Byline: Miriam Shaviv
Date: Autumn, 2004
Publication: Jewish Quarterly
Miriam Shaviv explores the world of the female blogger
Watching a television programme one evening about elderly Jewish women, Tamara Yellin speculated aloud about whether she would one day turn into such a Jewish bubbe. ‘Impossible,’replied her husband. ‘You're not really Jewish.’
Writes Tamara, ‘I nearly choked on my popcorn.
‘How can you say such a thing!’ I replied, defensively. ‘You know I went before a Beit Din, and I went to mikveh!’
‘Mikveh, schmikveh,’ my Beloved calmly replied. ‘I don't care how many times you dunk in a tub,’ he continued, ‘because Jewish is something you're born. You can't become Jewish anymore than you can become Irish, or Polish.’
Had Eliyahu HaNavi strolled into the room at that moment and plopped himself beside us on the sofa, I would not have been more stunned than I was at my husband's revelation.’
The exchange, which ultimately results in Tamara’s epiphany that she had always felt in some way Jewish, is just one of many incidents of religious tension between Tamara, an Italian convert to Judaism and her Jewish-born, secular husband, which she documents on her online diary, The Fourth Rabbi. Tamara, in turn, is just one of a growing number of Jewish women writing about their inner lives, their families, their passions and their Judaism in such diaries, commonly known as ‘web logs’ - or more simply, as ‘blogs’. Together they offer an unprecedented insight into a sector of the Jewish population which has traditionally been under-represented in conventional media.
‘Your average woman’s voice isn’t heard that much, and when they are, they aren’t nearly as candid as they are on a blog,’ says Steven I. Weiss, who is commonly regarded as the doyen of the Jewish ‘blogosphere’. He is founder of Protocols (http://protocols.blogspot.com), one of the most popular Jewish blogs. ‘As a result, some of the most interesting Jewish content on the net is coming from women.’
Popular female Jewish bloggers include Naomi Chana, a Reform academic in the American Midwest; Chez Miscarriage, who writes with surprising humour about her struggle with infertility; and Allison Kaplan Sommer, an American-born, Raanana-based journalist who writes mostly about Israeli life, but recently found time to blog on the way to hospital about her contractions. Until she got married at the end of last year, another popular blogger was an English-speaking Israeli in her mid-twenties known only as ‘She,’ who blogged about her continuously disastrous shidduch dates on her site Unbroken Glass, turning her into a near-cult figure. Entries include the yeshiva bocher who refused to look at her, the date who was ‘formerly’ gay, and the date who quite literally thought she had agreed to marry him when she agreed to a fourth date.
One of the most famous current female Jewish bloggers is a mother-of-two in her early 30s from New York City, known only as ‘Aidel Maidel.’ She writes anonymously and humorously about her Hassidic lifestyle, her return to the faith a decade ago, her own struggle with infertility, her uncle’s terminal illness, and above all, the challenges of raising two young daughters. A typical entry from May reads: ‘I am slowly losing my mind. Now my husband is sick too. I have been sneezed on, peed on, and puked on too many times in the last 24 hours. And I feel like garbage myself... I can't even begin to think about what I am going to do when I have to start cooking for everyone in a few days. I had brilliant thoughts to post today but my sleep-deprived brain is functioning at negative 112 percent.’
In the past year, this young Hassidic woman’s web site has been visited more than 30,000 times. The question, of course is whether it make a difference that Jewish women are talking on blogs, and being heard. ‘To answer that key question,’ says Weiss, ‘you have to go to the core of the feminist movement. Does it matter that women’s voices are being included in discourse? It certainly gives most readers an important perspective they wouldn’t otherwise have.’
The first weblogs appeared around 1997 on the West Coast. The defining criterion for a blog is that it should consist of dated entries, but a blog can be ‘about’ anything, from food, sex and sport to current events, child-rearing, illnesses, hobbies – a surprisingly popular subject is knitting. Commonly blogs consist of lists of links to articles that interest the blogger, interspersed with editorials and personal asides. But another type of blog – the one addressed in this article – is the personal, or diary-style blog, where the blogger writes about their life.
Today, there are around a million active blogs on the internet, many drawing a readership of close to zero, but others drawing up to half a million people a day. They are gaining increasing clout, with bloggers being awarded official press passes at both the Republican and Democrat conventions this summer. In Israel, blogs are said to be playing an important role in the propaganda war. Jewish blogs in the Diaspora are growing daily, but are yet to have that kind of impact. Weiss estimates that there are around 500 Jewish blogs, and perhaps 10,000 regular readers, with a male:female ratio of approximately 50:50. Perhaps inevitably because of the nature of the medium, Jewish blogs attract a relatively young readership, one which is often alienated by existing Jewish newspapers. Many of those who write are fresh voices - young, female, or religious. And because they have no owners or establishment to answer to they tend to be more irreverent than their peers in the mainstream Jewish press.
