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#24 Exit & Return, Part II
May 14, 2015
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This week, we conclude Shulem Deen’s story. In part I, we heard how the internet led him on a path where he ended up being exiled from his community and separated from his family. In part II, Sruthi Pinnamaneni tells the story of how the Hasidic community has tried to block off a corner of the internet for itself, and how this new, informal Hasidic internet might offer Shulem a way back.
PJ VOGT: Um, wait, so, Matt Lieber. I have to interview you about show content this week.
MATT LIEBER: What?
PJ: I have to interview you about show content this week... um, we need to figure out if we need to put a language advisory on the episode.
MATT: I don't even need to ask. Yes you should do it.
PJ: (laughs) Thank you.
PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. I'm PJ Vogt.
ALEX: And I'm Alex Goldman.
PJ: This week we have part two of our story about Shulem Deen. If you didn't hear part one, you should go back now and listen.
ALEX: Our producer, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, reported this story. Ah, Sruthi will take it from here.
SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: So, here's a quick recap. Shulem Deen used to live in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community called New Square. He spent all his time there praying, studying the Talmud. He had an arranged marriage when he was 18, five kids by the time he was 27, and somewhere in all of that, he got a computer.
SHULEM DEEN: One of the things that came with the computer was a 3.5 floppy disc, a free AOL trial. So I put in this floppy disc, and it says, you know, "welcome, you've got mail." And there's this whole world. There's news. There's shopping. There's chatrooms.
SRUTHI: This AOL account started him down a long path out of his orthodox life and into a secular world. He lost his faith, was banished from his community and in last week's episode, we learned that it had been seven years since he'd seen his kids. They're not on Facebook. There's no local newspaper. In all this time, the only communication he's gotten from them is a single piece of mail, a note from one of his daughters. We'll call her Friday.
SHULEM: And so I ripped it open and inside was just a Hanukkah card. It said, "Happy Hanukkah." Nothing that was personal and her signature. So, she signed her name "Freidy D," putting her last initial, and I'm like, like, which other Freidy would it be? As if she's writing, sending this to someone who she knows, but not a really close family member.
SRUTHI: Still, he was thrilled. One of his kids was reaching out. So, he sat down and wrote a three page letter and sent it certified mail, signature required.
SHULEM: And then, uh, you know, I'm sitting at the computer a day or two later, with the tracking number and I'm, you know, hitting refresh and it's up in Jersey and it's in North Jersey and now it's in Rockland and then it's out for delivery and I'm waiting, and I'm you know, sitting there waiting for it to say like, you know, delivered.
SRUTHI: But then it just stopped. There were no updates. Everyday he would check but there was nothing.
SHULEM: And six weeks later, it gets updated, saying "being returned to sender." And two days later, I get it back in the mail.
SRUTHI: That was it. New Square had closed up again. But recently, Shulem discovered an opening, another way to reconnect. It takes a couple steps to explain. But to start, you have to look at Shulem's story through the eyes of the Hasidim, because to them, there have been a lot of Shulems lately, people who not only left but were also airing the community's dirty laundry to the secular world. So in 2012, the Hasidic leadership decided the time had come to reckon with the internet.
SRUTHI: They held this thing called the Asifa, Hebrew for gathering.
SRUTHI: And it was a big gathering. Historic big. Citi field, a giant baseball stadium in New York, was filled with thousands of Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish men, a sea of black hats and binoculars. The spill-over crowd actually filled a neighboring stadium, where they watched a video feed of the Asifa. All in all, 60 thousand people, all united to save their way of life from the internet.
MAN TALKING TO CROWD: What is the best way to protect myself and my home and business in the pocket against a [Hebrew word] The trials that our generation, as we all know, all of us gathered here is plagued with. The pitfalls that technology, modern technology, poses for a servant of HaShem.
SRUTHI: The Hasidim have been resisting the temptations of modernity for a long time. Since the 1800s, when an Austrian rabbi, Chasam Sofer, said all that is new is forbidden by the Torah. Every time a new technology has come along since then, the Hasidim have taken what they like and left the rest behind. Take the radio. Radios are frowned upon in the Hasidic community, but say you want a cassette player to play religious music. It comes with a radio, as almost all cassette players do, so you do what every good Hasidic person does: you break off the antenna. Simple. But that's just step one. What if you want to hear a kosher version of the things you'd hear on the radio? Well, you just dial this number: 212-444-1100.
