By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
If Yeedel's identity were revealed, the consequences could be awful. "My children could be expelled from their schools. I could be told to leave the community," he says in an interview. "It would cause tremendous, tremendous pain for my family. . . . If I said the wrong thing, there could even be physical violence. I've seen it happen. I've seen somebody's car tires get slashed. I've seen windows get broken."
Yeedel, as we'll call him, writes an anonymous weblog (or "blog"), a kind of online diary, under the pen name Hasidic Rebel. His comments, first posted in February, range from musings about the Hasidic lifestyle to stinging indictments of the community.
Anonymous blogs like Yeedel's are set to become a lot more secureand maybe a lot more commonwith the release in August of a new application called Invisiblog. Fusing existing privacy technologies with a tool for blogging, the software makes it far easier to broadcast in secret.
"Political activists, independent journalists, whistleblowersanyone who is prevented from publishing by repressive laws or threats of violence" can benefit from covert-blogging software, writes Charles Farley of Invisiblog. Indeed, over the past year, online diarists in Cuba, Iran, and Tunisia have been jailed for publishing. Like these writers, Yeedel and several other Hasidic bloggers have put their lifestyle, if not their lives, on the line with their contentious chronicles.
"The Chasidic communities are filled with corrupt leaders and so-called activists," Yeedel writes. "Many of these are self-appointed to communal positions because of personal wealth or pedigree, and often hold the masses in their vise-like grip, by being in control of social services and communal institutions. Moneys meant for needy are often pocketed by those in charge, or it is prioritized to go to cronies and relatives, and only then if there's any left does it go to those truly in need."
Yeedel's blog has angered Orthodox Jews, many of whom view his writings as a betrayal.
There are about 250,000 Hasidim in the world, most living in tight-knit groups in the New York City area and in Israel. Ultra-conservative, they set themselves apart from other Jews partly through their distinctive appearance, which for the men includes beards, side locks, black hats, and long coats. The group's insular lifestyle is a by-product of its teaching, which instructs adherents to reside in a religious community of like-minded individuals in order to achieve a righteous life.
The Hasidic Rebel's anony-blog provides a unique view into this closed culture. "A couple of months ago, a Chasidic man was accused of having expressed heretic views," Yeedel writes. "It was alleged that he had a circle of friends who shared these views and he was their leader. . . . He was lured into an office for a supposedly friendly chat and beaten up. He was warned against reporting the perpetrators to the authorities and threatened that if he did, information . . . would be publicized that would shame him and his family."
Controversial posts like this have made Yeedel a kind of minor celebrity in Orthodox circles. His site gets several hundred visitors each day. Some of his diary entries draw dozens of reader comments, a sign the blog has its share of avid followers.
Many of these responses are passionate denunciations. "I have found that much of your site is driven by . . . world-class ignorance," reads one comment. A separate site, the Hyde Park Forum, features a discussion in Yiddish in which one writer calls on fellow Jews to "attack the Hasidic Rebel."
"People have complained about my blog," says Yeedel. "They say, 'If you want to criticize, criticize in a medium that does not expose us to the outside world.' "
He also offers parallels between his culture and that of harshly restrictive nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia. "Rebbes sometimes give you ridiculous edicts about how long women's wigs should be or how thick their stockings should be," he says. "I find that very similar to what the Taliban did. That's not what Judaism is about."
Along with the negative feedback, the weblog has produced an outpouring of affirmations and even brought other doubting Jews to the surface. "I received e-mails from people who tell me they are Hasidic and they're struggling with the same problems and the same issues," Yeedel says. "I never had the faintest idea that these people existed.
"I have only one close friend who shares at least some of my struggles," he adds. "And he's just a friendit's not someone who necessarily agrees with my views.
"It's difficult if you have questions, if you're struggling with your inner demons, what's right and wrong, the fundamentals of faith: Does G-d exist? Was the Torah revealed to Moses at Sinai? There is no person of authority in the Hasidic community that you can approach with questions like this."
Other anonymous Hasidic blogs include Katla Kanya, which takes a satirical look at life in the Hasidic community. The site, which is written in Yiddish, takes its name from an Aramaic phrase that means ignoramus. "[Hasidic Rebel] is tame by my standards," says Kanya's author in an e-mail interview. "I can afford to be more spiked when writing about my own since my audience is limited to Yiddish speakers."
Kanya's meditations on Hasidic determinism are typical of the acerbic commentary. "What's fated to happen is fated," the blogger writes. "So fire escapes are something that people have in mind only when the inspectors come, cleanliness is such a priority that hepatitis is a frequent guest and often an inhabitant in our communities, and lice are more common for us than for the plagued Egyptians."
Another anonymous blog called Yoshev Al Hageder is written in Hebrew by an Israeli who claims to be an ordained Hasidic rabbi. Among other confessions, he writes that he does not believe in God or the Torah.
Yeedel's frustration with his tradition is linked with its financial fallout. One entry skewers Israel-based Rabbi Arye Leib Steinman, who encourages poverty for Hasidim because it has always produced better scholarship. The rabbi recently turned down a donation of $100 million that would have gone toward vocational training for Orthodox men, explaining that a life of limited means was a "garden of Eden." Yeedel blogged about reading the news, "I couldn't believe my eyes!
"Countless young [Hasidic] men will tell you that . . . they find life in poverty unbearable," Yeedel continued. "But they have no choice. A friend of mine . . . would tell me often that he finds absolutely no satisfaction in what he's doing [studying the Torah]. 'Why don't you go get a job?' I would ask. 'I can't read, write, or speak English. What kind of prospects do I have?' "
Like these Hasidic blogs, other weblogs have appeared that use the medium as an anonymous forum to voice and vent. Yarak's Ring, hosted by Invisiblog, is a diary of a woman's abusive relationships. Another, Daneb, details the author's secret crush.
For Yeedel, as for these other anony- bloggers, there is evident relief and even some thrill in expressing pent-up ideas. "I enjoy giving people a glimpse into this world," he says.