If I needed a reminder of what it can be like to interact with the news media, I got one this week. Recently, a Fox News reporter doing an online story on technology use in the chassidic community approached a friend of mine with great expertise in this area, but being loath to speak on the record, he promptly did the courageous thing: He volunteered me to speak with the reporter instead.

We spoke on the phone for about 20 minutes, and I was curious to see how the final product would look. The question in my mind wasn’t whether my quoted remarks in her piece would diverge from what I had actually said in that conversation — that much was a foregone conclusion — but rather, by how much.

I went into the interview with open eyes, feeling that the risk of misquotation and distortion was worth the hoped-for opportunity to counter myths and misrepresentations. The piece appeared this week, and as it turns out, I emerged relatively unscathed; out of the five or six quotes, only one was something I simply hadn’t said. For an article entitled, “Hasidic Leaders Sharply Limit Members’ Web, Smartphone Use: ‘It’s Like We’re in North Korea,’ ” that’s cause for relief.   

When we spoke, I told the reporter that the issues digital technology present can be divided into two categories — those that are specific to religious Jews, and those that are challenges to all people. I then spent all the remaining time discussing the latter set of issues, going into detail about the negative effects of smartphone and social media use in a whole range of areas that apply to human beings regardless of creed and religion.

I quoted several non-Jewish experts in the field, and noted that the scores of books and hundreds of articles on the topic of technology and society were written by people with no connection to Orthodox Judaism because technology has created a crisis for all humanity, not just for Jews. She quoted me as saying that “the environment of the digital age is far more conducive to addiction than anything humans have experienced in their history,” but that’s actually a direct quote from Adam Alter, the NYU marketing professor who authored Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

Yet, for the most part, the reporter sidestepped that pan-societal crisis, preferring instead to advance an overall theme that for chassidic Jews, the main reason “technology is a threat” is that it “enables personal connections and access to views and information from non-Hasidic sources.” She came into our interview with her preordained narrative in place and nothing I could say, however informed and eloquent, was going to dislodge that.

She also cited the speakers at the 2012 Citifield asifah who “emphasized the ‘filth’ and ‘evil’ of the Internet,” expecting her readers, I imagine, to chortle quietly to themselves about these antiquated Hasids who actually use terms like those. But the irony is that the very large online comment section that follows her piece is a showcase of one aspect of what one hopes all decent people, not just black-suited Hasids, would agree is indeed filth and evil, courtesy of the Internet. There, one finds hundreds of comments from which gush forth the vilest anti-Semitism and the most vapid, puerile verbal sewage.

Still, to give credit where it’s due, she did conclude her article with this:

For Kobre, an ordinary ride a few days ago on a New York City train summed up the perils of technology.

The rabbi stood in the crush of humanity on the packed train and looked around him.

“Every single person, without exception, whether they were sitting down or standing, was looking down at their devices,” Kobre recalled. “For me it was a scene out of a horror movie, a zombie movie. What could they possibly be looking at that is more important than their own thoughts, about their families, their life goals?”

 

RAGS TO THE RICHEST

There’s a new clothes style out and about, at least among the young folk. Have you seen it? It’s rags.

What once was the exclusive province of the down-and-out destitute is now socially approved for the enjoyment of all, with prince and pauper alike now flaunting torn clothing — i.e. rags.

Alright, perhaps “rags” is too strong a term. What I refer to here is the sudden transformation — once, that is, the go-ahead came down from the fashion pooh-bahs on high, or down low, or somewhere — of pants with multiple rips and tears up and down the legs, into the “in”-est of “in” wear. The more rips, the more threadbare and “authentic” looking, the better. And, to quote a top fashion magazine, “The more ripped the jeans are, the more impeccable the rest of the outfit must be.”

Now, if you’re readying yourself for this writer to zero in on the inanity of this all, rearing back and uncorking a blazing fastball of clever invective, the sarcasm dripping down like chocolate off a hot fudge sundae — sorry, but I’ll have to disappoint.

It’s not even that the target is just too easy, just waiting to be dismantled, piece by ludicrous piece, with furious facetiousness (although it is). It’s rather that if people want to purposely dress up as indigent, if that’s what makes them happy, then who, really, am I to argue with them?

But on that note, one observation. This current torn-clothing craze is different in kind from every other one of the numerous fashions that come into and then go out of vogue each year. Many of them might strike me or you as strange-looking, even weird or just downright silly, but “legitimate” fashion they remain.

That is to say: Those who wear them, sometimes even at rather steep cost, will contend earnestly that these clothing items look good on them and feel good to wear and that it’s their critics who just aren’t urbane enough to get it. And there really isn’t any way to prove them wrong, since by definition, fashion is a matter of taste. There is no objective right and wrong way to dress.

But these ripped pants, they’re damaged trousers, simple as that. That’s an objective statement, and to deny it is to suspend reality, embrace delusion. I’m sorry, but they don’t “look good” or “feel good” to wear by any measure. They always were, still are, and will always be, rags.

And thus, when a person wears these things openly, publicly, there’s a message that’s being broadcast, silently, yet at the same time thunderously (although you may need a specially outfitted, psychologically tuned short-wave radio to pick up the frequency), and this is it: “I follow the herd unthinkingly and will even wear torn clothing, if necessary, in order to do so. I lack the sense of self and confidence in my own feelings to say, ‘This is ridiculous, and I won’t do it, no matter how supposedly nerdy I come off looking.’ ” There was a time, back in the 1970s, when teenagers wore torn jeans as a sign of rebellion, but not now. Today, it’s actually a type of sheep-like conformity.

Some of us may have long suspected that a similar herd mentality and lack of self-esteem underlie much of what goes on in the so-called fashion world. And perhaps, at the very least, this latest “fashion” — Le ripped pants — tells us we’re actually onto something.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 715. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com