May 2012 rally (asifa) against the Internet at Citi Field | Image via Heshy Fried

When new media are introduced into religious communities, they often become sites for struggles over the very nature of mediation. In the new millennium, for example, some nonliberal (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Brooklyn began to blog, creating debates about publics and alternative forms of authority and expression. In this essay I examine how the community vernaculars—nonstandard varieties of Yinglish and Yiddish, along with Standard English and Yiddish—were used in blogs to challenge the legitimacy of contemporary nonliberal Judaism, what bloggers called “the system.” I also explore how blogging practices were gendered and what kinds of publics—religious, secular, or otherwise imagined—were created through gendered language choice.

There are many unexpected twists and turns to the story of nonliberal Jews in New York. They arrived after the Holocaust, defied all predictions of assimilation, and flourished—in part because of the increasing tolerance for public displays of religion and ethnicity in the US. They both participate in and reject the authority of the North American nation-state, using its resources to build up their own communities while they await the final redemption. I began conducting research with nonliberal Jewish mothers and children in Brooklyn (predominantly Hasidic Jews) in the late nineties, arguing that Hasidic women’s engagement with the secular world created an alternative religious modernity, one which collapsed the categories of the religious and the secular.

Distinctions between public and private, historically implicated in the secular-religious binary as many have noted, were similarly complicated among nonliberal Jews. Nonliberal Jewish publics, for example, were gendered and marked by language choice, with women speaking predominantly a nonstandard variety of English (called Yinglish) to navigate the secular world and the domestic sphere; in contrast, men spoke a nonstandard variety of Yiddish when they studied sacred text in liturgical Hebrew and Yinglish (with more Hebrew than women’s) when they worked in “business.” Both vernaculars draw on each other, along with liturgical Hebrew, to blur boundaries between discrete languages, making them all Jewish. Gendered language use was constitutive, in part, of gendered publics.

As they have done with other media in the past (television, radio, books), rabbinic leadership has, over the past fifteen years, increasingly attempted to control access to the Internet. In particular, smartphones (for men) have made it much easier to privately explore all kinds of knowledge and images away from communal surveillance. Nonliberal rabbis organized a rally (or asifa) against the Internet in New York City in 2012 with 40,000 nonliberal Jewish men gathering at the Citi Field Stadium in New York. Many speakers there claimed the Internet was responsible for what was perceived as a growing population of “at risk” Jews—at risk, that is, of leaving their communities.

My ongoing ethnographic research with nonliberal Jews shows that rabbinic concerns over the Internet grew much more serious with the emergence in 2003 of what was alternately called the “J-blogosphere,” the Jewish blogosphere, or the “Jewish underground,” peaking in 2008 when other social media took over. Many of those in the underground were “double lifer” men and women, those who questioned or ceased to believe in Jewish tenets of faith, yet remained in their communities and continued to practice nonliberal Judaism, at least in public. At the same time, these bloggers anonymously posted critiques of nonliberal Jewish life, explored secular knowledge, met each other online and offline to socialize, and experimented with self-expression in multiple languages.

In my research I build on scholarship in religion and media, which offers an approach to religion that integrates the sensorium and affect with materiality to examine the production of publics. My contribution is to ask how multiple languages, especially in online posts, shape the production of publics, both affectively and materially. I approach multilingualism from a perspective of linguistic anthropology, complementing research in religion and media that has attended to the materiality and sensuality of language and discourse. Susan Gal, for example, defines publics as reliant on “inter-discursive links across occasions of talk, and often across languages where circulation creates viewers and listeners who come to see themselves as a public.” In my case, the multiple languages bloggers used had distinct language ideologies, which invoked particular forms of affect through the materiality of the blog posting. Ethnographic research with multilingual blogging can contribute toward a broader goal of “provincializing” the digital, which has primarily focused on Standard English. This is part of the wider agenda of the anthropology of media to problematize assumptions that experiences of the digital are universal.

There is a small body of work on nonliberal Jewish bloggers in North America and Israel. Andrea Lieber, in her work on North American Orthodox Jewish women, suggests that their blogging represents the articulation of a new kind of “private-public”—one that facilitates self-expression but does not consciously challenge “social or religious boundaries.”

