Religion’s twin enemies: the internet and bacon

Reader Jeff sent along an article about Hasidic Jews, one of the groups that most tries to protect their young from the outside world, who are finding that their young are leaving because the internet is showing them that the world is different from what they were told by their elders.

In that world, children grow up highly sheltered in tight communities and marry very young, often in their teens and in arranged marriages, and are urged to start having many children as soon as possible. That pretty much guarantees that these young people will have almost no time to do anything else other than focus on their home and religious community and thus live lives largely untouched by the outside world. TV, the internet, and even radios in the home are discouraged. In former days, the local public library may have been the only source of news about the outside world, ‘outside’ meaning outside their immediate local community. But that has changed.

While the first wave of Internet-influenced ex-Hasidim had to rely on workplace or library computers and (sometimes borrowed) laptops, today’s young Hasids have it easier. They only need smartphones. Libby Pollak, 24, who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in Williamsburg before becoming disillusioned with her life, told me some young people obtain piles of cellphones through family plans, then hand them out “under the table” to friends and cousins. Once online, Hasidim often use fake names to establish accounts on Facebook, where they quickly encounter other Hasidim who are curious, and even disillusioned.

As a result, many of them are discovering that the world of science was not some weird aberrant knowledge structure as had been told to them by their religious leaders, but consisted of knowledge that the rest of the world took for granted.

Ari Mandel, 29, who grew up in a community of Nikolsburg Hasidim in Monsey, N.Y., purchased a home computer because he was interested in breaking into graphics for work. Through the course of reading science blogs, as well as covert visits to the library—he went just before Shabbat sundown on Fridays, when he felt sure roving members of the “purity squad” wouldn’t be watching—Mandel was shocked to discover an alternate version of the world’s origins. He had been raised to believe that the world was less than 6,000 years old; he recalls his father telling him, on a rare family visit to the Museum of Natural History, that a dinosaur skeleton was “just rocks.”

“When I found out that evolution is not the laughing stock of the world and the Big Bang is not a punch line, I was curious,” says Mandel, who ultimately left his community and served four-and-a-half years in the Army before settling in Westchester, N.Y., to start college.

Mandel’s experience is not uncommon. Forced to choose, more and more young people will choose modernity.

For some, the realization that the outside world wasn’t as bad as they imagined leads to the dissolution of faith altogether. There’s “a world of knowledge, of science and ideas, that pose a challenge to the traditional narrative and traditional beliefs,” says Deen, 38, who is now divorced and has lost his faith. “People sometimes don’t recover from that.”

The more religious groups try to wall off their young from the outside world, the less able they will be to deal with the essentially subversive nature of knowledge and the more likely they are to completely abandon their religion.

Many of the former Hasidim I interviewed started using the Internet innocently, with no intention of ever leaving the community. Pollak got an email address when she worked an office job briefly between high school and getting married at 19, and was initially hesitant even to read basic news from Yahoo. Vizel told me she at first was interested only in politics, books, and clothes, avoiding anything “that didn’t reconfirm my existing beliefs.” But online, once she’d started her own anonymous blog, she struck up an email conversation with a Brooklyn rabbi, presumably not Hasidic, who suggested that, contrary to what she’d been taught, she might not be obligated to have as many children as possible, and she might even be morally permitted to use birth control. She was learning, in other words, that she had choices.

“I had a theory that [H]asidic life provided security from infidelity, drugs, violence, loneliness—which made it incredibly valuable,” Vizel, now in her mid-20s, wrote me recently in a series of emailed interviews. “I slowly began to learn about the price we pay.”

The exodus of young people from ultra-Orthodox Judaism is increasing as more and more of them start exploring the exciting new world that smartphones and laptops are opening up for them. There are organizations such as Footsteps that “provides educational, vocational and social support to those seeking to enter or explore the world beyond the insular ultra-religious communities in which they were raised”

This article tells more stories of such people. Now even a reality show called Shunned (which could just as well be called The Real Hasidim of New York) is being shopped to networks that will describe how “three ultra-Orthodox Jews ditch their strict religious lifestyle and join the sin-city world of secularism.”

And of course, there’s the discovery of all the food that religious orthodoxy forbids, particularly bacon. There is something very alluring about bacon, from the smell of it cooking to its taste. People find it hard to resist it, myself included, even though I know that it is bad for you and do not eat it routinely. One of the fallen Hasidim Luzer Twersky says, “When I had the first bite, I felt angry. I felt how could my parents keep this from me?”

