Metro Views: iPods everywhere you turn

Metro Views iPods every

ipod shul 248.88 (photo credit: )
ipod shul 248.88
(photo credit: )
If you can't leave your home or office on Friday evenings, you can still attend shul in the New York metro area. Just turn on the radio. Shabbat services are broadcast from Temple Emanu-El, the landmark Reform synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In this day and age, it probably seems quaint. But long before technology made it easier to participate in absentia in religious life with cyber seders and "godcasts" on podcasts, radio was the tool to bring religion to the people who might otherwise have missed it. This long-running tradition seems likely to end in New York. On October 8, WQXR ended its distinguished run as "the radio station of The New York Times." New York's last remaining classical music station was acquired by WNYC, the city's listener-supported public radio station, which says it intends to preserve the music. After all, how can New York view itself as the cultural capital of the world and not have a classical music station? But WQXR was not simply classical music. For more than 60 years, it was the home of a live broadcast of Friday evening Shabbat services, often beginning with an organ recital, from Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. The Reform synagogue has an agreement with WNYC to continue broadcasting the Friday evening service only through December. Then it will be homeless. IN TRUTH, the service is not my cup of tea. But I think the WQXR broadcasts from Temple Emanu-el helped build community of a different sort, one we cannot see. There is a segment, probably a large one, of Jewish New Yorkers whose only Shabbat experience is listening to that broadcast. Turning off the radio will not open a synagogue door for these people. Well, say some, let them have the Internet and iPods. I don't think this is a decent solution. At the risk of sounding frivolous, I base my sentiment on my own devotion and debt to American radio. It made me part of the culture of my time. I loved listening to the radio in my car and singing along. I still vividly remember being trapped in afternoon rush-hour traffic, decades ago, and Eddie Rabbit came on the radio. "Those windshield wipers slappin' out a tempo/ keepin' perfect rhythm with the song on the radio/ gotta keep rollin'/ Ooh I'm drivin' my life away, lookin' for a better way, for me…" In fact, I wasn't driving anywhere, not in that traffic jam. But I was singing my lungs out, as was the driver in the next lane. Our radios were on and we sang Eddie Rabbit's "Drivin' My Life Away," two strangers in two cars, hands slapping on our dashboards, smiling, going nowhere. But I remember it, not only for the irony of the lyrics at that moment, but because it was a sweet and innocent connection. We listened to the same music, knew the same songs. Radio was a commercial venture, but it created a cultural community. (I am not speaking of the political communities formed by talk radio in the US, which were barely beginning to develop back then.) Here in the US, we seem to have become somewhat culturally diminished. This is not a comment on the content of the culture, but that the decline of commercial music radio stations means, in part, that we have no common musical cultural framework. I am sure anthropologists have a name for it, but I call it the "ipod" syndrome. I have the syndrome. My ipod is loaded with all sorts of music - some of which I have been caught singing, loudly and badly, in the supermarket. Stroll down streets in Anywhere, USA, and iPods or MP3 players are ubiquitous. We are all listening, but we are all listening to something different, in our private bubbles. IF WE can afford the technology, ignore the radio. The online variety available in our musical choices is awesome. Yet there is something powerful about the music that came from the radio, that we listened to across the country and that defined and connected generations. There is something romantic and illuminating about generations having "their" songs, much the way couples often do. Yes, of course, we had our individual preferences; I was always more rhythm and blues than rock music, but we still had generational "markers." Some will say the idea of generational markers, of the "music of a generation," isn't necessary. I disagree. I may not have enjoyed all the anthems of my generation's youth, but they weren't "just blowin' in the wind." The music said much about who we were and what we cared about. We turned on the radio, listened to the music and developed a sense of community. Those days are gone. Like WQXR's Shabbat service, come the end of December. What may have been a point of pride or hubris for Temple Emanu-el was a welcome mat for many Jews. It should be saved. Listening to a Shabbat service on the radio is probably no less isolating than hearing it on an iPod. But this does not sit well with me. iPods create bubbles. Broadcasts build community. Just ask Rush Limbaugh.