Horny haredim provide endless fodder for secular Jews playing the “See, you’re not so holy!” game. After all, if the pious can’t live up to their own rules, then maybe those of us who prefer Henry Miller and absinthe to the Talmud and Manischewitz aren’t so debased. Rumors abound: A former girlfriend of mine who worked the phones at a brothel in Manhattan’s Diamond District claimed that half the customers donning rubbers had been wearing tefillin earlier that day. Certain street corners in Brooklyn are said to host encounters between hookers and the local Satmar Hasids. And one Manhattan dominatrix will tell you that Orthodox Jews make up a significant portion of her clientele.
Of course, Jewish misbehavior is as old as Judaism. What’s new is that the Internet has made getting a little schmear on the side as easy as hitting the olive bar at Zabar’s. Orthodox Jews choose hormones over Halacha with the aid of sites such as Craigslist, the FrumSex mailing list on Yahoo! Groups, and the Israeli-based, Hebrew-language forum Hyde Park. With its long arms and reassuring anonymity, the Internet is threatening to radically alter Orthodox life. It’s also creating a digital paper trail that allows us to watch how the early stages of this revolution are playing out.
A little online sleuthing reveals that instead of chasing after the non-observant, religious Jews are using the Web to break the Seventh Commandment with each other. I placed several personal ads on New York’s Craigslist asking frum posters to reveal their motivations. Craigslist has a libertarian sensibility, and most of its services are free and anonymous. Its anything-goes mentality is demonstrated best in its Casual Encounters section, where adults advertise for no-strings-attached sex. Because it’s so open and there’s no cost for posting, Craigslist attracts a more diverse user community than sites such as JDate, Match.com, and eHarmony. This makes it home to some of the most public Orthodox dirty laundry aired online: In the past week alone, the New York board listed 34 “frum seeking frum” ads.
“Frum guys, read this,” read one post I placed in Casual Encounters. “What are you looking for online? Are you married? Frustrated with the frum world? I want to know. Confidentiality assured.”
Responses ranged from denial (“No one online is really frum, so you’re telling a false story”) to enthusiastic, if illiterate, agreement (“MOST JEWISH FRUM WOMAN ARE SO HORNEY THAT EVEN AFTER THEY HAVE SEX WITH THERE HUSBAND THEY ARE IN THE SHOWER USING THE DLODO TO GET ANOTHER ORGASAM [sic] !!!!!!!!!!!!”). I also received responses from women: “its you frum guys are so damm lamm in bed, i just need so badly somebody to make me scream [sic],” a hot-to-trot halachic honey wrote. “wanna go out ? r u good in bed or is is ur wife on craigslist too [sic]?!
Other Orthodox Jews, looking for camaraderie and a sympathetic ear, flock to FrumSex, a six-year-old Yahoo! Group that boasts almost 2000 members (roughly 95 percent of whom are men). “The common complaints are straightforward: Frum guys feel their wives, for the most part, aren’t adventurous or libidinous enough,” explained “Carmen Olestra,” the founder and owner of FrumSex. In an e-mail to me, Olestra, who describes himself as a married Haredi father in his early thirties, continued: “Many of them have gotten some exposure to secular media and [when they get married] they’re excited by the opportunity to finally explore a woman’s body for real and try out all the things they’ve only dreamed about—and then the wives aren’t interested.”
While it’s easy to use the Internet to get as far as possible from the restrictions of one’s community, many haredim only feel comfortable or accepted around other frum Jews. Even when they express a longing for sexual freedom, it usually involves fantasies about the frum girl next door. The reasons for this are complex. To begin with, many still cling to the mores they were raised with, no matter how thoroughly they transgress them. For example, Orthodox men are forbidden from sleeping with women who have not been ritually cleansed after menstruation; as one Lubavitcher lothario wrote to me, only an observant woman would know to follow such a rule.
Other frum Jews also understand the need to keep things on the down low. Thanks to the anonymity afforded by Craigslist, Orthodox Jews can explore stigmatized desires without worrying about being banished by their communities. For example, gay Orthodox can discreetly hook up. One of my informants told me that he lived a double life not because he couldn’t face telling his wife, but because openly gay haredim “cause grief for their families and destroy their siblings’ and children’s prospects of marriage and happiness.” In other words, if the community discovers that you’re gay, in 40 years your great-nephew might find it impossible to get married. Other Orthodox Jews understand the potential costs of forbidden behavior, the logic goes, and will demonstrate the necessary caution.
Finally, in an online world populated by people looking for easy sex, piety isn’t exactly a selling point. Non-Jewish women aren’t reputed to find frum fashion and mores particularly sexy, which only adds to the discomfort of a religious guy trying to hook up in the non-frum world. For adulterous ultra-Orthodox, fellow believers may be the last, best hope for sexual and emotional fulfillment.
In the past, when it was easy to see who was following the rules and who wasn’t, radicals, dissenters, and deviants like the Craigslist posters and Frumsex members would have been exposed and exiled from the community. Today, because of the internet, they can remain, undetected. The Ethernet cable snaking into the wall is the serpent in the walled garden that the Orthodox have built for themselves.
The challenges offered by the online world are by no means limited to sex, with bloggers such as the Hasidic Rebel and “Shtriemel” of A Hasid and a Heretic posting witty, well-reasoned critiques of the customs and follies of the Orthodox communities into which they were born. No wonder that last year, just before Rosh Hashanah, the Lakewood, N.J. rabbinate joined the Satmar of Williamsburg and other groups in forbidding children, high school students, and even adults from going online unless it was necessary to their livelihoods. This past September, an Israeli study concluded that 87% of haredi rabbis believe the Internet is detrimental.
So the headlong collision between traditional sexual mores and the modern free market of online lust presages other revolutions, too. The Internet has become an uncloseable chink in the ghetto wall. The secular temptations of the Enlightenment are being brought ever-closer by the openness and pervasive reach of electronic media, and traditional communities like the ultra-Orthodox are increasingly powerless to stamp out the lurid and heretical impulses in their midst. The more profound challenges they will encounter in the coming years may help them see the occasional treyf hook-up for the trifle it really is.