Who knows, when it comes to Judaism and Islam, bacon may be even more of a subversive force than the internet.


  1. Jared A says

    `“I had a theory that [H]asidic life provided security from infidelity, drugs, violence, loneliness—which made it incredibly valuable,” Vizel, now in her mid-20s, wrote me recently in a series of emailed interviews. “I slowly began to learn about the price we pay.”’

    What a very insightful way of putting it. These type of insular communities bank on the whole “the outside world is a horrible place full of scary things, but that doesn’t effect us because we are special and live this way.” It’s a double lie, but as long as you can control the environment it is pretty effective.

  2. James says

    A bit off topic, but I really don’t get the American obsession with bacon. Not that I don’t really, really like it. I do. At least I like the British/European bacon, but whenever I’ve had bacon in the states it’s been awful – thin and narrow strips of crispy, dried out crap lacking any of the juicy flavoursome loveliness I’m used to.

    To get an idea of what I’m talking about, try a google image search for “bacon”, this is a good example of my US experience with bacon.

    Now gis “british bacon” (or possibly even better, “danish bacon”) and compare results like this one.

    I mean there’s nothing wrong with national tastes being different, I just don’t see where the mania comes from if that’s what you’re all talking about. So basically…do Americans really go nuts over the type of bacon illustrated by the first example or is there some kind of national conspiracy to give foreigners two fingers and keep the good stuff for the natives?

  3. Mano Singham says

    I totally agree. The bacon and sausages that you get in the UK and in Sri Lanka is way superior to the stuff you get here. I also miss the savory pastries that are common in those countries and also in NZ and Australia. I eat my fill on the occasions when I go there. In the US, pastries tend to be sweet.

  4. Anna says

    The bacon thing always baffles me. I hear this from my vegetarian friends, too: it was hardest to give up, and they miss it the most. I’m not saying bacon isn’t great, but there’s a whole world of delicious pork products out there, and for my money, bacon can’t compete against all of them.

    But giving up pork, and the other, less touted kosher prohibition on mixing any dairy with any meat, which affects so many lovely dishes, played a big role in my rejection of my mother’s insistent attempts to pitch Judaism to me over the years.

    Well, that, and the status of women. I kept getting the sales pitch that women had a “special, honored place” in the religion. So I cracked open the Torah, and there, in black and white, was a long litany of admonitions that seemed to contradict that. Women are unclean during their menses (and best go live in a SEPARATE HOUSE!!!), so it’s easy to avoid touching them and becoming unclean too. They have to cover their hair after getting married (but it’s ok to wear a wig…). My favorite one, the one that really stood out was: after giving birth, a woman was unclean for a period of time (ok, fine, maybe it’s a good idea to keep everyone away while she heals, less possible contagion, no possibility of sexual demands — that could make things safer), but apparently the period of uncleanliness was twice as long if she gave birth to a daughter than if she’d had a son. After reading that one, I just couldn’t think my way to voluntarily accepting a system of explicit rules that meant I was somehow second best and subordinate and more prone to being unclean and spreading the uncleanliness to others just because I was female. I really couldn’t figure out how anyone could, with a straight face, just expect me to do that.

    So it was that and pork. But bacon? I can live without bacon.

  5. The Lorax says

    Many Americans (at least in my area) are well aware that other countries have better food than we do. That’s about as culturally diverse as many Americans get, which is kind of embarrassing but oh well.

    I for one would love to have slabs of bacon rather than strips of bacon, but unfortunately, our suppliers don’t care; they make more money from strips than slabs, and so that’s all we got.

    As for the enthusiasm surrounding bacon, I think it’s because it was originally just a beloved foodstuff but has recently passed into meme-hood thanks to the Internet. So now it’s not just tasty, it’s amusing.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Really? Twice as long a period of uncleanliness for a daughter as for a son? Is that rule really in the Torah? Do you recall the chapter and verse? I am curious as to how these bizarre rules originate.

  7. Aliasalpha says

    My local bakery has bacon pies, it’s like awesome wrapped in magnificent (leading to inevitable weight gain & potential heart attacks). Gotta love Australia…

  8. James says

    I don’t know about the Torah specifically, but it is in the Old Testament and it’s my understanding that the OT is mostly cribbed from the Torah.

