This weekend I took a 45 minute train ride to Citi Field, which typically houses a baseball team called the Mets and some of its fans. But me and my fellow passengers on the 7 train weren't attending a baseball game: we were there, along with 40,000-ish ultra-Orthodox Jews, to learn about the internet.
Since I'm currently (for non-religious reasons) not using the internet for a year, I seemed to be the right guy to tag along. Of course, I didn't actually have a lot of specific information about my destination, like who was putting it on and why: I couldn't look it up on the internet, after all. I've since heard the rally referred to as "Asifa," but that's just Hebrew for "the big gathering," and it’s short on brand-name potential.
The ultra-Orthodox aren't difficult to spot: they wear black suits and large black hats (or at least a yarmulke) in all weather. In case the clothes don't tip you off, dramatic beards and lengthy side curls are a common sight as well.
There's no single style of dress because there's no single type of ultra-Orthodox Jew, but the black-clad clusters on each end of my train car seemed to be solid, middle-of-the-road fans of the Talmud. Still, while I've long been familiar with ultra-Orthodox Judaism and many of its mores, and watched a whole trailer for a movie where Jesse Eisenberg plays an ultra-Orthodox Jew, I've never actually met one.
After all, they're typically an insular bunch. There are a few that come into my favorite coffee shop around the time of various Jewish holidays, but they're only there to give delicious pastries to the Israeli employees and promote a little religious observance in their wayward brothers. I don't really factor into their concerns, and am never offered any pastries.
And then there's my own fear to overcome. They have many religious observances that I'm sure my day-to-day activities could violate. Most refrain, for instance, from interacting with women in public, and every once in awhile you hear a story of some kind of extreme encounter, like a woman falling on a sidewalk and a Hasid (the ultra-ultra-Orthodox, so to speak) refusing to help her up. An ultra-Orthodox Jew would never come over to my house for dinner, and might not even be willing to eat with a merely Orthodox Jew. It doesn’t strike me as an inviting religion.
But that's the whole point. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, love it or hate it, is about being separated. In fact, the very meaning of the word "holiness" is to be set apart, and the Jews are called in the Torah (to me, the Old Testament) "a holy nation, a sacred priesthood." To them, as I understand it, it's an idea that you can't be immersed in a secular world and stay separate from its sin and mindsets, and that the way you serve the world is by demonstrating the value of living life by God's laws. So here's the problem: the internet has nothing to do with being separate.
I finally gathered the courage to talk to my first group of besuited men on a train toward Times Square, where we'd transfer to the 7 and ride that into Queens for the rally. They were very shy. Most were in their 30s or older, though a proud 8th grader was tagging along with his dozen elders. Some of them carried Hebrew books, some of them were even reading them as we rode, and few of them wouldn’t give me the time of day. It seemed more modesty than rudeness, however, so I pressed on.
The first man I had a real conversation with, a tall, soft man in his mid-thirties, lives entirely with no internet, both at work and home, and has never had it. It didn't seem like he was putting in any active effort to avoid Google and Reddit, it simply didn’t factor into his life. I must've sounded too eager, however, because he soon dove back into the pack, and avoided me for the rest of the trip.
Next I talked to a man with the soulful eyes and striking beard of a conflicted Hollywood protagonist. He was clutching a religious tome to his chest, and attempted to merely tolerate me, but answered all of my questions despite himself. In his opinion, you have to control the internet, but you can't live without it. He personally has no connection at home, but he uses it at work over Wi-Fi on his iPad. His work, naturally, is to study the Talmud, and his iPad affords him a much more portable way to carry his innumerable books on the subject.
The 8th grader, watching our conversation closely, crowed that he doesn't even know how to turn a computer on, and he got a quiet lecture from this ruggedly handsome elder that I wasn't able to overhear.
Exiting the 7, at the second-to-last stop on the line, I let myself get swept toward the stadium with the black-clad group. As we went up some steps, I saw the deep, concerned eyes of my recent interviewee notice a young Hispanic girl's struggle getting an empty stroller up the stairs, and he reached down to help her, then walked away without acknowledging her thanks. What conflict, what internal torment. Were this man to take up acting, he could have the IMDb page of a god.