(Phone rings, music)
SRUTHI: It's called Kol Mevaser, a Hasidic hotline. There are ads at the top, then you press one for news, the weather. There's eight for the Torah, and lots of other options for talk shows or interviews. One person I spoke to said these are our podcasts. The hotline is genius, really. Everything you need from the radio, minus the chance you'd come upon a Miley Cyrus song or a Viagra ad. So that's how they fixed the radio problem. But how do you take on a foe like the internet?
SRUTHI: I talked to this guy, one of the people trying to solve that problem. Let's call him Ari, we spoke in the backseat of my car in my parking lot. His voice is obviously masked. I suggested a cafe but he didn't want people to see us. The Hasidic community is wary of the press.
ARI: I was thinking, we would meet there, and somebody's going to snap a picture of us. And it's going to be all over.
ARI: And we're not doing anything bad. But that's...
SRUTHI: You never know.
ARI: You never know.
SRUTHI: After the Asifa, the Hasidic elders decided, hey, if we can turn parts of Brooklyn into a shtetl, maybe we can do the same thing online: make a Hasidic internet. And Ari had a part to play in this plan. He worked for a company that sold Hasidic internet filters.
ARI: I went out to business and I tried to get the technician, or the...
SRUTHI: He would walk through the neighborhood, knock on people's doors, go into Hasidic businesses and they would ask, "Do you use the internet? Yes? Okay, we can make it Kosher. We can install a filter on your computer, one that lets you use the internet, but minus all the bad stuff."
ARI: And many were interested in what I had to sell.
SRUTHI: And you can decide how much bad stuff you want filtered out. Ari told me some clients filter out everything except for their own company website. And if you need a little bit more access...
ARI: If you need more open, you call them in and they unblock it a little more, like Amazon, you need for your business.
SRUTHI: Okay, so you have Amazon now. Obviously there's stuff there you don't want to see. The Hasidic filter can still protect you.
ARI: Faces. Faces...
SRUTHI: I don't understand.
ARI: The technology that sees the skin color and it's getting all colored up. Let's say they feel that skin is too much exposed. They can block it.
SRUTHI: So let me imagine this. So if I were to go to say, Amazon.com and there's some scantily clad model selling, I don't know, a toaster, then what I would see if I had the right filter on, is that model's face and body would be black?
ARI: Black. The whole picture is black, even the toaster.
SRUTHI: I wanted to try one of these filters out for myself, so I went to a Hasidic internet cafe.
JOSEPH: I'm sorry that ...
SRUTHI: It's in the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg.
SRUTHI: You keep late working hours.
JOSEPH: I just popped in before you called me...
SRUTHI: This is Joseph, the owner. He asked me not to use his last name, and he also asked me to come late at night, after 11 pm so I wouldn't freak out any of his customers with my giant microphone.
SRUTHI: So it's usually full over here, like where do people sit?
JOSEPH: Over here and over here.
SRUTHI: It's a nice big room, with Salmon colored walls. Some computers are in booths so you can step right in and close the door. The cafe is a safe space. All the computers here serve up filtered internet.
JOSEPH: I'll leave it to you. Type away...
SRUTHI: I'll just type in anything? I don't know.
SRUTHI: So we sat down at the computer and I tried to go to YouTube.
JOSEPH: So this says that this category of streaming video is blocked.
SRUTHI: A gray window popped up on the screen that said this site is not allowed. I tried a bunch of other sites: Facebook, Twitter, New York Times. They're all blocked. And then I tried the New York Post.
SRUTHI: Oh, so I see New York Post. I see, kind of, the headline... not even the headlines, just the header and some headlines but no pictures...
SRUTHI: It's the New York Post, but with all the pictures of violence and celebrities gone.
SRUTHI: Just a lot of gray. I like this version of the New York Post.
SRUTHI: Joseph does too. In fact, that's how he likes all his news sites. From his perspective, it's crazy that we want completely unfiltered internet, since it means seeing stuff like videos of ISIS killing civilians.
JOSEPH: Before you go to bed, you want to read the news and you see, actually like lately, you see every two days, they behead this, they burned up men to life, and people saw this video actually, I did see it. I can hardly see such kind of stuff and I forced myself to see it because it was so, so much discussion about it and it disturbed my mind for probably a few days.
SRUTHI: You wish you hadn't seen it?
JOSEPH: Of course I wish I hadn't seen it. You don't need to be a jew, or Hasidic religion, to dislike this stuff.
