Technical Jews

Jeffrey Shandler explores the impact technology has had on American Jews over the past century.

jewish media book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jewish media book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America By Jeffrey Shandler NYU Press 341 pp. $23 (paper) $75 (cloth) American adults spend an average of eight hours each day in front of a screen, be it a television, computer or cellphone (according to a recent study out of Ball State University titled "Video Consumer Mapping"). With that figure, it's no wonder many religious outlets have taken to technology like a moth to a flame. Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America by Jeffrey Shandler explores the impact technology has had on American Jews over the past century. From the Jewish Television Network streaming Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services live on the Internet to the Lubavitcher Hassidim using a "virtual rebbe," the question Shandler tries to answer is if embracing the latest in communication technology is a benefit or a detriment to Judaism. Even though technology is at our fingertips, it doesn't mean we have to immerse ourselves in it. A rabbi has the option of looking up a Torah portion using an Internet program with a search engine that will spit out the answer within seconds, but many still prefer going to their massive bookshelf and knowingly pulling down a random leather-bound volume and somehow, time and again, opening it to the correct page. Shandler points out that the Talmud's digital form may be helpful to the commoner, but won't help yeshiva scholars win the "pin test" - knowing which words a pin passes through when inserted into a page of the Talmud. In analyzing how technology has affected Judaism through the ages, Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, takes the reader on an educational tour on the history of Judaism and the integration of technology. A chapter on the Jewish Theological Seminary's broadcast of The Eternal Light on NBC in the mid-1940s explains how the radio and TV show served many agendas, among them educating anti-Semites while in turn cultivating the American Jewish community and, moreover, bringing acceptance of Judaism as a top American faith via the recognition of a major broadcasting network. The Holocaust is a major example of how technology supports the mantra "never again." Between three-hour blockbuster movies such as Schindler's List, four-part television documentaries like Holocaust: The Story of Family Weiss and audiovisual exhibits featuring survivors at Holocaust memorial museums across the US, communication technology is ensuring that Jewish genocide is never forgotten. Shandler, who also wrote While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust, explains that these types of media are more effective than any textbook would ever be, helping students young and old get a better sense of the atrocities committed during World War II. The Lubavitcher have taken advantage of technology since Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson died in 1994 without leaving a successor. Instead, Chabad uses photographs, television and Internet to showcase its seventh, and possibly final, rebbe as a so-called "virtual rebbe." Shandler discusses the irony of this development, since haredim in general were previously taught to shun television because it was considered to be "incompatible with their values and sensibilities." But while the Rebbe was alive, he decided that not all technological advances were corrupt and some had "the potential to be integrated into Jewry's spiritual mission." The Rebbe used technology to connect the different worldwide communities of Lubavitcher Hassidim, first via radio, then satellite and finally via the World Wide Web. Chabad has slowly embraced communication technology, but strictly on its own terms, using the Internet in particular as a key form of outreach. Celebrities, both Jewish and not, also play an important role in the relationship between Judaism and technology. Steven Spielberg's lengthy promotion of Schindler's List "took it from a box office smash to a respected classroom tool." Oprah Winfrey's visit to Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel gave a firsthand look at how powerful the concentration camps are to this day. Adam Sandler's "Hanukka Song" on Saturday Night Live made it cool to be a Jew during Christmas. And the assortment of actors, musicians, athletes and comedians who parade across the stage during Chabad's annual telethon in Los Angeles make the broadcast must-see TV year in and year out. Although some subjects Shandler covers may seem off-topic (cantors' recordings, Kodak culture and the December dilemma), they are still interesting in and of themselves. Cantors began recording and distributing their individual interpretations of Jewish music at the turn of the century, but it created tension in the community rather than unity. Questions arose such as which songs were appropriate to listen to outside of synagogue and, with that, where was it appropriate to listen to religious music. Kodak culture is the videotaping of Jewish traditions - from the brit mila to the bar mitzva to the huppa to the cemetery - and how the meaning of a particular life-cycle has been challenged and changed because of it. December dilemma is the juxtaposition of Christmas and Hanukka which both fall in the same month and how the increase in media covering this topic has impacted the general American public in their view of assimilation and multiculturalism. One of Shandler's conclusions is that by adopting new media, both religion and technology can be better appreciated and "can connect the limits of the human condition to a larger unknown." Shandler doesn't judge as to whether one use of technology is better for Judaism than another, rather he presents the reader with the examples along with their history and impact and lets you decide for yourself. One subject Shandler doesn't touch on is bar and bat mitzva students studying their parasha by downloading it onto their iPods and committing it to memory. Memorizing rather than learning will always be a detriment to one's education, but having the Torah available on iTunes may not be such a bad idea in the long run.