Joined by two camera-equipped coworkers, who had kept a safe distance as I slathered on my charm on the train, I began to really struggle getting the time of day from attendees loitering in front of Citi Field. Some of them looked genuinely scared of the cameras, others exuded merely a holy shyness: one person told me that he, and most Orthodox, "avoid publicity." Others simply didn't speak English.
Some talked to me after I guaranteed them I'd keep the cameras from rolling. Every time someone began talking, usually eloquently and heartfelt, a crowd of his peers gathered around us, pressing in close to hear how he was expressing his faith — or perhaps curious to hear how I'd undercut it.
As people started to warm up to the camera, or to accept the inevitability of the press's presence, I began to get some real interviews, but I still couldn't get a straight story about the purpose of the gathering. Some men wanted me to know that this was a rally about the internet, not against the internet, as I might've been told. "It's just to make it Kosher," one man said, meaning a Rabbi-approved use.
Others just called the rally — "not a protest!" — an expression of unity, and seemed little interested in the specifics. Everyone I spoke to, however, had some method of regulating their internet intake. A slight majority seemed to have some form of internet in their home, but it was rarely used, or used only for work, and was always subject to a filter, or some other form of accountability.
"It's about being aware of the dangers," said one man, "you need to protect your family, your kids." He pointed out that it's about what your goals are, and making sure the internet doesn't effect that: "We have to make sure that tech isn't our life."
I failed to visit any of the counter-protesters to the rally, who had been pushed far away from the entrance by the small but formidable police presence. There are many things to protest: to some, limiting the internet is akin to totalitarianism, attempting to control a people by limiting its knowledge. Others were there, as reported by The New York Times, to protest the suppression of child sexual abuse cases in ultra-Orthodox communities.
"There's a really dark undertone here," confided a fellow reporter to me, a woman with a large camera, who was clearly having more trouble getting interviews than I was. She called out some of these contradictions and controversies, adding: "You should look it up on the internet."
While waiting for an interview with Eytan Kobre, who claimed to be a spokesperson for the event (it was hard to identify any central, governing authority, and there was no branding or signage anywhere), I was surprised to hear him talking about me to a nearby reporter. Kobre brandished a printout of my article ”I’m leaving the internet for a year” to verify his claims, and explained my attempt at a year-long fast from the internet, conjecturing on my reasons for doing so. "This man isn't Orthodox, as far as I know. He might not even be Jewish!"
In fact, my personal abstinence was my great "in." I stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd, clean-shaven, with a casual blue button-up and khaki pants, a microphone in hand and a camera crew in tow, but my experiment seemed to engender some solidarity, even if I am from a different world.
As I was swept into the crowd heading through the turnstiles, I talked to a young man near me with sparse, blonde facial hair, and no black jacket over his white button-up — potentially a modern-Orthodox instead of an ultra, though he did have a nice big black hat. A friend of his was already inside, and texted him that the rally had begun. He asked me about my camera, (a 5D Mark III, he had a T3i) which I was hoping to bring into the stadium unmolested, and I expressed envy over everybody's hats.
"You want mine?" he asked. I did, and offered to buy it — he had a yarmulke underneath — but the $250 pricetag was too steep.
I'm not fond of crowds, and the press toward the gates of 1,000 well-dressed men was a little terrifying, but the security guard near the turnstile was impressed by the order.
"This is nothing compared to Mets fans," he said, and he told me he’d nearly been trampled by the attendees of a recent soccer game.
I wasn't the only one snapping pictures of the spectacle, as I rode the escalator toward my level. Phones and point-and-shoots were constantly being brandished. Text messaging was a common practice for lone souls looking for their group, and for just about everyone else, for that matter. I've seen teenage girls that text less often than some of these men.
