“Orthodox Jewish nerd” may have been an insult in the past, but as “nerd” has become cool and “geek” has become chic, there is now a growing community of observant Jews who are proudly embracing this trend. How many Orthodox Jews reside in the world of fandom? No one knows exactly, but the Facebook group “Orthodox Ladies United in Fandom,” founded by Michal Schick, has attracted over 2500 members in just over 3 years.
When did being a “geek” become so cool? Schick says, “People have come to accept that the stuff they like ‘guiltily,’ they don’t have to like ‘guiltily,’ and the market has picked up on that.” With the massive success of franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel and Harry Potter, these stories transcend who is a nerd and who is not. People who don’t fit into the mold may have been classified as nerds in the past, but now there are two definitions: being a scientist/technology maverick, and those who approach it from a love of stories. “Nerds are people who, even if they don’t want to create themselves, they appreciate the act of creativity in whatever form that takes.” Their focus and dedication to their fandoms sometimes takes just as much work though. “You can’t love Harry Potter and sort yourself into a house and imagine your life at Hogwarts without wanting to be a builder and appreciate what’s been built. The same goes for somebody who can’t put down the science textbook…It just manifests in slightly different ways.”
Despite the widespread acceptance of the culture and the mainstream hits, Fandom still get a bad rap. “I don’t know why it needs to be that going to a convention that would celebrate a story, where you could meet your favorite actors…why would that be less cool then going to a signing and meeting your favorite sports player?” People invest time, energy into their causes to different degrees. “A lot of people were nerds and didn’t admit it…or thought they had to grow out of it…It’s just something else that you like and enjoy.”
Schick was raised in an observant Jewish home, the daughter of a baalas teshuva. She attended an “open-minded Bais Yaakov,” where her fandom flourished alongside her Torah learning. “It didn’t occur to me that those two things contradicted, until I got a little older and realized that not everyone read Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings after Shabbos dinner.”
While Schick knew she was far from the only frum fangirl, it was not yet a community. “I went to a nerdy event a couple of years ago with three of my [frum] friends, there were two other Orthodox women in front of us. We walked out and ran straight into another two girls, and I thought ‘Man, it would be great if we had a way to connect somehow.'” That inspired the Facebook group. Schick was shocked at how much it took off.
Despite the fact that the geek community at large is itself still on the sidelines of society to a degree, Schick has not found it to be a safe place to bring up her observance. “Hearing the word Orthodox for a lot of people is like ‘oh, you must live in a box and wear black all the time!'” She admits that there is a hypocrisy to being “the other” yet not being tolerant of differences if they include religion. But with an Orthodox female fandom group, Schick can be openly and proudly frum in a geeky space. Posters in the group share what books they’re stocking up on for Yom Tov and commiserate over frum fan frustrations, such as for those who will miss this week’s premiere of Avengers: Infinity War because they don’t watch movies during Sefira.
From the Facebook group, a podcast, Nice Jewish Fangirls, which Schick cohosts with SM Rosenberg and Tamar Herman came about. Schick and her fellow Nice Jewish Fangirls will be on a panel at Jewish ComicCon in Brooklyn this Sunday, rounding out the numbers of women who occupy a space “that is often doubly not expected to have women in it.” But for Schick, this niche is one that just continues to grow and she is proud to be a proponent of that, especially among frum women.
“There is something to be said of Judaism as a fandom. Something that you’re willing to devote yourself to. I’m willing to devote myself to a fictional story and to go to a convention for it, so why wouldn’t I be willing to stand in shul on Yom Kippur and talk to God and tell Him my story? There are parallels in that passion and a middle path that can be walked… incorporating the wholeheartedness that fandom is, into Judaism and vice versa.”