In my “day job” as a professor at Dickinson College, I teach a class called “Religion & the Internet,” which tackles some big, philosophical questions: what does it mean for something to be real, true, or authentic? Does “real world” morality apply in virtual spaces? It’s one of my favorite courses to teach, especially right now.
So, with technology on the brain, I was drawn to The Tinder Swindler on Netflix while traveling home from a visit to my mom this past week. The documentary centers around three women who meet their proverbial “Prince Charming” on Tinder, a popular online dating platform that uses geotags to connect users with nearby romantic hookups. In the film, fairytale fantasies eventually turn into nightmares when the women realize that their “prince” is really an international con-artist who has swindled them out of their life’s savings and much more.
Having been married for 22 years, I have no direct experience with Tinder, but, as a woman who spent my 20s single on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I vividly remember blind dates and personal ads and the sometimes-glaring discrepancies between the way potential matches presented themselves and who they turned out to be. So, there was a lot I could relate to in this 21st century scandal and I was eager to learn a little more about how an app like Tinder might figure in the lives of my college students.
I was caught by surprise when it was revealed that the villain of this story is Jewish. Shimon Yehuda Hayut, also known by the name Simon Leviev, is an Israeli conman who, between 2017 and 2019, allegedly scammed $10M from women he met online in an elaborate Ponzi scheme sustained across international borders. My heart sank as I realized that this viral Netflix pick highlighted yet another mind-blowing story of greed, fraud, and deception that, in the current climate of increased anti-Semitism, was not “good for the Jews” in the way it reinforced damaging stereotypes.
Reviewers celebrate the creative choice to center The Tinder Swindler’s story around the experiences of the victims and their struggle for justice, rather than delving into the complicated psychology of the perpetrator, as most “true crime” dramas do. The plot hinges on the women’s perspectives. Their anguish is palpable as they each share how a deep longing for love, friendship and “the ideal man” made them vulnerable to unthinkable betrayal and loss. While watching, I remembered a charming guy I once flirted with on a street corner in NYC in the 1990s who convinced me over coffee to give him $300 in cash for some magazine subscriptions– or the Israeli soldier who fed me a handful of lies about being an elite paratrooper. So, let’s just say I found the women’s willingness to believe in romance over reality very believable.
But I’ll be honest; Simon’s Israeli-Jewishness haunts me, despite his despicable criminal behavior. In a scene where journalists visit his hometown neighborhood in a rundown section of B’nai Barak, the Hebrew dialogue and Hasidim in the background signal to those familiar with Israel that Simon comes from an Orthodox family (indeed, his father was the Rabbi for El Al, Israel’s national airline). What a stark contrast with the billionaire’s lifestyle that he curated for himself on Instagram, filled with private jets, luxury hotels and material excess at the expense of others. How did this happen? Was it simply insatiable, materialistic yearning that drove him to invent a fraudulent persona on the backs of the women he seduced into trusting him?
Purim, which we celebrate this week, is a holiday that encourages us just once a year to try on masks and alter-egos, to cross lines that usually define clear-cut boundaries. When the holiday is over, we go back to being who we really are, recognizing and acknowledging parts of us that only get expressed in our shadow. Our masks conceal, but they also reveal something about our fantasies.
The Tinder Swindler is an important reminder that the internet is a virtual mask we can put on at will. It is the lens through which we see ourselves and others, and it shapes our aspirations and dreams. It is Rabbinic tradition that at a festive Purim meal, a person must drink “ad she-lo yada” — until they do not know the difference between the phrases, ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’ Some interpret this as a mandate to get so intoxicated that the line between “good and evil” is blurred.
We live in a world where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the real and the virtual, between what is authentic and what is fake–or, perhaps more relevant to this discussion: between who is authentic and who is fake. As we navigate this complicated technological landscape, may we all be blessed with the wisdom of Esther, who knew when to conceal her identity and when it was time to stand as her true self, unmasked for the good of her people.