently adopted the new certification standard as de rigeur for acceptable women’s garb. It is claimed that a new production cycle is now planned for the post-shavuot, pre-summer shopping season to meet the avid consumer demand.

These reports, however, may be sheer hype originating with the propaganda machine run by Aaron and his court. Additionally, it is likely that the Zallies will find some fault in this initiative and reject the whole thing outright since it’s a foe initiative, which may in turn undermine the long-term viability of the new product lines.

Some scholars and researchers of recent Hasidic economic trends have noted a recent overarching phenomenon of increasingly greater encroachment of the religious sphere into the previously purely economic sphere and suggest that it is spurred by a force larger than mere religious fervor. In many ways, the Hasidic establishment is able to retain their grip on its own market by portraying anything not manufactured by the community as religiously not cutting the mustard for consumption.

Furthermore, by firmly positioning the religious bar higher than any other Jewish community in America they are able to market their products to the entirety of American Jewry, even to those with a tenuous regard for religious adherence. Satmars may not be willing to buy Mayonnaise with an OU Kashrut certificate but a Modern Orthodox person would –if anything prefer to– buy mayonnaise manufactured by the Satmars and bearing the familiar “CRC” mark and the accompnying Hebrew seal, out of a subtle subconscious conviction that the CRC is even more kosher than OU, thus inadvertently betraying their own kind economically.

Williamsburg Fringe Applauds Religious Dialectician

Last Thursday Williamsburg played host to an unusual guest: a religious Jew who specializes in debating people of a different persuasion. He engages in what Williamsburg folks call haqirah — “examination” of the theological and philosophical pillars of he Jewish faith, a pursuit widely shunned by traditionalists for its contravention of emunah peshutah, simple faith — the kind that has so successfully preserved the timeless character of the fundamentalist Judaism practiced in Williamsburg.

The guest lecturer in question was Rabbi Yossi Mizrahi, an Israeli emigre’ of Sephardic heritage. After being raised in the typical Sephardic Israeli fashion of the 70′s and 80′s he hopped on the immensely popular bandwagon of sephardic Haredi-ism that reached unprecedented levels in the 90′s (as manifested by the popularity of the shas party). In 1994 he resolved to dedicate his life to proving the veracity of Judaism through dialectic argumentation, holding lectures and seminars across the globe to an eager and captive audience.

But this method of outreach is alien to indigenous Williamsburgers who rely on faith to guide their way. Any philosophical debate is inherently a hazard to faith — it’s tempting the devil: what if one is interrupted after, or gets fixated on a critical question regarding the Jewish faith and it then festers in the victim’s mind and refuses to go away? What if the listener accepts the heretical view as orthodox? One of the commandments in the Torah is not to tempt/test God!

On a popular Yiddish forum where a vigorous debate on the merits of R. Mizrahi’s lecture raged, one participant mused that “nobody requires any elucidation to prove that a glass of milk did not give birth to a tablecloth; whoever does, needs either a doctor or ‘reverence of God’; ponder this for I have been very succinct!”.

Yet, here is one institution in Williamsburg that had the audacity to host him: Kolel Williamsburg. A kolel is typically an advanced Talmudic institution for married men who engage in all-day study with partners with little guidance from Rabbis as is common in Yeshiva. But the Kolel Williamsburg, which is situated on the outskirts of the Hasidic enclave near Brooklyn Broadway on Rodney Street, is specifically geared for the folks who have been spit out from the regular educational system. They do not have the sitz fleish (=patience) to pinch the bench all day in Talmudic and Law Code perusal, or have committed other infractions which makes them ineligible to enroll in the mainstream courses of study. Special programs have been devised for those “modern” boys, many of whom have shed their payos and/or beard, who are seeking a more grounded and inclusive experience. Parents support the institution despite its degraded reputation, out of the sober realization that their kids would  otherwise likely be on the streets and may rebel against the established society altogether.

It is into this Kolel that Rabbi Mizrahi was invited to lecture on the topic of proving that the Torah is divine, after which he took questions from the audience. On Saturday evening he visited the synagogue of Lipa Schmeltzer, whose music was at one point banned from Williamsburg due to racy lyrics, and presented a lecture there. He related there that the Thursday night Williamsburg audience had told him that they found his lecture to be supportive and reaffirming to their faith, not the other way around as some have expressed concern.

This sort of foray into philosophical questions about Judaism is definitely new to the Hasidic world of Borough Park and Williamsburg, where religious study is defined by legalistic casuistry and Talmudic sophistry; not by theoretical speculation a la Maimonides. It remains to be seen how this avant garde event will exert its influence on the hitherto ingenuous community, going forward.

Visit the Rabbi’s website  and his Facebook page .

Behadre Haredim –Leading Haredi Community Forum on Internet– Pinched for Blackmailing

Directors of Behadrei Haredim, the premier Haredi Hebrew and Yiddish online portal, were arrested yesterday in Israel on charges of blackmail and extortion. They allegedly threatened to divulge damaging information on prominent Haredi leaders unless they were paid off to the tune of thousands of shekels.

Behadrei Haredim community forums are a phenomenal success among those haredim who use Internet, both in Israel and in America. Even though the website is primarily geared toward a Hebrew-speaking Israeli public its full support for Hebrew characters attracts the Yiddish-speaking, often anti-Zionist and anti-Hebrew, demographic in the New York Metropolitan region.

The key to the forum’s success is the inability to articulate much of the material reported therein in face-to-face situations, out of fear of being decried as irreverent or heretical and being stigmatized or ostracized by the community. The anonymity that the forums afford its participants radically alters the rules of the game, by allowing people to express pretty much anything on their mind without fear of provoking a zealously religious backlash from Rabbinic leaders and their dogmatic, hidebound followers.

Nonetheless, most of the subject matter under discussion in the Behadrei Haredim forums are of the gossip and rebellious type. There is little outright transgression or apostasy to be found there. When the site was once flagrantly vandalized in December 2011 by someone publishing lascivious videos under the guise of rabbinic photos, the site was briefly taken offline to rectify the matter before being restored to the public.

Indeed, despite the Rabbinic ban on the website issued in 2009, the website forged on and its operators subsequently persuaded the Rabbis to quietly revoke the ban in 2010. Advertisements served on the website are uniquely suited to the haredi market, which is likely to have generated pressure on the rabbis to rescind the ban.

Notwithstanding the egregious nature of the accusation its directors are now facing, the supposed “blackmailing” may have been initiated –at least in some of the cases– by the maligned community members, not the site operators. Haredi society is infamous for its double standards — it’s stark dichotomy between the fantastic, utopian vision of what its society should look like and the reality on the ground. This is augmented by the lack of traditional media reporting such as TV and objective, non-religiously-toned newspaper reporting. Leaders in the Haredi world, including the most illustrious Rabbis in the field, are likely to have two personalities –the public persona of saint and philanthropist, and the private persona of ruthless, cutthroat businessman and autocrat. The hidden face, if unmasked, could prove extremely unsettling to all in the community, perps and victims alike, possibly prompting the offer of hush money for the withholding or deleting slanderous information published by users.

There is currently a gag order on details of the case. But preliminary indicators point to politically connected folks, possibly from the Jeruslaem municipality who may have been the reputedly “blackmailed” individuals.

HasidicNews.com (HN) often consults Behadrei Haredim forums as a source to inform its maverick reports — in conjunction with data from other, verbal sources.

See http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/israel-police-arrest-directors-of-popular-haredi-website-for-suspected-extortion-1.422012 for more