    From Leviticus 12:

    The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.

    On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.

    Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.

    If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.

    The next bit is even better:

    When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.

    He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood. These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl.

    Clearly giving birth is a sin (or at least evidence of a sin in the past) for which atonement must be made & there’s no suggestion that conception and childbirth within marriage is excepted.

  9. Anna says

    Sorry, I was 11 or so when I was looking into that, I really can’t remember the chapter and verse. I didn’t read the whole thing either — it seemed very boring and irrelevant, especially then. What I read at random was all “Moshe said …” this and that. But yes, I vividly recall the bit where giving birth to a son meant you were unclean half as long. I remember because it made me angry, because every adult I asked about this seemed so keen on presenting the various bits as some sort of ancient health advice, that, even if it wasn’t backed up by modern science, was really the best they could do back then, and if you really thought about it, it made sense to do things that way. Well, I kept thinking about it, and I couldn’t recall anything about infant girls resembling cacti when they were born. The only explanation seemed to be that girls were just inherently dirty somehow, and it felt like everyone was conspiring to disguise this part of the religion, so that I’d go along.

    Well, I just googled it. Apparently, the relevant verse is Vayikra (Leviticus) 12:2-4. And apparently I’m not the only one who noticed and asked, so there are lots of platitudes to go round as to why.

  10. kagekiri says

    Yeah, I love chunks of pork belly slow cooked in 5 spice and soy sauce (we just call it fatty pork). Tender and delicious on top of some steamed short-grain rice….

    Compared to fatty pork, bacon strips (American style) are just…meh. It’s way too unhealthy to justify its merely okay taste and texture. At least with fatty pork, which is basically the same part of the pig in a different form, those calories from fat are amazingly tasty and savory. Bacon almost seems like a waste of pork belly, to me.

    That’s the same reason I eat tons of gummy bears and don’t drink soda; if I’m going to get a sugar high and risk diabetes or add workout hours to my regimen, I’d like to do it with the unhealthy foods I enjoy the most.

    I’m all about maximizing my enjoyability to unhealthiness ratio.

  11. lsamaknight says

    I’ve got to say that I don’t really understand the bacon thing either. I can’t stand the stuff, at least not on its own and the smell of it cooking actually makes me nauseous so I generally go out of my way to avoid eating it, which is a problem as so many restaurants seem to have bought in to the ‘Everything is better with bacon’ meme. No fan of ham either and while properly cooked and seasoned pork isn’t bad, beef, chicken, lamb and and fish come way ahead of it on my preferred sources of protein.

  12. James says


    My traumatised mind had successfully blocked out the bizarre practice of using a dessert topping to sully a perfectly good piece of meat with sickly sweetness. Not everything needs to taste like a pudding you know.

    (insert something prejudiced about all Yanks being fat which will have the added bonus of insultingly implying Canada is not a different country)


  13. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Dessert topping? Dessert Topping!! Blasphemer!

    Maple syrup goes with everything.

  14. Jeff Johnson says

    The british bacon pictured in your link looks closer to what we call ham, which we slice thicker than that. I read on the wiki page that british bacon is cut from the loin rather than the belly, as American bacon is.

    I’m a lifelong American, born in 1959, and the bacon you pictured is pretty close to what we enjoy. We like it crispy and salty, and the smell of bacon frying in the morning is one guaranteed to bring pleasant nostalgia to nearly any American (except those with kosher and halal diets). I guess it matters what you grow up with.

    Bacon drippings can be used to fry vegetables like cabbage or spinach or greens (collard or turnip) to great effect. I sometimes use bacon fat to lard re-fried beans made from scratch, and it’s delicious (when I’m feeling decadent, otherwise olive oil does a good job).

    Bacon is great on burgers, avocado sandwiches, crumbled on a spinach salad with bits of boiled egg, or on Bacon Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches. And it goes great with pancakes and maple syrup.

    You can buy bacon cut more thickly at any butcher, which I do. I think it is a cost saving measure for many diners and restaurants (especially national chains) to buy paper thin bacon which is not nearly as satisfying as thicker cut bacon.

    I have to agree with kagekiri that fatty pork in Asian dishes is delicious. I’ve not had any Japanese version, but I’ve had Hunan Chinese dishes, and I believe either Thai or Vietnamese dishes, that are delicious.