SRUTHI: So take that feeling of wishing you could unsee something and just apply it to a big chunk of the internet. In fact, to almost all of it. Joseph tells me he's happy where he is. He loves his neighborhood. He has a big family. On Sabbath, he turns off his phone and plays with his kids. He doesn't want that to change. And that is why he and Ari, the filter guy, were both at the Asifa. To them, the idea of building this safe, shtetl version of the internet, it's essential. Even if it seems like it's against the entire nature of the internet.
JOSEPH: The internet is not made to be filtered. So what we should do, should we put our hands together and say, I give up? No. If we said we give up, then we give up definitely for our generations, so yes, we know that the internet is here. It's here to stay. We're not fighting the internet. We're fighting ourselves, to make sure that we are not so into the internet.
SRUTHI: The Asifa was in 2012 and thanks to the work of Ari and Joseph and many other Hasidic tech guys, there is a kosher corner of the internet. You can use it and not be branded a heretic. And that brings us back to Shulem Deen.
PJ: Coming up after the break, the secular internet separate Shulem from his community. The Hasidic internet provides a way back in.
PJ: Before the break, we heard about the orthodox community's attempt to block off a piece of the internet for themselves, to build a tiny online shtetl. Now, Sruthi picks up the story of how Shulem Deen encountered that online shtetl.
SRUTHI: One section of the Hasidic internet that came into being after the Asifa was this web forum called kaveshtiebel - Yiddish for coffee house. One day in 2012, he doesn't remember when, Shulem Deen discovered this site.
SRUTHI: Can you show me?
SHULEM: Well, I can certainly bring it up, um, but like I said it's in Yiddish, so there's not that much that you can see.
SRUTHI: The usual forums and message boards -- Reddit, Craigslist -- the Hasidic filter blocks all of them, but this one is generally allowed. It looks like a stripped down Reddit. Everything is in Yiddish. There are topics you'd expect to find: news, religion, the Talmud, but also people here talk about things they never would have talked about in, say, New Square.
SHULEM: Translated into Yiddish, Serial podcast season one, a true murder mystery.
SRUTHI: You're kidding me.
SHULEM: Yeah. It's right here.
SRUTHI: So what does it say?
SHULEM: If he killed her two weeks ago, would he have told the police that he asked her for a ride that day?
SRUTHI: In other words, kaveshtiebel is a lot like a message board in the secular world. But there are plenty of differences as well. For example, when we pulled it up, there was this moment where we realized no one else was online.
SHULEM: Who's here now? This is who is here. The Yahoo bot. The Google bot. The Bing bot. And Shulem Deen.
SRUTHI: Shulem realized, oh of course, it's Saturday afternoon. It's the middle of Sabbath.
SHULEM: These guys are all at home now having their Shabbat meals. It's two o'clock in the afternoon. Or they're taking their after meal stroll and they're going to have a nap soon.
SRUTHI: Even though Shulem is an atheist who left his community at great cost, he still missed the rituals of Judaism. He told me he sometimes puts on a yamaka and sneaks into Hasidic services. He missed the music, the feeling of oneness. And kava shtiebel provided a tiny hit of that feeling. He could listen in on familiar conversations.
SHULEM: ...these many shrimp in the New York City water. Did I tell you this? I did not?
SRUTHI: Where else on the internet could you log on and find many, many pages of analysis about microscopic shrimp that live in tap water.
SHULEM: Because it's an insect and the Bible says that you cannot eat insects, um but that's not so clear because... you don't understand how these things work. I'm not sure it's an insect, because what if it's a fish? And if it's fish, it's forbidden for a different reason.
SRUTHI: All of this minutiae, these debates, this whole site, it just felt like home.
SHULEM: You feel at home. It's like coming back to your hometown, when you, you know like you spend thirty years in the place where you grew up and then you went away and then you come back, and it's like, you know where the drugstore is and you know the bump in the sidewalk as a kid you would go over with your bike, right? Things like that, like you know all the little places and who's the town drunk and who's the... right? Like, you...
SRUTHI: Is this the only place where you can have that? Like are there places where you go and meet people in person and have this feeling or is it just on the internet?
SHULEM: There is no other place, for me.
SRUTHI: When he goes back to New Square, Shulem says he's spit at, called names. But here, on this forum, all these observant Hasids were welcoming him.
SHULEM: There was one of the things, where I said, like, I don't know if I should go into this, because you know, I am after all just a guest here, because I didn't feel like this is my place. I felt like I'm chiming in, where I don't really belong. And someone responded saying, "no you're, like, you're a local. You're fine. Like, we hope you'll stick around."
