Frum surfing: Orthodox Jewish women's Internet forums as a historical and cultural phenomenon

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Abstract

In the autumn of 2007, while browsing through an Internet forum, I encountered a thread with a poll that caught my eye. Under a heading of intimate topics, a member had posted: "Are you attracted to your husband's private parts?" Asking whether other women found it difficult to touch their husband's genitals, she wondered whether her response was normal, and ended her post with a personal request to the site's moderator. What drew me to the poll was its phrasing which used the correct anatomical term and not "private parts," its appearance on an Internet forum open solely to married Orthodox Jewish women, and the poster's plea to the site moderator not to lock the thread. Over the next several days an extensive debate developed on the site regarding this thread, with the vast majority of posters referring solely to the poll's wording, which included the biological term and not the common Orthodox Jewish euphemism for the male organ. The original poster was exhorted to clean up her language; posters shared personal experiences of what they taught their children to call various body parts, and cited Orthodox rabbinical authorities about using these terms. After several weeks of virtual battling the moderator removed the poll, changed the question's wording to placate the religious sensibilities of site members, de-listed a member whose religious zeal and agenda were deemed unsuitable to the particular site, and deleted over 60 percent of the posts on the thread. The title of the denuded thread now read "attraction to husbands…" and only by going into the thread could new members understand what it was all about. The moderator also altered the guidelines of the intimacy section, telling posters they were allowed to use all proper English and Hebrew terms when discussing "private areas" but exhorting them to keep the general content of the message "clean and appropriate." The debate over the aforementioned post and the creation and maintenance of virtual Orthodox Jewish women's (henceforth cited as OJW) forums appear to be indicative of a long existing need now receiving expression in [End Page 1] cyberspace. In this article I posit that we can learn much about the changing lives and cultures of Orthodox and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish women today by examining the growing numbers of all-woman Internet forums created solely for, or frequented primarily, by OJW. In view of the ongoing debates among gender scholars about the importance of developing identity, or the "self"1, I claim that we can also use these forums to better explore and analyze some of the directions in which the Orthodox Jewish female "self" has been developing. While dozens of topics appear on these forums, here I will examine one broad subject that plays a major role on almost all of them due to its centrality in the lives of married OJW in their 20s, 30s and 40s (the most active age groups on these forums) – the "Physical Self." Further discussion of the numerous issues connected to and appearing in OJW Internet forums will appear in my book-length study now being prepared. The present article is a prolegomena to this extensive future study.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1-30
JournalJournal of Jewish Identities
Volume2
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009

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