Device-wise, there was a real slant toward BlackBerrys and flip-phones, with Android phones running a distant third. I spotted no iPhones, though I've heard there were some in attendance. The most important part of any phone seemed to be its QWERTY keyboard: I even spotted a Palm Pixi and a Droid Pro. After I took my seat, I was craning constantly to see if I could catch any mobile browsing, but sadly saw none.
I did see a lot of black hats, however. The stadium was entirely full, a sea of Orthodoxy. When I entered, it was bizarrely quiet, with everyone standing in silent prayer, facing toward Jerusalem. The respectful whispers of 40,000 sounded all together like the whoosh of a far-off air mattress deflating.
When we took our seats, the rabbis began to speak. They were all seated at the rear of the stadium, past the outfield wall, below the JumboTron, at long tables with a podium in the center. It looked a bit like a comedy roast, though few jokes were told. Occasionally, in my naiveté, I'd do a double take on a rabbi with glasses, thinking I'd spotted Woody Allen in his Hasidic getup from Annie Hall — perhaps a subconscious desire for laughs manifesting. At times, the more-reverent-than-me crowd would whisper and gesture as the big screen showed some apparently well-known octogenarian rabbi being carried in his wheelchair up toward the tables to join his barely younger colleagues.
I'll admit, the speakers, representing many different ultra-Orthodox sects, and hailing from many different nations, were hard to understand. I understood the general message, of course: the internet is a "terrible tool," a "terrible, terrible tool," a "terrible test," has inflicted "terrible damage" on this generation, and "is no longer a tool," depending upon which distinguished rabbi you ask. Unfortunately, while some of the speaking was in English, and all of it was translated onto a text-display under the screen, most of the serious words outside of "internet" or "filters" were a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish that remained untranslated — typically religious terms that would be intimately familiar to the audience, like study of the Torah, the practice of holiness, honoring the sabbath, and so on.
As much as I'd like to make myself out as appreciative and understanding of a sacred, storied culture, the insider lingo made listening to the teachings a bit of a Mad Libs exercise for me. One heartfelt sentence went like this: "Can you imagine how much [noun] we give [noun] when we [verb]?" You could replace any of those nouns and verbs with any word in the rich, throaty Hebrew language and I probably wouldn't notice the difference.
That's not to say I learned nothing. Most of the arguments, delivered in impassioned tones that would not seem out of place at a Christian pulpit, fell into two categories:
1. The internet is full of filth.
Ephraim Wachsman, who seemed to me to be the keynote speaker due to the high percentage of English he could work into his sentences, cited a "scientific study" done six years ago that found that "36% of websites are filth."
Now, I'm guessing by "filth" he meant porn, although the p-word was never uttered from the stage, but it wasn't just about porn. The incidental filth can be just as seductive, apparently. Things like banner ads, or just subtle temptations, and non-religious thinking. At the very root of it, most of the media and information on the internet falls outside of the realm of ultra-Orthodox study (which mostly surrounds the Torah and Talmud, and other texts closely related to those books), and therefore is to be viewed with deep suspicion. Also, though: porn.
Even communication and social media can be minefields: for instance, if you're not supposed to interact with women, then Facebook is probably a place you want to avoid. Nothing so specific was said, at least in English, but it was pretty easy to gather.
Ultimately, most of the rabbis coalesced around the idea that the internet should be avoided whenever possible, and that it probably doesn't belong in a home at all. When it's being used, hopefully only for work purposes, it should have a filter on it. But even with a filter, it was important to be careful: "filters don't really work," warned one rabbi.
Even with a filter, it was important to be careful: "filters don't really work," warned one rabbi
"It's reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity."
2. The internet changes who you are.
"It's a culture, a psychology, a way of life," said Wachsman. "It's reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity."
The internet-paced, internet-defined mindset is the opposite of "kedusha," which I took to mean patience in the context, but actually is a larger term that refers to sanctity and holiness in general. "The ability to wait is our secret," said Wachsman during his second lecture.
"Even secular studies agree that children are being turned into 'click vegetables.' Bored? Click something else." The internet equals the moment, but the Torah is about eternity. Children are plagued with "jittery inattention," and will struggle to understand the Torah in such a state.
