SAN FRANCISCO -- Morgan Friedman loves the way people talk. He wants others to love it, too.
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The 35-year-old social media entrepreneur, formerly of Brooklyn, NY, and now living in Buenos Aires, launches new digital projects like marshmallows from an air gun.
Pow! Here’s overheardinnewyork.com, a site for offbeat conversations that his team of eavesdroppers hears on the streets.
Pffft! Here’s yiddishisms.com, Yiddish expressions culled from half-remembered witticisms of his grandmother.
He’s got a million of ‘em -- or a few dozen, at least.
Now Friedman is taking that same love of lingo and combining it with his
high-tech know-how to launch Urban Sefer, an online project aimed at
producing crowd-sourced, slang-filled translations of traditional Jewish
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You know, Jewish texts written the way people talk.
“When these documents were written, they were written in the common
language, the way people spoke,” Friedman told JTA. “But today when I
read these ancient documents, I need to sit and think in order to
translate it into my language. It requires intellectual work.”
And that, as everyone knows, is not what young people like to do.
“Let’s take these traditions handed down for thousands of years and make
the same points, but do it in the language that’s part of our everyday
life,” Friedman says.
The folks at the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund seem to agree.
In March, the group awarded Friedman one of its initial nine grants for
new digital media projects aimed at engaging young Jews in Jewish life,
learning and community.
“These projects share an ability to harness new digital media tools and
technologies that are a large part of young people’s lives today and use
them to enhance efforts to engage young people in Jewish life,” said
Rachel Levin, associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation,
which joined the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn
Schusterman Family Foundation in sponsoring the new fund.
The nine finalists were chosen from more than 300 applicants vying for a
total of $500,000 to be disbursed over the next 12 months, the fund’s
Urban Sefer is Friedman’s first Jewish project. He was raised Orthodox
in Great Neck, NY, so he knows his Jewish ritual, he says, though he
fell away from religion after his bar mitzvah.
In college Friedman was an English major, and he says his idea of a good
time is spending one weekend a month reading a Shakespeare work he
doesn’t know well.
“I’m the least cool guy ever,” he says. “I like reading old books and listening to people tell jokes.”
The first text Friedman is tackling is the Passover Haggadah. Two years
ago, he and his Argentinean girlfriend dashed off a version in Spanish
slang as a sort of lark. It proved so popular among Jews in Argentina
that last year he decided to do the same thing using English slang. But
instead of sitting down and writing it himself, Friedman wants to
involve lots of people.
So he’s taking the project online and inviting anyone who’s interested
to sign up and take part -- crowd sourcing, in modern vernacular.
“What’s a modern way to do this? Crowd sourcing,” he says in typical
I’ll-answer-my-own-questions-thank-you Friedman style. “The epic stories
in the Bible used classic methods of telling stories, but today we tell
stories in film, on TV, online. If Moses were alive today, he’d be
Urban Sefer isn’t the only open-source Jewish text project out there.
The granddaddy of the genre is Open Source Haggadah, an online project
launched in 2002 that allowed users to construct their own personalized
Haggadahs using a variety of sources, including user-generated content.
That project folded in 2004 when funding ran out -- its operation was
more or less taken over by Jew It Yourself -- but it paved the way for
other similar initiatives including the Open Siddur Project and Build a
Prayer, which allow users to construct personalized prayer books, and
the newly launched Haggadot.com, another recipient of a Jewish New Media
Innovation Fund grant for 2011-12.
Friedman says he doesn’t know the people working on the other projects.
He’s pretty much alone in Buenos Aires, and says he’s just putting up
his project on the Internet hoping it will attract a community of
like-minded younger Jews eager to harness their creative energies
After the Haggadah, Friedman says he’d like to take on a rewrite of the
Bible, starting with Ecclesiastes, and then move on to the Shabbat
“If there was ever a biblical work made for modern slang, it’s
Ecclesiastes,” he says. “It’s about a guy who has everything but is
looking for meaning, so he goes out, gets drunk all the time, has sex
with a lot of women -- nothing works.
"Finally he realizes that enjoying little moments with friends, that’s
the real meaning. This is timeless wisdom! The power of modern English
vernacular is made for it.”
Just because he’s focusing on street talk doesn’t mean Friedman is
taking his subject lightly. This is serious work, he insists, meant to
draw young Jews back to connect with their tradition. He’s working with a
rabbi “to make sure it’s kosher” and is investing a lot of his own
And because these translations are being crowd sourced, the outline he has in his mind may or may not pan out.
“I don’t know what the final version will be like,” he says, “but the website will be live in a month or two. We’ll see then.”
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