Anonymous No Longer
An overview of anonymous writing in the Chasidic world, and a long withheld revelation.
In June of 2003, I met with a writer for The Village Voice at a kosher café in Midtown Manhattan. Over a diet coke, with the writer’s recorder on the table between us, I spoke about my blog, my views on religion, and Chasidic society. I’d been hesitant, apprehensive about the inevitable publicity following an interview with a major publication. But I’ll be honest: there was something enticing about gaining that kind of publicity. A blog isn’t a personal diary; it’s meant for readers, and increased readership serves a blog’s raison d’etre. But I knew there was a degree of risk involved. Then again, there was risk involved with blogging to begin with; it didn’t stop me from blogging, and increased exposure would serve whatever purpose I had for the endeavor.
The Voice published their article several weeks later, and the ensuing reaction was somewhat predictable – although its leap from the theoretical to the actual gave me a reality-check. With increased readership came increased hostility and outrage. I was accused of selling insider secrets, airing our dirty laundry, and being a traitor to my people. “We must find out who Hasidic Rebel is and where he lives and hold a not-so-peaceful demonstration,” one person wrote on an online Yiddish forum.
Friends, the few who knew about my blog and my real identity, were concerned. “They’re going to come after you,” they warned. I was told of rumors and conspiracies overheard in mikvas and shul coffee rooms around town. “They” were going to hack my email account; send me emails posing as women offering sexual encounters; “they” were hiring private detectives to discover my identity. Here and there I’d hear of some who’d correctly identified me as the blog’s author. But I dismissed most of it; I knew Chasidim and I knew to differentiate between bluster and a real threat to my safety and that of my family.
Chasidim seem to have a particular aversion towards open authorship, even when the subject is uncontroversial. Yiddish books and publications for Chasidic readerships are notorious for their pseudonymous writing. Chasidic newspapers such as Der Yid and Der Blatt often employ generic names for their writers and columnists, such as “A. Ungarisher” and “A. Schreiber.” Letters to the editor in the above publications are published with names withheld as a matter of course. The late Sender Deutch, longstanding editor of Der Yid, used to write his editorial columns under the name Eliezer Epstein. An enigmatic author using the very generic “Menachem Mendel” wrote some of the most popular Yiddish children’s books.
Not so, however, with works of rabbinic or scholarly literature. Many a fine kolel yingerman takes pride in publishing a collection of original Torah thoughts, proudly publishing his name on the title page and in the approbations from Torah leaders. This suggests a dichotomy between writings the public deems worthy and those considered mere indulgences – both for the writer and reader. Mere literary output, exposition of secular content, and open punditry fall into the latter category, one for which there is broad public desire but little esteem. Add to that a culture that celebrates conformity and views any deviation from monochromatic behavior with suspicion or ridicule, and the result is a perpetuating self-consciousness in all matters. Public esteem for one’s writing, meager as it might be, be damned; a writer would rather live in obscurity than expose himself to public judgment – even if such judgments were relatively benign.
All this is true even before we deal with writings of an unorthodox sort. In addition to the general self-consciousness, here applied with even greater intensity, dissenting views carry risks even more acute.
Hyperbolic insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding, the Chasidic world is not a republic transplanted from the Soviet era, complete with gulags for those who refuse to adhere to ideological norms or who dare question the given order. However, heretical ideas and subversive soap-boxing can and do have real repercussions, and real unpleasant ones, at that. When comfortably ensconced with family and community, tipping one’s carefully maintained equilibrium is a price few are willing to pay. While the fear of physical violence may be far-fetched (although still a possibility), the possible break-up of families and expulsion from communities is very real.
Chasidic societies, of course, do not have the legal autonomy to order people out of their homes and neighborhoods. But they can and do enforce expected norms by means of school admissions, shidduchim, shul membership, and other forms of social ostracism – official and otherwise. And while it may not seem a great sacrifice to give up one’s prerogative for use of the local mikva or to receive an aliya in shul, the comforts of one’s social circle and environment can’t be underestimated as considerable factors in the quotient of one’s overall life-contentedness.
And then there’s married life. Chasidic couples are generally not paired for their compatible personalities or mutual attractiveness. Young families are established with the very specific goal of carrying on the traditions of Orthodox Judaism in general and the Chasidic lifestyle in particular. Instead of wishing a pair of glowing newlyweds that they happily maintain their passionate love for each other, they are warmly congratulated on the chance to raise doros yesharim umevorachim, generations of upstanding and blessed offspring who follow in the hallowed footsteps of their ancestors.
A Chasidic marriage, therefore, implies ideological compatibility first and foremost. The unspoken agreement is that the family be established according to rules, customs, and norms of the community, and is to continue to abide by them for a lifetime. It is a contractual relationship, if only an implied one, in which both parties understand that deviating from these norms could be a deal-breaker.
Married men and women of the Chasidic world who develop dissenting views therefore face a real crisis. Their dissenting views are dangerous to their status quo, and with the typical age of marriage being between eighteen and twenty, by the time one has a chance to develop a more expansive worldview, their status quo might very well include multiple children settled securely in reputable schools with comfortable social dynamics. The upheaval that can result from revealing dissenting views – especially if those views are carried into practice, such as disregard for the laws of Shabbos and kashrus – are enough to scare away even the bravest of souls from open dissent.
The anonymity so ubiquitous in the Chasidic blogosphere is therefore no surprise. But anonymity too comes with a price: it seems vaguely shady.
Anonymous and pseudonymous writing has a longstanding and reputable tradition. Spinoza first published his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus anonymously, although it seems to have been a little-kept secret. George Eliot, author of several distinguished novels of the English Victorian era, was the pen name of a woman, Mary Anne Evans. The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays penned in defense of the proposed U.S. Constitution by prominent U.S. founding fathers, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, were published anonymously.
Anonymous writing is not ignoble or cowardly. Few are idealistic enough – and we might even deem it foolish idealism – to speak their minds for the sake of truth and principle if it is to adversely affect their lives. But anonymous writing does deprive writing of otherwise worthy respectability. There is something to be said for standing behind one’s opinions, and it’s easy to be sloppy or irresponsible when there’s no need for accountability. (Hence, the bane of the Internet: nasty and gratuitous ad hominems that one would rarely make in real life without serious provocation.) In the end, however, there’s a cost-benefit analysis: the benefits of an exposed identity are deemed of too little value compared to the costs.
A fellow Chasidic blogger asked me years ago if I can foresee a time when I will lay anonymity by the wayside. I’ve long wished for the freedom to do so, but such freedom seemed elusive, and at the time the question was tough to answer. Circumstances have changed. While I am still in many ways attached to the Chasidic community – not least of which through family relations – I have chosen a path that at least in some ways separates me from the general Chasidic culture. Anonymity, while convenient in some ways, seems a thing to finally cast aside. After much thought and consideration, I am ready to blog without the comfort of a mask.
My “Hasidic Rebel” moniker has served me long and well, a name chosen without much thought but which has gained a degree of recognition with blog readers. I don’t intend to discard it, but neither am I inclined to continue to hide behind it. It seems only appropriate to impose on myself the accountability of writing with an open identity.
And so, I present my newly crafted bio:
Hasidic Rebel is a former Skver Chasid and author of the “Hasidic Rebel” blog. He spent his childhood and early teen years in Borough Park and Williamsburg, and subsequent yeshiva years and married life in the Chasidic village of New Square, NY. His real name is Shulem Deen, and he now lives in Brooklyn amongst artists, hipsters, and a colorful array of non-conforming conformists.Printable Version