Stellar Startups: Where the Talmud and the Internet meet

"This project moves Talmud learning off the page and onto the screen, something kinds today can definitively relate to."

By DAVID SHAMAH
September 27, 2010 22:14
Animated Talmud

Scene from The Animated Talmud 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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You usually wouldn’t think of the Internet and Talmud as a matching pair. Quite the contrary – most advocates of either, when asked to describe the relationship between the two, would stress their exclusivity, even their antipathy.

That’s not the answer you would get if you asked Benny Goldstein, an Israeli–American entrepreneur who has developed one of the most novel websites on the Internet – the Animated Talmud (http://www.animatedtalmud .com/), where viewers young and old can learn about the basics of the Talmud, including concepts, history, personalities, and anything else a budding Talmudic scholar needs to journey “the Talmudic sea,” as ancient sources describe it.

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The site currently includes 15 lessons, very professionally drawn, animated, and narrated in English. The lessons cover the most basic concepts, presented in an entertaining manner that beginning students are sure to enjoy (Goldstein says that many of the users of the site are in first and second grade).

But there are many advanced concepts in the animations as well – and they even include tidbits that seasoned Talmud learners may not be aware of, such as this one: On the title page of traditionally printed “Vilna” style Talmud folios, there are two lions – one smiling and one expressionless. What are they doing there? It’s a piece of esoterica that might get by most people – but is aptly handled by Animated Talmud.

Goldstein got the idea for the project a long time ago – “back when I was in yeshiva, more than a decade ago. I thought it would be great to have animations to describe the proceedings in parts of the Talmud, with cartoons bringing the concepts off the page and onto the screen, in order to make them more accessible.”

Unlike the (probably very many) others who have had similar ideas but never considered acting on them, Goldstein took this talmudic ox by its horns and decided to do it himself.



A scribe by training and trade, Goldstein went back to school to learn flash programming skills specifically for the project, and began building what would eventually become the Animated Talmud. The site has been operational for about a half a year, and in July it had so many users that it crashed.

Technical skills are one thing, but it takes entrepreneurial drive and determination to coordinate a project that required the help of dozens of people and the resolution of hundreds of problems – and fortunately, Goldstein had those skills when he went into the Animated Talmud project.

Goldstein is the brains behind another innovative religious service, http://shaimos.org. That site markets and ships cardboard boxes that are to be filled up with no-longer- usable holy books, papers, and religious objects, which under Jewish law are buried, instead of being disposed of as trash.

Users buy a box (they’re available by mail in the US, as well as at many religious articles stores across the country), fill it with their “shaimos,” as the retired documents and books are called, and ship them directly to the cemeteries where they are respectfully placed in the ground.

Although a seemingly simple idea, it took a far-seeing entrepreneur like Goldstein to put a system in place that solved what has been a major inconvenience for traditional Jews living in suburbs, far away from the places where the discarded holy items are taken for burial.

It was that entrepreneurial spirit that Goldstein brought to Animated Talmud – and the payoff has been his satisfaction over the tens of thousands of patrons of the free to use site (just register and you’ll be sent the password to view the entire series, free).

“It’s really been a labor of love,” Goldstein says. “I get thousands of emails from parents, teachers, children and adults, expressing appreciation for the site.

“Many parents of kids with ADD tell me that this was the only way for their kids to get into Talmud learning, and I get many messages from adult baalei teshuva [newly religious] telling me how the site made what they feared would be a difficult, complicated effort into something easy and enjoyable.”

Even leaders of the haredi world – which is, for the most part, vehemently opposed to the Internet – have nice things to say about Animated Talmud, Goldstein says.

“I have been contacted by officials in haredi organizations, the media, etc., all expressing support for what we are doing, although they explain they cannot recommend a website. Instead, they ask me if I would be willing to put the animations on a CD or DVD, which many of them would allow.”

It’s on the drawing board, Goldstein says, but only when he raises more money.

As for any entrepreneur, raising money has been Goldstein’s biggest headache.

“I built the project mostly on donations, and so far it has cost $150,000,” he says.

Most of those donations have not been particularly large, he says, but have come in a steady stream from appreciative users. He’s considered partnering with software and media companies, and even with Jewish organizations and booksellers, but so far no deals have been worked out.

“There are a lot of details when it comes to these deals, as well as to running the site,” Goldstein says. “Anyone who hasn’t done it just doesn’t grasp the complicated nature of an enterprise like this.”

Meanwhile, Goldstein wants to move forward, animating popular sections learned by younger students in most yeshivas (like the second chapter of tractate Bava Metzia, “Elu Metzios”). That project, Goldstein says, may be the key to turning Animated Talmud from an introduction to the Talmud to a full-fledged educational enterprise.

“I see the new animations we are planning as something that could actually be used as part of a school curriculum, with in-class or at-home assignments based on specific lessons presented on the site and reinforced by a workbook, which we are developing,” he says, adding that even educational cartoons based on stories in the Talmud are a possibility.

Regardless of the future direction the project takes, Goldstein says he’s in it for the long haul.

“Kids in this generation need something eye-catching, to compete with the other things that distract their attention,” he says.

“With this project, Talmud learning moves off the page and onto the screen, something kids today can definitely relate to.”

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