After many days of hearing people sing the praises of being a Chassidic Jew, whine about the dangers of the internet, and predict the doom of all Jews who aren’t as pious as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” I can’t help but wonder whether the so-called dangers of the internet come hand in hand with the lifestyle that the Chassidic world is trying so relentlessly to advance.
I must preface this by mentioning that, having experienced firsthand the segregation of the sexes, something the Chassidic world so strongly promotes as the recipe for a modest and pious upbringing, I now vehemently oppose this lifestyle and all variations therein.
I experienced the world of the ultra-Orthodox Jew when I was living in Toronto during my marriage. This was not my original upbringing, having been brought up in a scholarly home where women’s views were valued and even encouraged (my father, like Tevye, has five daughters… and a son). I attended schools where as women we were never made to feel that there were topics in our curriculum that were only ordained for the male mind. Once in the ultra-Orthodox community, I spent many years trying to justify why it was OK for women to come to our synagogue board meetings without being called (heaven forbid) “feminists.” I was taught to see the value of being involved in community work, having come from a long line of community leaders, including my grandfather Rabbi Phillip Rosensweig, my Uncle Avrum, and my parents and siblings, each a community leader and contributor in their own way.
After realizing that an equal opportunity for expression was not “meant to be,” I eventually succumbed to the semi-replacement role of Sisterhood president instead. I realized that as women we were merely being contained and appeased, while the real decisions in our community were being made by our male counterparts behind closed doors. I wasn’t supposed to oppose Da’at Torah, or to offer my opinion in opposition to any of our community leaders. It simply wasn’t done.
Once, after feeling disturbed by an article I read in an ultra-Orthodox community paper telling of a woman who died from slaving away for her family, I wrote a letter to the editor that was very subdued and therefore was printed in the following week’s edition. I explained that as much as we wanted to laud this woman’s as the ultimate woman of valor, her children were now left childless and probably would have fared better with a maternal presence rather than a dead martyr for a mother.
Differentiating between reality and fantasy
I was further exposed to the dangerous results of a gender-segregated society when I was going through my divorce. Sure enough, I made sure to look for a marriage counselor who dealt with ultra-Orthodox couples, since we were still in that world. I was shocked to find within those religious circles such a powerful woman with so much energy who also proudly promoted her certification as a sex therapist. It’s funny to say that even though I did end up completing my divorce, I felt that she was, and still is, a huge help and support to me in many ways.
We loved to sit and talk to each other, each feeding off of the other’s energy, and sometimes she would tell me anonymous stories of the recurring issues she faced in the ultra-Orthodox world of sex and marriage counseling. Many times couples would bring their rabbis to the counseling sessions, which would obviously cause the couples discomfort, making it much harder for them to make progress. The rabbi was there to offer his guidance and, of course, the insight of Da’at Torah. The women, usually uncomfortable and wanting to make a good impression while not seeming controversial, would try to offer suggestions such as, “Well, if he wants me to iron his shirts and cook his meals then I will do it, even if I am unhappy. It’s just what I have to do as his wife.”
To which the therapist would respond, much to the rabbi’s chagrin, “Are you sure that’s what a wife is meant to be? Think about the things that a wife can do that a maid cannot. That is the role a wife really plays. Think about what you bring to a marriage as a unique person and as a part of this partnership, not as household help.”
She told me of the many times that a couple would arrive for counseling with each side extremely distraught due to their inability to reconcile their fantasies about marriage with the realities they were presented with. The girl, usually having been brought up in a Beit Ya’akov environment, was educated to believe that the role of a woman and of a wife were one and the same. The woman of valor should be modest and not flashy, covering most of her body and not drawing attention to herself. She is able to fulfill the needs of her husband and family, oftentimes negating her own needs to bring peace to the home. She comes to her marriage with feelings of commitment and devotion, ready to serve, believing that her beauty lies within.
The man, on the other hand, having been brought up in a sterile male environment, has battled years of raging testosterone, guilt over self-gratification, hours on end of sitting in a chair instead of being physically active, with little to no contact with a female of any kind aside from his mother and sisters. He turns many times to online female role-models, pornography, and the fantasy women who are able to have sex on their heads while looking like they enjoy themselves, too. He comes into the marriage facing a woman who can’t conjure her body into the positions he has watched for so long, doesn’t have a nickname like Candy, and is not sexy or flashy in the ways that he has grown to love.
The fantasy that each has created for themselves in no way meshes with the reality they are presented with. Each marriage is unique and develops in it’s own way and on it’s own timeline, but eventually it ends up in the same place: at the therapists’ doorstep, with both sides not really knowing how they ended up there after trying so hard to always do the right thing.
The idea that little to no contact with the other sex can then lead to a successful and meaningful partnership is not an easy thing. Many ultra-Orthodox teens are forbidden from having any interaction with the other sex, and then either resort to sneaking behind their parents and administrators’ backs or just being very stalker-like in nature, following girls/boys around, looking, laughing, writing, texting — but never really spending nice, carefree time together.
The idea of sneaking around is a prevalent one, which I have seen as a teenager, as an adult, and even today, as a parent.
In our teenage years in Israel, my friends and I always knew who the yeshiva boys were who weren’t really allowed to be where they were on a Saturday night. As an adult working in interior design, I was used to being asked to design wall units with doors to hide their TV sets safe from the prying eyes of the other families and leaders in the community who lived without television sets. This deception is much easier today with the invention of the flat-screen TV, when you can no longer tell whether there is a screen hidden by the protruding area in a built-in wall unit so obviously there to house more than just oversized platters.
What’s not to like?
The internet offers a fantasy that, if not supplemented with reality, can lead to a misconception of what the world is all about. A healthy connection to the opposite sex in a healthy environment ensures that one will maintain a realistic view of what women and men are truly like in a non-sexual way — especially when one will inevitably be exposed to pornography at some point in one’s life. Being open about what you do and represent in front of your family, friends, children and community shows strength and a feeling of confidence in the path you have chosen to walk. Spending real time with your friends and family, hosting them in your homes, and keeping an open door are the surefire way to balance the fantasy of Facebook, an online repository of “friends” whom you rarely, if ever, have to meet, host or talk to. Online relationships with people you never meet should be balanced with the reality of your real relationships with the people who require much more care and attention, and who see what you really look like at your best — and at your worst.
There’s a lot to like about real life and the internet. What I don’t like is when a religious representative idealizes a sect or culture based on their own personal situation, thus negating a vast group of people who are struggling with the shame of their own reality.