Hassidus At The Movies: A Chat with Pop Chassid’s Elad Nehorai

It is a great honor to host Elad Nehorai on my blog today. Elad is the writer at PopChassid.com, one of my favorite blogs! 

Tell us about the ‘birth’ of Pop Chassid. When and why did you start the blog?

Pop Chassid actually started as a way to combine movies and Hassidus.  Which is obviously very different than it is today.  I came up with the idea while watching Mary Poppins with my wife while we were killing time during a layover on the way to Israel. I kept comparing the movie to ideas I had heard in Hassidus, and I realized that this would be a fun idea for a blog.
But I think you’d probably be more interested in knowing how the current incarnation of the blog came about.  I’ll be honest, it started with an experience of going off the derech.  While in Israel, I had started to become disillusioned with many of people I considered my mentors and leaders.  Seeing this really, really had an impact on me, and for a while I didn’t pray, I didn’t study, I didn’t do anything.  I could hardly bring myself to stay in shul during Rosh Hashana.  And I also didn’t write.
So, when Matisyahu trimmed his beard, I couldn’t help but identify with him a bit.  It was so hard for me to see all the people attacking him so personally for his choice, especially in the Chabad community.
I decided to write about my pain.  It was the first time I had seriously written for a while.  The piece ended up becoming an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post.  But what mattered more was how freeing it felt.  Ironically, I never felt more Jewish.
This prompted a lot of soul-searching, both religiously and artistically.
When my wife and I moved to New York, I made a decision: no more writing for other people.  No more trying to make my writing fit what people wanted.  It was time to be honest.  Time to say what I think.  So, I redesigned my site to reflect my new attitude, and started writing what was in my heart instead of what I thought should be in my heart. Ironically, I think this attitude is what got me to the point of overcoming my off-the-derechness.  I was able to be both free and religious.  It was enormously liberating.
That’s the Pop Chassid you have today.

Was there was one blog post that you wrote that had a large impact on the success of Pop Chassid . What was the premise of that post? Why did you choose to address that topic specifically?

There are actually two posts that I would say had a direct impact on the success of my blog.
The first was post defending Chaya Kurtz’s post in xoJane.  I wrote that in a fit of passion, basically right around the time I had relaunched my blog.
Because of the explosive nature of the discussion, the post ended up being exponentially more popular than any post I had ever written.  And it sort of launched my blog into the awareness of the Jewish blogosphere.  From there, a few more popular posts, especially the Huffington Post piece about Matisyahu, helped solidify that new status.
More recently, I had what you could call a true “viral” post.  I did a photo post about the Holocaust called, “20 Photos That Change The Holocaust Narrative.”
The idea for this post is in the title: I wanted to change the way people discussed the Holocaust.  I was actually inspired by Chabad’s approach to the Holocaust.  They’ve always pushed the idea that Jews shouldn’t be focused on their victimhood, but on their ability to bring light into the world and repair all the darkness visited upon them.  This post was essentially my contribution to that idea.
It ended up becoming insanely popular, crashing my server, and putting my blog in a new level of awareness.  I’ll always be grateful for it success.  It really did make quite a difference in the perception of this blog.

How do you handle negative feedback about your posts?

    There are three kinds of negative feedback: constructive, non-constructive, and destructive.
    Constructive criticism is vital to the success of a blog.  I love the input I get from my readers, and always try to take it seriously, even if I don’t end up accepting it.  I think sometimes the hardest part about constructive criticism is recognizing it as such.  Sometimes you’re so attached to your own writing that it’s easy to forget that not all criticism is destructive.  But thank G-d, I have many wonderful readers that are very good at reminding me of the difference.
    Non-constructive criticism is when someone just says something like, “I don’t like this” with no further explanation.  This criticism is the easiest to deal with.  I ignore it and move on.
    Destructive criticism is, I think, where most blogs and websites fail in their community management.  There’s kind of this attitude on the web that “everything goes” and so anyone should say anything as poisonous or hurtful as they want.  This is a big mistake.  What happens in this laizze-faire style is that the loudest, angriest voices get all the attention, and the good guys avoid the discussion because they don’t feel safe being a part of the discussion.
    That’s why I’m a big advocate of active moderation.  Not that all negative comments should be deleted, but there does need to be an awareness of the possibility.  I usually simply confront the person directly, talking to them as well as I can, so they sympathize with the idea that I’m human and that there’s another person on the other side of the screen.  However, if they are being particularly destructive, or it’s clear they have no interest in a dialogue, I don’t hesitate to either delete their comment or even ban them.
    I’ll be honest with you, Leigh, I think bloggers and news outlets like COLLive, the Forward, the Huffington Post, and others, who claim to moderate but still allow their websites to become havens of anger and poisonous comments, are committing moral crimes with their laxity.  They’re allowing the world to become an angry place, a hateful place, in the name of dialogue or hits or whatever other excuse they can come up with.  It’s a real travesty.

    Tell us about the other projects you are involved in (Mikimi, Charidy, etc).