Starting a blog requires a certain amount of chutzpah. Many of the women bloggers have a background in writing or journalism. According to Weiss, women bloggers also tend to ‘track a little older than the teens and University students who populate much of the rest of the Jewish blogosphere’ – perhaps also accounting for their relative quality.
The reasons Jewish women blog, and their blogging experiences, can vary widely. Aidel Maidel, a former writer, for example, says that for her blogging is a creative outlet, which fulfills much the same purpose as a diary. ‘I needed a place to unload, and frankly, I type faster than I write,’ she says. She emphatically denies that she blogs about things she cannot express to her peers. ‘I feel that if I needed to, I could talk about these things, although it might make things more difficult for me.’ Nonetheless it took her a month to tell her husband about her blog. ‘I thought he’d be wigged out, but he wasn’t in the slightest,’ she says. ‘He actually laughed and went off to start his own blog, which he posted to exactly once.’
In common with many other Jewish women bloggers, especially those on the more religious side of the spectrum, Aidel Maidel felt it was important from the outset to preserve her anonymity and be economical with identifying details. So far, she says, only one good friend has recognized her. ‘There are thousands of Ba’alei Tshuva in the world, many of them in New York,’ she says. ‘Most people don’t know a lot of these details about me, and won’t be able to figure it out. And in any case, most of the people I know don’t have access to a computer.’
The anonymity factor means that she can be quite frank – although she takes care never to write about her husband and says she will write less about her daughters as they get older. Still, she was surprised when her blog attracted a significant audience. ‘I’m not sure why people connect to me,’ she says, ‘Other websites discuss much more hard-core topics. I’ve had quite a few emails from people struggling with religion, or with their kids, and they want my advice what to do. I’ll always respond, but it’s hard to know what to say. One time I wrote about a teen on the subway who was obviously gay. Next thing I know someone’s writing to me that they have lots of gay friends, and their husband would not approve if he knew – what do I think?’
Aidel Maidel has also had many messages supporting her over issues she wasn’t discussing with anyone in her own community. When she was struggling to cope after the birth of her second daughter, ‘One person wrote about how Hashem doesn’t give people more than they can handle, someone else wrote on their blog that anyone who knows me should give me a hug. A woman in Flatbush offered to cook for me… I was really touched.’ Because she writes so frankly, she has also received a small number of unpleasant messages, usually variants of, ‘How aidel are you, maidel?’.
‘I try not to take any notice of these,’ she says. ‘While I’m interested in seeing what people say, I’m not interested in getting into arguments with people who disagree with me.’ The blog, she emphasizes, is ‘for myself, not for the hits or to connect, and the other things just grew out of it.’ She will continue blogging, she says, ‘until I don’t need it any more.’
‘She,’ of Unbroken Glass, began blogging as a lark, at the urging of a friend who recognized that her dating stories had a potential mass audience. ‘It was all his idea, and I just went along with it,’ she says. ‘I thought it would be amazing to hear people’s comments, and just see how it developed from there.’ Pretty quickly, however, the blog took on a life of its own. Responding to the post-modern question of how much of any writer is revealed through her writing, she says her writing evolved ‘until the character who developed there was a super-hero, whom people loved. In real life, I’m more cynical than that. The truth is, after a certain time, while all the stories were completely true, it was never me writing – it was always ‘She.’ Many people, however, couldn’t tell the difference. ‘People started sending me long and moving emails about how my site has helped them, and asking for dating advice,’ ‘She’ says.’ ‘It was at times embarrassing. I was 24 and I had a 40-year old woman send me her profile on Frumster [a religious dating site]. I had heart-broken people wanting me to tell them it was going to be all right, but I didn’t have the answers.’
Like Aidel Maidel, ‘She,’ too, received hate mail, from people attacking her for exposing the dark side of the shidduch system. ‘It was at that point,’ she says, ‘I came to realise it was in fact my duty to voice these things, that shidduchim aren't all that great, it's a hard and ruthless system and anyone who isn't conventional can go through some seriously bad times.’ Although her blog had casual beginnings, ‘She’ came to see it as fulfilling a higher purpose. ‘The website served as a message to two audiences,’ she says. ‘It was important for me to show the secular world that we are not all completely brainless, humourless and heartless. For the frum world, I had a painful message about the shidduch system.’ ‘She’ also decided to remain anonymous, mainly because she was still on the dating scene and was writing about real people. On one occasion, she says, she had to remove a story because a date recognized himself. ‘No matter how much I apologized, he felt that the only way I could make up for what I did was to shut down my blog.’