SRUTHI: So he did. For a few months, he debated, discussed, and settled in. Until one day, when he got this email.
SHULEM: From a guy I know, but he was a mole of sorts. And so he sends me an email and a PDF of a discussion that was going on about what to do about the fact that Shulem Deen is now part of this group and do we allow this or not?
SRUTHI: There were pages and pages of fierce debate, people arguing that a heretic didn't deserve to be here.
SHULEM: People saying, look, we come here because we want a virtual representation of our community and allowing someone who has completely different thoughts, completely different mindset and brings up the kinds of discussions that we would never allow within our community changes the nature of what this forum is. And it's kind of like, you know, we don't want to change the nature of a neighborhood.
SHULEM: It was a deja vu moment, like, oh my god, another one of these meetings where they're like "should we keep him? Or should we throw him out?"
SRUTHI: It was the exact same debate as before, back when Shulem was kicked out of New Square, except this time he could see it happening in front of him. There were people who thought he was pure evil, people who stood up for him and people who fell in the middle.
SHULEM: It gives me a complicated feeling and that's what happened here. I was like, like I love these people but I hate them and they're crazy and they're stupid and they're insane and they're ignorant, but some of them are still really smart, and even the ignorant ones are sometimes really funny. Um, and some of them are really fucking sharp.
SRUTHI: And Shulem says even back in 2005...
SHULEM: Even when I was being kicked out of New Square, the rabbis were telling me I am expelled. At the end of that meeting, they said to me "but we hope you'll come back sometime." And one of the rabbis said, you can stay at my house, your whole family. And so there's this weird feeling that I have about the Hasidic community in that you know, I kind of love you guys for that, for being such, such really sort of likeable assholes. Like, I don't know.
SRUTHI: Before I left, Shulem wanted to show me a YouTube video.
SHULEM: You know, this is a video of just a bunch of Hasidic men, some of them I know.
SRUTHI: It's one that he watches all the time.
SRUTHI: I like how you're like tapping your foot immediately. It's like a reflex.
SHULEM: I love this song. I love this song. I like these guys. I know them. I know this guy, I know, like he was from our community in New Square.
SRUTHI: They're sitting around a circular table. It's at a bar mitzvah.
SRUTHI: The singing gets faster and faster. Until...
SHULEM: (laughs) I just love this guy.
SRUTHI: Shulem is homesick for a place he doesn't want to return to. In the end, the people at kaveshtiebel decided to let him stay. He's glad but also bitter about being put through another tribunal. He still hangs around though, because Shulem sees himself in the people here on kaveshtiebel, people who would appreciate a good tish and then talk about Serial afterwards. They might see him as an outsider, but his hope is that they are more like him than they know, that kaveshtiebel exists because the chasm between his world and their is narrowing. Many one day those worlds will come close enough that his kids will be able to cross over.
SRUTHI: Do you ever imagine that?
SHULEM: Of course I imagine that. Of course I imagine that. In other words, I can imagine Akiva with a smart phone that he somehow got hold of, and what's that, and he's getting videos and he's sort of like curious about the world and one day, he reaches out and he's like, you know, I'm not so into this program. Maybe he wants to remain Hasidic, or maybe not.
SRUTHI: Are these the things that you kind of, that you dream about a little bit, like daydreams?
SHULEM: Yeah, yeah, all the time. All the time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, I wonder what it's going to be. Like, it's almost like in my mind, I know for certain, that something is going to be.
SRUTHI: About this, Shulem has faith.
PJ: Sruthi Pinnamaneni is a producer for our show. Shulem has written a memoir called All Who Go Do Not Return. It just came out a month ago. Sruthi loved it. She also said there's not very much overlap between his story and what we reported, so if you want to know more about him, that book is a good place to go.
Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni and edited by Alex Blumberg and Phia Bennin. We were mixed by the Reverend John Delore and David Herman. Special thanks to Sylvie Douglis, Emma Jacobs and James Helmsworth.
Matt Lieber is something you think is impossible, but you have to try anyway.
Our theme music Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings, and that beautiful song you heard at the end of the story is by a group called Shira Choir. You can find more episodes itunes.com/replyall or replyall.limo and we put up DVD extras for this episode at Digg.com. Our website is replyall.diamonds, which was designed in partnership with Athletics.
Thanks for listening, we'll see you next wednesday.