The nonliberal Jewish underground I am working on was different: bloggers created and interacted with various online gendered publics, each in a particular vernacular with its own orthography and attendant affect. The publics shared what I call a “culture of dissent” in which bloggers anonymously criticized, mocked, and challenged their own communities. Their blogs were sites for personal expression and a way to find others who were also questioning. For example, one early blogger, Shtreimel (a pseudonym), told me, “I didn’t know any people like me. I thought I’m the only one… it [blogging] changed my life in many ways. First of all I met hundreds of like-minded people. It validated most of my thoughts…”

Katle Kanye (a pseudonym), one of the first male bloggers to emerge in the early 2000s, wrote exclusively in Yiddish in Yiddish orthography (Hebrew letters). He wrote in a literary style that some journalists and scholars have compared to secular Yiddish writers of prewar Eastern Europe like Sholom Aleychem. However, his variety of Yiddish was not accessible to all. As one prominent male blogger, Hasidic Rebel, said to me:

He’s staggeringly brilliant but he uses very gendered language, the language you don’t hear among women, only among men. Men will use homiletic expressions, loshn koydesh (liturgical Hebrew)… Talmudic expressions. Katle Kanye is modeling his writings on scholarly language, a parody of scholarship.

Katle Kanye, then, was making an internal critique, writing to other Hasidic men and perhaps secular Yiddish intellectuals who also followed him. In addition to his parodies of Jewish study, Katle Kanye aspired, through translations, to elevate Yiddish as a secular literary language. For example, one posting was a translation of Robert Frost’s “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening” in Yiddish.

Katle Kanye gave his position historical legitimacy with his blog’s subheading (trans. Zachary Berger Sholom): “Passion of a Hasid; thoughts of a maskil (modern Enlightenment Jew).” A number of the bloggers similarly referred to themselves using historical references to the Jewish Enlightenment of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. At that time, influenced by European Enlightenment ideals, many European Jews questioned traditional Judaism and engaged in secular study, with some leaving Judaism altogether. Other bloggers similarly called themselves enlightened (or in Yiddish, aufgeklert). Katle Kanye’s scholarly register of Yiddish made his blogging a form of historical continuity and return to authenticity, rather than a rupture of authentic Judaism by technological innovation.

In contrast, two other bloggers, Shtreimel and Hasidic Rebel, chose to use Standard English rather than Yiddish or Yinglish, even though as Hasidic men, neither was fluent in Standard English when he began blogging. Metapragmatic commentary suggests that ideologies of Yiddish and English may be changing for some men who blog. Shtreimel and Hasidic Rebel both used Standard English to reach a new audience, a public of fellow travelers, but also a wider, more anonymous, intellectual public. Yiddish could not create this public, they asserted in interviews, both because of its linguistic limitations and also because of its limited readership. For example, Hasidic Rebel explained to me:

The Yiddish I was reading was never about ideas, never about critical ideas. So the language of critical ideas was English… Why would I speak to several thousand in Yiddish?

Hasidic Rebel contrasted critical thinking done in English to his study of Jewish texts done in Yiddish, eventually starting an English language literary site called “Unpious,” which curates the creative writing of double lifers and others who are questioning. Hasidic Rebel’s blogging was part of a wider experimentation with a range of forbidden media, which led to different affective experiences. For example, Hasidic Rebel told me, “It wasn’t the Internet that made me leave religion at all. That was entirely from the library, books on Bible criticism, books on archeology.” These books made him doubt the literal truth of the Torah. He also suggested that watching movies on DVDs allowed him to empathize with non-Jews for the first time. The chance to write about his transformation, new ideas and feelings were all conducted in an unfamiliar language, Standard English.

Both Shtreimel and Hasidic Rebel described Yiddish as “limited.” Shtreimel told me that in Yiddish, “You can’t transmit ideas. You can’t talk about anything but really, really simple…” When I suggested that some were indeed blogging in a sophisticated Yiddish, he suggested that they had to rely on English and Hebrew loanwords, using a discourse of purity that was rarely articulated by ultra-Orthodox speakers, whose variety of Yinglish un-problematically appropriates English for Jewish purposes. Aiming for Standard, literary English had encouraged Shtreimel and perhaps others to begin thinking about and articulating an ideology of linguistic purism.