    One pork dish I ate long ago and have never forgotten is Haemchen, which is a cured pork knuckle or ham hock I ate in Cologne, Germany. When done right it is tender and succulent and the fatty pork meat flakes effortlessly with a fork from the bone and it is rich with salty fatty flavor. Here is a photo:

    And what is better than split pea soup made with a good hearty ham hock broth as base, with the fatty meat shredded into the soup? 🙂

    I think this topic is great because it is properly insulting to the highly offensive hassidim and haredim dregs of mindless medieval literalism.

  15. M Groesbeck says

    I enjoy American-style bacon, but only if cooked right. Soggy or chewy is just wrong…my preferred way of cooking is in an oven at low temperature for several hours, on a wire rack so that the grease drips away (and can be collected and used for cooking). The bacon ends up light and crispy instead of soggy. Other than that I use bacon more like pancetta or lardons…chop it up, cook until crispy, then pull out the crispy bits to add towards the end of cooking and use the fat in the pan to cook whatever the main part of the recipe is.

    (Not that I don’t enjoy British bacon, too; I just have to consider them completely different entities.)

  16. Orakio says

    The OT is, yeah, more or less the Tanakh, which includes the Torah. It, of course, is stripped of the oral traditions which accompany the Tanakh, which place the writings in different contexts for each branch of each religion. (This is the beginning of the frame shift that sets up the very idea of Christanity, and the essential horror that it inflicts on the mind.)

    The “uncleanness” of birth will go back to certain observations it’s easy to make, and the just-so-story concocted to explain it. It is… not an easy matter for human women to give birth. Our infants are very large compared to what they have to decend through, mostly because of the brain, our shift from quadruped to arboreal to biped has complicated passage through the hips, and because of the high nutrient need of the fetus, in the humans and other Catarrhini, the circulation systems of the expectant mother and fetus are very closely intertwined. These conditions mean that birth is long, painful, and dangerous compared to a herd beast; and when you don’t know how the woman and fetus’ organs intertwine, it’s fair to ask why. (As an aside, these same facts are why abortion is a non-trivial medical proceedure. It’s easy to bleed a woman out that way)

    What Genesis comes up with is: ‘And He said, “Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” […] And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent enticed me, and I ate.” […] To the woman He said, “I shall surely increase your sorrow and your pregnancy; in pain you shall bear children. And to your husband will be your desire, and he will rule over you.”‘

    And thus, all the mess and pain and easy lethality of birth is also a reminder of Original Sin… in addition to the whole ‘Hate snakes, and kill them wherever you find them’, and ‘work for your supper,’ bits, too. The man gets punished for eating the fruit of knowledge, the woman gets punished twice for eating it and giving it to the man, and the serpent gets his ass kicked all day and night for coming up with the scheme in the first place. So, the sin attached to all women is greater than the sin attached to all men, and needs more atonement. (Or so I would reason from the starting point.)

    And so, you get a mean little rule whose purpose is to help inure women into thinking their daughers are inferior to their sons from the moment of birth.

  17. Hunter says

    Yeah, that’s the American style of bacon and I looooooooove it. The Danish style doesn’t look very good to me–it resembles slightly crisped ham, to be honest. Too raw for my tastes. There’s something to the flavor of really crispy (thick or thin, actually) nearly burnt bacon that is alluring. Try it on a deli sandwich sometime, it might just change your opinion. The fat goes from being rubbery to melting in your mouth with a certain sweetness that’s hard to pin down.

    It should be mentioned, it goes really well with chocolate, too. Crazy, I know, but just trust me on this.

  18. Hunter says

    You have my sympathies–as someone who is, himself, quite picky when it comes to things I like and don’t like, I understand where you’re coming from. But, damnit, not liking bacon would make me want to jump off a bridge. It is one of my favorites. 🙂

    That said, I get a similar reaction from the smell of cooking broccoli or cabbage. And pickles? Oh man, I can’t be anywhere near them, since I pick up their scent even when I’m not inhaling!

  19. BJ Kramer says

    I was an Orthodox Jew until a few years ago (Penn & Teller fed me my first non-kosher food — Penn tells the story here:

    ). If you have any specific questions about the laws and customs of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to answer. bj -at-


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