She showed the blog to her rabbi, who laughed and approved as long as she didn’t publish anything she wouldn’t write under her own name. ‘It was the first time I’d shown the blog to anyone with authority,’ she says, ‘and I felt much better about the whole project.’ In October 2003, ‘She’ married an Englishman who had dated and broken up with her more than a year before. The relationship had been documented on the blog, with ‘She’ quite accurately predicting that ‘we need to be together, I'm sorry you can’t see it now, but you will.’
‘Unbroken Glass’ is still online, but ‘She’ continues to write about random thoughts in a separate blog, often rather cryptically, and increasingly rarely. ‘Unbroken Glass gave me the confidence to write,’ she says, ‘but now I just post when I feel like it. I’m not sure I see the point any more.’
If ‘She’ became an icon in certain Jewish circles, one of the most successful Jewish bloggers is relatively little-known in the Jewish ‘blogosphere.’ Just two weeks after it was launched in April, ‘Jerusalem Wanderings’ was highlighted by Blogger, a blog-hosting company with a million clients, as one of its ‘Blogs of Note.’ Immediately, the website gained an audience of thousands, some of whom were Jews but most of whom were Christians and Muslims from around the world.
The author is a relatively unusual voice, even in the context of Jewish blogging. Lea Lublin is a 48-year old mother of five who made aliya from Toronto to the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim nine years ago. Her primary subject is her interfaith activities, including visits to hospitable Muslims on the Mount of Olives and discussions that take place in her Interfaith group. She also writes about her ‘difficult’ family, her ‘Nasty’ child and her ‘Criminal’ daughter, and about Israeli life, including financial hardships, stress at work, her Macrobiotic food group, or just wandering around Jerusalem.
‘Yesterday the Nasty One complained as usual,’ wrote Lublin in June. ‘It was 2 pm and she has whisked her boyfriend up to her room quickly, like she was embarrassed for him to be there. What's up with that? Why are you bringing plates of food to your room? Why can't he eat with the rest of us in the dining area? She was like ‘You're not like other mothers. You never wash the floors or clean the bathroom (she's right, I make them do it). ‘All my friend's mothers work and clean and give their kids money.’ Hubby broke in with ‘Of course she's not like other mothers. She's busy bringing peace to the world. Leave her alone.’ It was a dig, but a rather nice dig.’
Lublin’s aim, she says, is nothing less than to help bring about peace in the Middle East.‘If I blog about Interfaith,’ she says, ‘people will realize I’m right about the way I want to approach this.’ Unlike many other Middle Eastern political blogs, she tries to illustrate issues through her direct experiences. ‘I write from an emotional standpoint, from the heart,’ she says. ‘Whilst many bloggers take an article and get angry about it, I try to get away from the negative – to give these issues a woman’s touch.’ Reactions, predictably, have been intense. ‘A lot of people tell me they had no idea this is what Jews are like, because in their countries, they are portrayed as murderers,’ she says. ‘I got one email from a 16 year old in Malaysia who told me he had been considering joining Hamas before he read my blog.’Because she does not write anonymously, Lublin occasionally gets recognized when she mentions her name or her blog. Perhaps for this reason, said husband and kids are less than thrilled with being featured on the blog. Lublin, however, has no plans to stop. She credits the writing with ‘empowering’ and ‘energizing’ her. Blogging is an activity to which Lublin is ‘completely addicted’; it is such an important outlet for her that she wrote a post after being told that her father had died. ‘I just felt the need to write about it,’ she says. When her children start ‘acting up’ or her husband gets upset, she says, she no longer tries to calm everyone down.
‘Nowadays, I want to hear every word they say – it could be a blog!’
Hundreds of other Jewish women are following suit. By means of blogging many women, particularly more Orthodox ones, have found a way to circumvent restrictions placed on them by their social circles, and gain a strong public voice. They are communicating directly with their peer group and with others, forming online communities and gaining personal followings. As blogging moves further into the mainstream, this can only increase; yet another indication of changing social structures within the Jewish community, the more assertive tendencies of women in today’s society – and a significant phenomenon with the power to change the way Jewish women of all walks of life perceive and are perceived.
Miriam Shaviv is the former literary editor of The Jerusalem Post. She blogs at http://bloghd.blogspot.com.
Where to Find Jewish Women’s Blogs:
Aidel Maidel http://aidelmaidel.blogspot.com
Allison Kaplan Sommer http://anunsealedroom.blogmosis.com
Apikorsus Online http://apikorsus.blogspot.com
Chayyei Sarah http://chayyeisarah.blogspot.com
Chez Miscarriage http://chezmiscarriage.blogs.com/
Help Me, Bubby! http://helpmebubby.blogspot.com
Jerusalem Wanderings http://jerusalemgypsy.blogspot.com
Kesher Talk http://hfienberg.com/kesher/
The Fourth Rabbi http://thefourthrabbi.blogspot.com
Miriam Shaviv http://bloghd.blogspot.com
My Urban Kvetch http://myurbankvetch.blogspot.com
Naomi Chana http://baraita.net/blog
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