Jewish surfers pick up blogging

By RACHEL SILVERMAN / JTA
February 18, 2010 15:34

A post, click and hyperlink away, the blogosphere offers a forum for Jewish conversation.




computer 88

computer 88. (photo credit: )

At times, the chatter between American Jews can seem hushed, even silent. While questions about assimilation, Israeli politics and Jewish identity swirl overhead, many American Jews maintain an arms-length complacency about it all. But a post, click and hyperlink away, the burgeoning blogosphere offers a forum for Jewish conversation. Jewish blogs, or Web diaries, run the gamut from kosher cooking to Israeli advocacy. They include leftist rants, dating melodramas, rabbinic ruminations and secular musings from all corners of the globe. Last year, the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimated that 8 million American adults had created blogs. Though the number of specifically Jewish blogs is unconfirmed, those with knowledge of the blogosphere say the pool is substantial. "I d estimate the number of active blogs at some several thousand," says Steven Weiss, who currently blogs about religion (canonist.com), food (kosherbachelor.com) and the Jewish college experience (campusj). "Among young, highly-affiliated Jews, J-blogs are very popular," the 24 year-old New Yorker continues. "As you move up the age brackets, the popularity drops off somewhat, though many in the organizational and rabbinic establishment have started paying a lot of attention to them." The Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, for instance, launched a blog of its own last year at rac.org. "The amount of interest in blogging has just gone through the roof," confirms Alexis Rice, the RAC's communications director. "I think the Jewish community is more connected now than ever before. "A rabbi used to give a sermon and it was heard by 200 people in services Friday night," Rice continues. "Now he puts the sermon on a blog, and thousands of people access it." What exactly are these Jewish bloggers seeking on the Web? Some, like 30-something New York blogging guru Esther Kustanowitz, say the blogosphere connects them to a larger, global Jewish community. "I started looking at other Jewish blogs to see if there were other people like me out there - single, Jewish and blogging," she explains. Alternatively, some blog to seek community with or build bridges to 'the other.' Thanks to blogging, Rachel Barenblat, the theology student behind the Velveteen Rabbi blog (www.velveteenrabbi.com), has become close to a Buddhist nun in Korea and a Baptist minister in San Antonio. "I've come to feel very much like these people are my friends," says the Massachusetts resident, 30. "That we're sitting around a virtual coffee table." Tel Aviv resident Lisa Goldman began her site, On the Face (ontheface.blogware.com), as a means of catharsis and consensus-building during the Palestinian intifada. "I try to go beyond the headlines and present people as individuals - not just the Palestinians and the Israelis," says Goldman, 38. "Maybe my stories will help them to discover that the things we have in common outnumber the things that define our differences." Blogging has provided solace to communities outside Israel as well. After suffering substantial damage during Hurricane Rita, the Baton Rouge-based Congregation Beth Shalom looked to the blogosphere for respite (rabbizamek.blogspot.com). "When the hurricanes hit, we felt the need to get information out regularly," says the congregation's rabbi, Stanton Zamek. "It was a way of not forgetting this history in motion." In addition to helping his congregants stay connected during a difficult period, the blog attracted significant media buzz. "At first I was saying, 'who's going to read my musings about this or that?' " Zamek recalls, laughing. "But something caught the eye of the office of presidential speech writing, and I was invited to the White House Chanukah party." The blogosphere is not just a feel-good forum. In many instances, it's a place for real debate and democratic engagement. "Blogging has saved the Web from its abysmal fate as just another corporate content delivery system," says Jerusalem blogger Dan Sieradski, 26. "Blogs provide public spaces - and safe spaces at that - for people to discuss what matters most to them." Sieradski s Orthodox Anarchist site (www.orthodoxanarchist.com) illustrates his unconventional, off-the-cuff ideology. In one post, he explains that he s a committed Jew but he strongly opposes authority, religious dogma and nationalism. "My life is exemplified by tensions and contradictions," Sieradski says. "Orthodox Anarchist is an attempt to embrace those contradictions, and even to try to make sense of them." In the blogosphere, this type of friction generates attention. The number one thread on Jewlicious (jewlicious.com), a group blog focusing on Judaism, Israel and pop culture, addresses premarital sex in the Orthodox community. It pulled in 676 comments. The No. 2 post, with 502 responses, tackles an equally contentious topic - the identity of Conservative Judaism. Oftentimes, noisemakers walk a fine line between healthy debate and mudslinging. "There are definitely blogs where the conversation tends to be acrimonious," says Barenblat, who recently received anonymous hate mail. "People feel free to be obnoxious because it's just through a computer screen." Fiery language also peppers the Jewlicious site, with posts often descending into vitriolic exchanges. "It's a paradigm for disagreement," Kustanowitz said. "I think because of the anonymity and lack of accountability, people tend to not think before they write." One thing's for sure - this wrangling free-for-all is not the mainstream media. That's because blogs assume a vastly different tone and style than their journalistic counterparts, online communications expert Diane Schiano says. "There is this loose, free-floating, casual, even intimate approach to writing blogs," explains Schiano, an adjunct professor at Stanford University. "It's like teenage angst is being poured out." Dan Gillmor, a Palo Alto-based activist, blogger (bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor) and author on civic journalism, noted that the unregulated atmosphere emboldens the citizen-blogger. Take 'Aussie Dave, the moniker behind Israellycool (www.israellycool.com/blog). His blog acts as a symposium for issues of Israeli politics, pop culture and news. "When you have people reading you and listening to you, it's like you have your own little soapbox," the 31 year-old Beit Shemesh resident says. "It empowers the individual." Some claim blogs still act like an insiders' club, however. "The people who spend time to sit down and write on blogs have very strong opinions," explains Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. "You might have unaffiliated lurking on these Web sites, but they don't feel confident enough to comment." Others admit the blogosphere tends to attract wannabe journalists, who see the Web as a viable marketing tool. "A lot of writers use them to test the waters for their writing," Schiano said. "It's a new form of publishing." As a freelance writer who has gotten jobs from blogging, Kustanowitz affirmed this. "I'm not going to lie - it's also a place for self-promotion," Kustanowitz says. "It's doing P.R. work for me even when I'm not doing anything for me. That's the Internet for you." Where exactly this blogging phenomenon is going remains unseen. Schiano, for one, predicts a continuously evolving blogosphere. "I think there will always be this room for grassroots voices on the net," she says. And as long as rabbis continue to preach, advocates to crusade, singles to gripe and ideologues to spar, Jews will continue clicking - and posting - away.


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