I found it very interesting that several speakers proudly admitted that they "know nothing" about the internet. "But we know about life," said Wachsman. It seems odd to have an 70-year-old man who has never touched a computer decry the dangers of internet filth and promote porn filters, but ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a culture that respects the wisdom of the elders, and the elders are hard to sway by modern trends.
Still, the subject of the internet's impact and on the mind and soul is very important to me, and I set aside my ageism for long enough to take some serious notes.
Eventually, I grew bored. My 'click vegetable' mind had trouble following an ancient speaker, who was being held up by two concerned disciples, with one of them translating the rabbi's quiet utterances into a second language I didn't understand. I'd only followed the other men due to the detailed live transcriptions on the stadium screens, and perhaps the translator had dozed off as well, because the captions had slowed.
I wandered the stadium and took in the sights, trying to comprehend what I was doing and where I was. A gut check. Filling the stands of a major market sports team were 40,000-something men in black suits, wearing black hats, quietly attentive (or texting respectfully) to ancient wisdom about their modern lives. The brightly lit field in the center of them all was entirely empty, because a spectacle was unnecessary.
I was stopped by a man who asked me what I was taking pictures for. I told him I write for a technology publication. "But this is against technology," he said. "I thought it was about technology," I replied. He nodded thoughtfully, and gestured to me to continue, saying: "Take beautiful pictures."
The event, which contained no music, multimedia presentations, or professional sporting, had been scheduled for 6PM, began at 7:30, and was supposed to end at 10. A patient people indeed. I left before the rush, during an audio-only speech that was being live-streamed from some presumably famous man with a smile behind his white beard, according to his static image on the megatron.
My train home was sparsely populated with a couple other early escapees. I spoke to a couple of men that were a little less conservative than the speakers. They both admitted to using the internet, one even used it on his phone. But they still recognized the dangers. One man said that the internet should be regulated more, to make it harder for children to stumble across porn. He also was one of the first people I talked to that was open about the parallels and potential for collaboration between Jews and Christians when it comes to creating filters.
In fact, one of the primary filtering companies is Christian, which creates the "Covenant Eyes" software. According to The New York Times, the whole event was sponsored by a rabbinical group called "Ichud Hakehillos Letohar Hamachane," which is in turn linked to a company that builds similar filtering software. Still, my fellow passenger thought Google could build a filter in a snap, if it didn't stand to lose so much advertising revenue.
"Instead of being a Hasidic issue, it should be a national issue," he said
Another man I spoke to, on another train (did I mention how far Citi Field is from the core of Manhattan?) didn't think a larger cultural or regulatory shift was needed. "Live and let live," he said. He called the event a "pep rally," which was much in line with his expectations. Despite his casual attitude, he's in no way casual about the internet. He keeps the computer in the center of his home, so it can't be used without oversight, and keeps its ethernet cable in a cabinet, which he manually plugs into his computer and router whenever he wants to use it. As an accountant, he's sometimes required to use the internet from home for work, even though he'd prefer not to.
Ephraim Wachsman referred to members of the media in his talk, saying that his community isn't in search of publicity, though we were welcome at the event all the same. But in reality, there was very little press allowed inside — I only got in because The Verge bought a ticket for me off someone else. Eytan Kobre claimed that the prohibition on press passes was due to a "homeland security issue," and he also rattled off some references to the FBI and and CIA, but I'm not sure I buy it. The problem with allowing women in was "logistical," he said, due to different requirements of particularly conservative sects — the issue wasn't addressed at all by any of the rabbi speakers.
Because ultimately, the rally wasn't about me, and it wasn't about women. It was about what these ultra-Orthodox men should do to keep themselves and their children, and one day their grandchildren, safe from the evil influences of the internet. As a people, a sort of nation-within-a-nation, they have little apparent concern for what any of the rest of us think about those goals — just like they have little concern for what we think of their hats and suits and sideburns.