    Right now I’m working on three other projects.
    The first one is my main project: my family.  My wife is due any day now, and that will, please G-d, be our second child.  So excited.
    The second one is Charidy, my full-time gig.  I do the marketing for them.  It’s a startup that will be launching in a few months, and it’s basically a crowdfunding platform for non-profits.  I can’t wait for us to get going.
    The last is my memoir.  I’ve been devoting more and more time to this, and I’m slowly seeing the progress pay off.  I have absolutely zero idea when it will be ready.  I’ll hopefully have a first draft done in six to twelve months.

    Blogging can be a full time job- How do you find a balance?

      It’s all about scheduling.  I have a very strict schedule for my writing.  I write every day when I wake up, and every night before I go to sleep.  This gives me about an hour to two hours of writing time a day, which for me is more than enough time to do my blog and my memoir.
      I’m also blessed to have a job that recognizes the power of my online community, so I can still take a bit of time off every now and then to respond to comments and emails.  This is hugely valuable, and, honestly, invaluable to a blogger.

      I’m curious about the feedback you received about a recent post you wrote about Tznius (modesty). What prompted you to write that post? Was the feedback better or worse than you expected?

      Oy, that post.
      I’ll be honest with you, I think I’m the only one on the face of the earth who didn’t realize this post was going to be as controversial as it was.  I think the reason for that is because I became so enamored with the idea that I forgot to think of the larger context I was writing in.  I just kind of wrote with this tunnel vision, wanting to get my idea on paper and out into the world, without taking a breath to realize what I was getting myself into.
      I think that’s part of why the reaction was so hard for me.  I’ve never, out of all the controversial posts I’ve done, felt so incredibly hurt and pained by a reaction to something I’d written.  And up until that point, I thought I had gotten very good at dealing with negativity.
      But this was different.  People were really going for the jugular in their comments.  Some women that I really respected came out against it in a fury (which I now totally understand.  At the time, it was hard to tell the difference between the good and the bad critiques).
      The first day, when the comments poured in, I felt very stressed, but calm enough to deal with it.
      The second day, when the anger didn’t let up but just built, I started crying.  I didn’t understand why, at the time, but I was in so much pain.  I couldn’t handle it.  The viciousness was just so sharp…
      That Shabbos, I could hardly look anyone in the eye.  I was a wreck.  I was weak.  I was empty.
      It took a good two weeks or so to recover from that time.  I hope I never experience it again, but I know that as a blogger you’re always opening yourself up to that sort of backlash.
      I made some serious mistakes with that post: for example, the way I talked about my yetzer hara as an “evil bastard” was way too oversimplified and sounded downright Christian if read the wrong way.  I also think I should have taken more time to flesh out some of the ideas that I left open to interpration there.
      But I’ll never regret the post itself.  I’m proud of the fact that I put up my blog posts in a semi-rough fashion, with holes and mistakes and misspellings.  It allows the blog to feel free, and I want my readers to know that it’s okay to feel free.  It’s okay to be free-wheeling, to make mistakes, to expose yourself to criticism, to screw up publicly.  That freedom may encourage the trolls of the world to attack, but it also creates a culture of openness and understanding.
      And at the end of the day, that’s basically what Pop Chassid is all about.  Unapologetic enthusiasm.

       Where do you see your blog in the next year? Which topics can you see yourself addressing that others have shied away from until now? (The more controversial, the better.)
      I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I never really plan out my blog beyond a week in advance.  I have a list of ideas, and some of them end up getting written, and some don’t.
      I do want to devote more time to image posts.  I have a bunch planned, but it’s hard to find the time to do them.  Even now, by working on this interview, I’m delaying another image post.  But it’s cool, I’ll figure it out.
      One of my biggest struggles is knowing when and if to write about certain controversial subjects.  For example, I really really want to write about how I think fanatic liberalism is creeping into the mainstream.  But the thing is, I really also want to avoid being poltiical.  And by making that point, I’m afraid people will misunderstand my writing and think I’m promoting some sort of conservative agenda, G-d forbid.
      But I see the way radical feminism, for example, is becoming accepted by so many people simply because they don’t want to be seen as against a good cause, and I get scared.  I get scared because I think our society sees things in a very “team-oriented” way.  Meaning that we all pick our teams, and once they’re picked, we refuse to fight against our team, or stop attacking the other team.
      So a team can get out of control, and its members might not even realize it.
      And this sort of mentality bleeds into the Jewish world as well, with divisions running deep just because people can’t imagine sympathizing with the people they disagree with.
      So, I want to write about this, and I do in some roundabout ways.  But I haven’t hit it full on, precisely because I know that this team mentality turns people into killers.  And the way people reacted to my modesty post will be but a small blip in comparison to the way people will react to some of the other things I’d like to say.  And I’m not ready for that reaction.  Even now, I’m getting half a panic attack just talking about it.Which is a shame, because it shows just how powerful this pack mentality is, and how much people’s viciousness controls conversations.
      And besides all that, I’m always balancing the “inspiring” part of my blog with the “warrior” part of my blog.  They’re both elements to it, and I never know quite which way to balance the two.  This is something a lot of my readers have noticed, and many have encouraged me to take on side or the other.  For now, it’s all still part of the experiment that is called blogging.
      You can read Elad’s work at his website, popchassid.com, or by visiting Pop Chassid and Charidy on Facebook.  You can read my guest post on popchassid here.