I didn’t expect that my Santa Claus would be an anonymous Reddit user who went by the name Bwilson1000. More surprising, I didn’t know that Stephen Hawking was about to enter my life when I was 22.
When I sent the Reddit user a message, I expected nothing, feeling a combination of optimism and desperation. I knew that the Internet was full of people who ignored you. I had just dropped out after four years in yeshiva, post-high school seminary. I had no life path, no plan and I felt lost. I had no economic security, as we faced bouts of instability growing up.
I left yeshiva because I was curious about the world around me, and the study of only religious texts had left me wanting more. I walked the four miles to and from the yeshiva’s verdant campus and the local library. But reading was an escape, not a path. College felt like another planet, like seeing the cushy armchairs and tweed-clad professors through a telescope.
I also left my social net, my friends stuck behind tables filled with books of the Talmud and law, and replaced it with an online network called Reddit. Hours in the study hall were replaced with hours on the computer, the monitor facing the public dining room to keep me from clicking on pornography. I’m not sure how I learned of the site in 2010, at the age of 21, or why I was at ease to meet the site’s users. I soon started attending New York meetups of Reddit users. They were an eclectic group, the first non-Jews I had meaningful interactions with. Some are still friends.
I didn’t have a job or a plan. As a lover of books, and freebies, I spent hours on the book exchange section of the site, where users can trade their books for other items. I traded my “Art of War” hardcover for a Hunter S. Thompson paperback.
Occasionally, users would send their books out free. This particular online community is known for zealous atheists. Indeed, at the meetups, I felt like I had left one group of believers (my yeshiva friends) for another (strident atheists). One day someone offered to ship copies of “Why Evolution is True” to a dozen strangers. Free book with free shipping? I enthusiastically replied that I would like one. It felt clandestine, like I was ordering something lascivious, so when I messaged the sender privately, I only gave the first letter of my last name. It was an interesting read, and I passed it on to an ex-Orthodox friend.
Two months later, the same user offered another book. The user had numerous copies of “The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by noted atheist Richard Dawkins. I sent the user a message, extending thanks for the generosity and nervously asking for another book. The user replied the next day, asking if a scuffed copy was okay. Of course, I replied. I then explained why the gift was especially important — because my inadequate secular education in an Orthodox yeshiva high school had left me with a gap of knowledge. The user replied, “In that case, I have a few other books you may find helpful. I will send you a box with some stuff for you and whoever else might be interested.”
A week later, I received a heavy box bursting with books ranging from “Math For Dummies,” “Astronomy For Dummies,” “Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction” and Carl Sagan’s “1980 Cosmos,” complete with animations that screamed 1980. One book, out of the 20 that were in the box, stood apart: Stephen Hawking’s “A Briefer History of Time.”
It was missing a cover, but when I opened it, the waxy pages screamed intellect. Hawking’s introduction mentioned confronting an audience member and winning over her skepticism. As a member of a community of believers who are highly skeptical of other kinds of thought, I was hooked.
I’ve read and still own many of those books I received through Reddit. I’ve given some to friends and donated others to organizations that help others learn what I didn’t know — such as Footsteps, a nonprofit that provides social support to people who have left or want to leave an ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox Jewish community, and The Door, which assists homeless people and runaways. But I kept Hawking’s erudite book.
Beyond the knowledge that I’ve garnered, beyond the facts and science and theories on why we are here, I benefited from the random acts of kindness from a stranger on the Internet.
I went to college and am now a high school teacher. For the last two summers, I’ve been teaching science classes in underserved communities in New York. I’ve evolved from my youthful groupthink and have found many answers to my questions.
I’m still an observant Jew and support and help create Jewish communities that believe in a higher power. Still, I respect the complexity and nuance that Hawking, who said he considered himself an atheist, brought to science. We’ve lost someone who greatly broadened the world’s — and my — horizons.
Eli Reiter is a teacher and writer in New York who hosts the long-form storytelling show Long Story Long.