How, though, did women bloggers use language? Did they also turn to Standard English or a more literary Yiddish? Shpitzle Shtrimpkind (a pseudonym) was one of the few women bloggers, perhaps because ultra-Orthodox Jewish women were rarely allowed in the Jewish public sphere, including online. Shpitzle blogged from 2006-2007 in the language of Hasidic women, Yinglish. She drew a large following, as she chronicled her transformation, as she wrote, from “innocent” Satmar (a branch of Hasidism) wife and mother to “sarcastic critic” and “enlightened bum.” Note the use of “enlightened” as part of a return to the Jewish Enlightenment, while a “bum” is a local term for someone who leaves the community. Anonymous sarcasm and mockery, along with parody, can be powerful ways to challenge authoritarian leadership as Annabelle Sreberny and Gholam Khiabany note in their work on blogs in Iran.

In her blog, Shpitzle used the syncretic orthography of Yinglish to play with language and subjectivity. In this way, as Carmel Vaisman has suggested in her work on girls’ computer play in Israel, the blog postings’ playfulness with the materiality of language may also be read as “playing with the rules, rather than playing by the rules.” For example, when by May 2007 Shpitzle felt she was living a dual life, online and offline, she wrote this post, which played with a common Yiddish proverb:

In all, the underground Internet community is probably growing. It’s marvelous because it allows you צו טאנצן אויף ביידע חתנות (tsu tansn of bayde hasanas, to dance at both weddings).

In fact the Yiddish proverb states that me ken nisht tansn of bayde hasanahs (one cannot dance at both weddings). Shpitzle claimed here, by juxtaposing orthographies and languages (including a change in directionality as Yiddish is read from right to left), that as a part of the Underground, she was actually able to be both a Hasidic wife and mother and explore a new world online. I asked her about her choice to use Yinglish on her blog rather than Yiddish:

I am definitely fluent in Yiddish, but I always wrote in English… women are like that. When I wrote my blog…I felt mixing Yiddish and English was a way to speak insiders’ jokes. I was entirely unconcerned with reaching a wide audience or making the mix of languages more readable. I thought English was a good language for expression… But I felt it was crucial to include lots of Yiddish to make the English heimish (literally homey, but also a synonym for ultra-Orthodoxy).

Shpitzle imagined her readership to be other ultra-Orthodox Jews (heimishe Jews), especially women. Indeed from some of the comments they seemed to be. The public that evolved, which I would posit formed through the postings, the comment threads, and the links on the side of her blog, created a space to explore and express and question without necessarily leaving the community, though some did.

However, Shpitzle suggested to me that despite the J-blogosphere being a subversive space, Hasidic gendered hierarchies remained intact, and many men bloggers did not take her seriously. For example, on his own blog Katle Kanye wrote in Yiddish: Toyre by Shtreimel, practik by Shpitzle, which Shpitzle explained slotted her and her blog into the practical and gendered realm of knowledge, rather than any deep intellectual journey, for which readers could go to Shtreimel’s blog, using the colloquial use of Toyre as deep thought. Perhaps Shpitzle’s use of Yinglish, in contrast to scholarly Yiddish or Standard English, marked her as not engaged in intellectual questioning, which remained dominated by men and their blogs.

In conclusion, what can the language used by underground Jewish bloggers tell us about the formation of online publics? Varieties of English and Yiddish and their orthographies frame blogs for certain audiences. For example, women’s lack of fluency in men’s variety of Yiddish makes Katle Kanye’s blog less accessible. Online language choice also indexes particular forms of affect. For Shpitzle, for example, there is the warm heimishe feeling of Yinglish, the Yiddish/Hebrew fonts and syncretism as insider discursive practice for nonliberal Jewish women. For Hasidic Rebel there is the sensibility that Standard English was a medium to reach not only Jews, but also intellectuals all over the web who were critical thinkers, not Torah scholars. These affective experiences of language, their materialities in how they look online and how they circulate, shape emerging publics. And these online publics may eventually change not only ideologies of language but also the communities that speak them.

Content from this essay is included in Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in a Digital Age (Princeton, 2020). –Ed., 4/16/2020