The Shabbos goy that wouldn't

William Levin's new robot cartoon member of the tribe.

William Levin 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
William Levin 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He had never been selected for jury duty, but he knew the process could be lengthy. So when William Levin, 36, of New York was called up in Brooklyn eight years ago, he took a book with him to kill time. For the next eight hours, the computer consultant and University of Delaware graduate pored over the book of how to animate in Flash, which he said was like the "Flash-animation bible," reading it from cover to cover. By the end of the long day, he had not been selected for jury duty, but when he went home he created his first computer animation. His animations about computer culture, which were featured in film festivals and were sent around as "viral videos," poked fun at the very Macintosh technology he used in his day-to-day work. This soon led him to a new topic: Jewish-themed animated cartoons and comics on the Internet. Levin grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in Vineland, New Jersey, a descendant of a group of 80 Russian Jews who had abandoned their trades and formed an agricultural colony in the 1890s after escaping the pogroms and anti-Semitism of the former Soviet Union. Twelve years ago, he moved to Brooklyn and discovered more about Judaism, especially through the popular on-line Jewish dating service, JDate. An Orthodox Jewish girl he met on JDate from Teaneck, New Jersey would give Levin the inspiration for the creation of his on-line comic strip about a Jewish robot. After spending holidays with her family in the cloistered Orthodox community, Levin said that he felt like an outsider among people who talked down other streams of Judaism, yet he never blew his cover as a non-Orthodox Jew, so as not to embarrass his girlfriend. After their five-year relationship failed, in part because he was not religious enough, Levin decided to create a comic strip about a Jewish robot where he could pour out his feelings. "I needed a way to vent, to express new experiences, and I started to do it in the form of a comic strip," Levin said in an interview during a visit to Jerusalem. He was in town to attend a high-brow conference of 120 young Jewish innovators from around the world called Return on Investment, commonly known by its acronym, ROI, and sponsored by the American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. THE ON-LINE comic strip, viewable at, is about a pious Jew who builds a robot, aptly named ShaBot, to be his "Shabbos goy." Yet the inquisitive robot decides that he is Jewish and cannot fulfill his role as household servant. The weekly comic strip, which is updated anew right before Shabbat and has nearly 200 comics in its four-year archive, debates questions on - and routinely pokes fun at - Jewish religious observances and traditions through a contemporary 21st-century lens. "The robot and the pious Jew represent my own struggle with Jewish identity and religion," Levin said. "It is my self-exploration with Judaism." Levin subsequently created an animated Pessah greeting card, Seda' Club, which is a parody of a popular rapper singing about the Ten Plagues. "There is a growing, almost cliche trend of making Jewish culture 'in-your-face' cool by mixing in elements of hip-hop and rap," Levin said. "I was trying to poke fun at that trend." The animation - which was his claim to fame in his "labor of love" - quickly caught the attention of various American Jewish organizations, including Birthright and NCSY, who hired Levin to create Internet cartoons and promotional music videos for their causes. Through his work with Birthright, Levin made his first visit to Israel two years ago on the inaugural 2006 ROI summit, and he was reinvited for the group's third annual gathering this month in Jerusalem. The cartoonist traces his roots back to the prominent 18th century Jewish rabbi and luminary known as the Vilna Gaon, and he is proud that he has been able to mix secular entertainment and Judaism with his comic strips. Despite his disappointment in love, he still attributes the vision of the Jewish robot to his ex-girlfriend, who has since married and had a child. "She is proud to be the mother of the cartoon," Levin concludes.