In order to get an outsider's perspective on the event, the next day I called up Avi Greengart, an analyst on consumer technology for Current Analysis who I bump into often at tech events. He also happens to be a modern-Orthodox Jew (doesn't wear the black suit), meaning he wasn't invited to the rally, though he'd heard of it through the internet.
Avi agreed that the rally's aims don't extend to an attempt to control the rest of society: "They're not trying to shut down the internet, they're trying to be sure their followers are able to adhere to a strict lifestyle that includes as little of the outside world as possible."
He said the event was promoted in the Jewish community as an admission by rabbinical leadership that simply banning the internet wasn't going to work anymore, and so the rally would offer practical ways to filter and deal with it. I had heard similar things in my ride up, although my non-religious Jewish friends had typically described it as "that rally against the internet." Early in the event, I heard some concessions being made to the necessity of the internet, but the side-along condemnation grew as the event progressed.
"The rabbis who organized this event don't understand the internet," says Greengart. "When you don't understand something, and are deliberately trying to lead an insular lifestyle, the solution is to ban it."
"When you don't understand something, and are deliberately trying to lead an insular lifestyle, the solution is to ban it."
Greengart still agrees with some of the dangers the ultra-Orthodox are looking to avoid: "If you go to Avenue Q, everyone laughs when they do the song 'The Internet is for Porn,' but they're laughing because that joke is based on truth." He takes precautions to oversee what his kids see on the internet, and of course he and his family disconnect entirely from their gadgets during the Sabbath, but he also knows the great advantages technology can provide — that's his job, after all.
And again, there's that dangerous undertone: "A lot of them seem to worry you might read a newspaper, or read something scientific that contradicts the teachings of the rabbis." Greengart pointed out to me, for contrast, Yeshiva University, which has been reconciling the Torah and science for over 100 years.
As pointed out by rabbis and attendees, the ultra-Orthodox community has weathered a similar storm before. There was a generation that adopted TV with little question, before it was recognized as a potential evil. The rabbis convened, and decided that it was a detriment, and almost any Hasid worth his salt these days doesn't even own a TV.
The hope is that the rally this weekend could spark a similar shift, encouraging the faithful to shun the internet except when entirely necessary. But that's really the whole problem: there's no necessity to TV, but the internet is already considered much more than a modern convenience. It's needed for work, to pay bills, to communicate, and to look up knowledge that someday won't even be found in paper alternatives. Can it be truly avoided?
The rally itself reflected this tension. Its organization was a remarkable example of peer-to-peer, meatspace sharing. Rabbis encouraging other rabbis, who in turn encouraged their synagogues and communities to attend. Filling one baseball stadium with 40,000 men to talk about porn filters is impressive, but overflowing 20,000 more into another stadium almost sounds absurd. The one concession to modernity, according to my presumed spokesperson, was a single email address.
But there were also live internet streams of the gathering to viewing parties for those in the New York area who couldn't attend, including women-only gatherings. The streams, supposed to be private, were soon captured and spread via unauthorized channels. Thanks, internet.
And this leads us to the most unsettling part of this event. For all the talk of holiness, it's hard to not hear a call to ignorance as well. The ultra-Orthodox community's rejection of the internet might be voluntarily, but it's also being heavily promoted by its leaders, who dictate through their encouragement and admonishment much of an ultra-Orthodox Jew's daily life. Some equate this to China or Iran or North Korea, who limit the internet to keep their people ignorant of freedom. This voluntary, secluded way of life is nothing new for the ultra-Orthodox, but it takes on a new insidious, contradictory tone for many of our time, on the outside looking in. We're in the "information age," and here is a people avoiding information.
I was particularly struck by a story that Ephraim Wachsman told about a rabbi who was struggling to convince one of his congregants to get rid of his TV. After years of futile struggle, the rabbi went to an older and wiser rabbi and expressed his frustration.
"I've asked him time and time again, but he just won't get rid of it!" he said.
"But rabbi," said the older man, "the TV is his [noun]. You can only get rid of it by replacing it with a new [noun]." I thought he meant idol or obsession — another Mad Lib for me.
But what noun could replace the internet?