There was a moment, back in the dial-up days, when the Internet was thought to be a force for healthy, open-minded community building. Things, you may have noticed, have changed.
However, the Web still represents a crucial tool for working out communal concerns in times of crisis and insecurity.
Diaspora Jews, particularly in America, face just such a moment today.
From Donald Trump to Benjamin Netanyahu to the Chicago Dyke March, voices from across the ideological spectrum have shown little remorse in making American Jews feel less welcome than they once thought they were. And while these are real problems requiring complex, real-life solutions, the Web offers a number of places in which to productively contextualize, vent and even joke about the situation.
My favorite is the wildly popular Facebook group “sounds goyish, but ok.”
The group started in September 2016 as an autofill joke – don’t worry, I’ll explain. When you type on Facebook, the site will sometimes guess your next move, offering you pre-set phrases to select and thereby saving a few keystrokes. By registering the group, the creators added an option to the site’s pre-set menu. If a user came across a post she or he found very “un-Jewish” in some sense, she or he could simply start typing “sounds g...,” and the complete sardonic phrase would pop up like magic. In the snark-driven world of Internet culture, this qualifies as an amusing, innocuous little gag.
Jokes, however, are by their nature very effective, very serious markers of community. Part of what makes something funny is the knowledge that you and people like you will get it, while those on the outside of the group will remain confused or unmoved. The “sounds goyish” autofill worked in just such a fashion.
If you laughed, you felt a part of something.
So, people, lots of people, started joining this group that wasn’t supposed to be a group. After a month, there were 50. After two, a thousand or so. Most of the content was of the off-beat, light-hearted variety, with “goyishness” being defined in the sort of terms that Lenny Bruce made famous in his “Jewish and Goyish” routine. While sometimes overt discussion of religion popped up – group members are particularly amused by the unusual places Christians tend to see the visage of Jesus – the discussion tended toward things like the misuse of bagels or the affinity of non-Jews for getting Hebrew tattoos they must not fully understand.
The group was meant to be silly and self-effacing, explicitly avoiding the sorts of serious arguments about religious practice and Zionism that dominate many of its peer groups on Facebook. At one point, an Azerbaijani Christian asked group administrator Joe McReynolds if the “sounds goyish” crew could use its “Jew-magic” to improve her love life. There’s a delightful image of the young woman, following Joe’s counsel, balancing what seems to be an etrog on her head in order to channel the mystical powers of Sukkot. Though it could be serious at times, the group exuded Jewish- flavored fun and, one can only assume, was responsible for a beautiful new Azerbaijani family.
And then came Trump, Steve Bannon, Charlottesville and all the rest.
Suddenly, countless American Jews woke from their assimilated slumbers, grappling for the first time ever with Jewish identity as it related to race, politics and communal security.
No doubt, this moment prompted countless serious discussions online and off, with synagogues and community centers rushing to foster spaces in which to think through these tough issues. It also prompted thousands of people to sign up for “sounds goyish, but ok.”
Though not intended primarily as a space for people to work through their deepest fears, the pliable, open-ended nature of the group’s approach to Jewish identity cultivated an ideal spot for many to do just that. Having successfully kept the space free of divisive arguments about ritual practice or the Middle East, it developed into a supportive spot for people to react to Tiki-torch Nazis and ask for advice about dealing with those who refused to take Jewish vulnerability seriously. Certainly, many people still come for the jokes. But the group, now over 10,000-members strong, has once again proven that Jewish culture has a productive, liberating way of merging comedy and tragedy.
It is important to be cautious when describing the threats that face American Jews today. We are not subject to disproportionate police brutality, systematic employment discrimination, or mass deportation. It is, however, a complex time. Our president gives comfort to those who hate us. The prime minister of Israel will happily ignore or insult the Diaspora for a few votes back home. “sounds goyish, but ok,” with its potentially offensive name and penchant for silliness, is not a solution to this, or any other, crisis. It is, however, a reminder that creative uses of new technologies can yield surprising, productive opportunities to bring together disparate parts of a broad, diverse community. Or, alternatively, it might just prove the strength of Joe’s Jew-magic.Matt Sienkiewicz is associate professor of communication and international studies at Boston College. Follow him on Twitter @mediastudied.