Out There: Old-fashioned Jew, new-fangled world

One tries to keep out the next technological advancement, pretending it’s unnecessary, but it is all just a vain effort.

Cartoon (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The mind boggles at how many aspects of our lives the computer has changed.
From destroying daily newspapers, to bankrupting music stores, to finishing off Kodak, the computer has fundamentally changed the world in which I grew up.
Smart phones, iPads and super-fast Internet connection are the elements of which future shock is made, hurtling us forward at breakneck speed. On the one hand it is all truly amazing. On the other hand, it is discombobulating and disorienting, as staples of daily life – those simple, everyday moorings – just vanish.
Encyclopedias – gone. Video stores – gone. Typewriters – gone. Asimonim (Israeli phone tokens) – gone. Phone booths – gone. Home dark rooms – gone. Cassette tapes – gone. Maps – going.
One tries to keep out the next advancement, pretending it’s unnecessary, but it is all ultimately just a vain effort.
When the word processor first hit the scene, I thought I didn’t need it, that I was perfectly content with my typewriter and its nifty erasure cartridge. Until I realized I desperately needed a word processor.
When Facebook first made its splash, I resisted, saying it was unnecessary and I could just call those people with whom I wanted to keep in touch. Until I realized that Facebook made it possible to reconnect with people not seen or heard from in years.
And when Twitter hit, I said “Twitter, schmitter, what am I, a bird?” and asked what could really be said in just 140 characters. Until I was convinced I needed it professionally, and subsequently found that it opened a whole new world.
MOREOVER, WITH all the social media, I feel so much more hip, with-it, popular.
I used to have one or two buddies; now I have a couple hundred friends on Facebook. And on Twitter I don’t just have friends, but followers. That’s right, followers. Just like a hassidic rebbe, people following even minute utterances, thoughts boiled down to 140 characters!
But all is not golden in the computer age. There are tremendous moral dilemmas, with temptation now just a click away.
Some 50,000 haredi men jammed into a baseball stadium in New York last month to raise awareness about the dangers of the Internet. While the first impulse is to snicker and say they are luddites waging war against the 21st-century version of the mechanized loom, all that computer- generated change – as we all now realize – has not been an unmitigated good.
For all the rapidity with which one can now retrieve the name of Portugal’s foreign minister from 1983-1985, one can also glance at the Playboy centerfolds from those same years...and worse.
But easy access to indecent pictures is not the only religious dilemma created by the computer chip. One of my biggest regrets when thrust into this brave new world was the loss of the hotel key. Not the keycard, that new-fangled electronic way of entering your room, but the old-fashioned key. The metal kind that was connected to a block of wood or a slab of see-through plastic you used to receive when checking in.
The key was great for the Shabbat-observant traveler because there was no Shabbat dilemma in opening your door. You left your room when you wanted, and came back when you wanted. No need to fret about possibly breaking Shabbat laws while electronically entering your room.
As it is, there are enough things an observant Jew has to keep in mind when travelling. How exactly to put on tefillin between flights in Frankfurt’s airport; where to find a mikva in Topeka; what do you eat if you can’t stand tuna fish.
But at least you did not have to worry about how to get into your hotel room – that was simple and understood: use a key.
BUT THEN hotel keys went the way of 8-tracks, and became obsolete as well, replaced by the plastic key-cards. So now when you’re in a hotel on Shabbat, your concerns are no longer just about entering the hotel itself when all they have is automatic doors (fast on the heels of non-Jews who – unbeknownst to them – are opening the door for you), or climbing 16 flights of stairs in a dimly-lit stairwell, but also about how you are going to get into your room once – breathless – you finally do arrive.
“Excuse me, I’m one of those Sabbath- observant Jewish fellows,” I said by way of introduction a couple years back to a front-desk clerk in a downtown Oslo hotel, trying to explain why exactly I needed her, or someone else, to take me up to my room and let me in.
The clerk smiled politely, and waited as I continued. “There are certain things I can’t do on Saturday, like open my room with a keycard.”
Now if you say something like that in Manhattan, where hotels are used to religious Jews, it’s one thing. But in Oslo? Still, the respectful clerk, trained to cater to the client’s needs – however odd they may seem – obliged.
“Sure, no problem,” she said. “One moment.” In no time, a bellboy arrived who climbed numerous flights of steps with me to my room.
Conversation in these circumstances is often a challenge.
“Do you get many religious Jews in these parts,” I asked.
“Nope,” he said, laconically, with hundreds of steps still to be climbed.
“Okey dokey,” I thought.
The problem is even more acute in Norway, because Shabbat there seems endless. In June it goes out Sunday morning at about 1:15. Even if you want to stay in your room, there’s a limit.
I tried to solve the problem by taking some books and just hanging out in the lobby – hotel lobbies are generally pleasant places to be. Until I needed the restroom and found that even the sinks were automated. It’s one thing asking a bellboy to open your door, another to have him wave his hands in front of a bathroom sink.
The whole arrangement serves as a disincentive to leaving your room, even to leaving the country – at least on Shabbat. I have no problems inconveniencing the reception desk once, twice, or maybe even three times. But any more than that and I fear I’ll be creating anti-Semites. And that, of course, would be a most nefarious unintended consequence of the computer age.