The Jewish People vs Jewish People: What’s Wrong with the Worldwide Jam

An open letter to the (unnamed) authors of the Draft Report from the Content Team of the Government of Israel-World Jewry Initiative

Dear Draft Report drafters,

For those of us in the orbits of Jewish education, your recent “Online Jam Session” was a fascinating exercise in something.  What, exactly, it was an exercise in remains somewhat confusing to me, even in light of your cumbersomely titled “Draft Report from the Content Team of the Government of Israel-Worldwide Jewry” which I found frustrating, vexing, and slightly embarrassing.

Here’s what you say drove this whole effort:

This initiative is animated by the ambition to nurture Jews who are eager to integrate Jewish values and practices with universal thinking.

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I think this is what Jews — both young and old — have been doing this for decades, if not centuries.  To name a few: Moses Mendelssohn, Martin Buber, Gloria Steinem, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Theodor Hertzl, Sarah Silverman, Golda Meir, and the list goes on (the list, incidentally is contiguous with just about every Jew who has lived under the conditions of modernity).  “Integrating Jewish values and practices with universal thinking” is what has defined, not undermined, Jewishness since modernity (and maybe before then, too).  Sometimes, integration is easy and sometimes it is not, but its there.  It has been there for a long time, and it is not going away.  This is neither a new finding, nor is it a newsworthy headline.  And, it is certainly not worth a billion NIS. We’re doing it already.

Your commitment to the aforementioned truism (with all accompanying bombast, graphical design and crowd sourced “online Jam”) is not, however, the most egregious error in the document.

For that I would look to the sentence that immediately follows the statement quoted above:

This concept can be captivating to millions of young Jews.

Apart from its sheer silliness, it reveals a profound lack of interest in precisely the “young Jews” you hope will be captivated by modern life.  But it doesn’t show a shred of interest in learning about their lives or their lives as Jews.  I wonder what would happen if you asked them, or if you did some actual research about what these “millions of young Jews” thought or believed about being Jewish in the 21st century.  But the Draft Report does not reveal any real interest in asking them.  Or in learning from them.  The word “research” appears only once in the document (page 10), and only then in relation to the “research and development of new ideas.”  Despite your avowed commitment to “education,” neither you nor your Draft Report pay anything other than lip service to actually deepening our understanding of either Jewish education or the Jewish lives that “young people” (or older people, whom you seem to neglect entirely) actually live.

If, in fact, your intention here is to “constitute a public trust,” (as you say it is on page 10) then the process might benefit from spending some time learning from and about the people who constitute that very public, instead of offering programmatic solutions inflated by jargon borrowed from venture capitalism, business management, and pop-technology handbooks.  You unwittingly repeat the problem of the influential urban planner Robert Moses, about whom Frances Perkins quipped, “loves the public but not as people.  The public is… a great amorphous mass to him.”

Your interest in and commitment to The Jewish People is remarkable.  Your dismissal of the lives of Jewish People is both shortsighted and ill conceived.  Failing to learn about the people who are already living out the solution that you offer shows a remarkable arrogance underwritten by willful ignorance.  Your failure to recognize even the most basic element of contemporary Jewish life — the fact that Jews are already doing what you are hoping to make them do — and your lack of interest in learning about Jewish life more broadly is, to put it mildly, embarassing.

If you want to generate more programs, more Draft Reports, more task forces, and more hype, that’s fine; Everyone has the right to waste her resources as she sees fit.  But please, if you deign to produce something worthy of the people you wish to serve, you might want to begin by learning from them first.


Ari Y Kelman


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I Call Shenanigans!

I’m a member of the American Studies Association whose Academic Council recently voted (unanimously) to endorse a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions.

Then, I woke up this morning to find this news story about the Hillel at Swarthmore College, whose student board voted (unanimously) to

defy guidelines restricting who it may host for programs on Israel and condemned the ground rules, imposed by Hillel International, for repressing free speech on Israel for Jewish students on campus.

In the example of the ASA, we have a professional academic organization voting to boycott its peer institutions.  Though the ASA boycott focuses on institutions, not individuals, it effectively recommends to its members who they can and cannot talk to.  In the example of Hillel International, we have approximately the same thing: one organization telling its affiliates who it can and cannot speak with.

The irony of the situation is something only someone like Kafka could invent.  It won’t be hard to find Jewish organizations who support Hillel International’s guidelines have come out strongly against the ASA resolution.  Similarly, those who have come out in support of the ASA resolution will probably welcome the decision of the Swarthmore Hillel students.

I call shenanigans on all of you.

To support the free and open exchange of information and intellectual work, and to encourage the vibrant (albeit sometimes difficult) educational atmospheres of our universities means opening avenues for conversation, not foreclosing them.  To criticize Hillel International and then turn around and support the ASA resolution is absurd.  To condemn the ASA and support Hillel International’s guidelines is similarly as ridiculous.

I know that the stakes are high and that prospects are low with respect to the creation of an ongoing, sustainable, just peace between Israel and Palestine, but the way to foster a public who is informed about the complexities of these issues is not to constrict lines of communication, but to open them.

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Why I’m not “unplugging”

tomorrow, apparently, is the “national day of unplugging.” In honor of the weekly Jewish celebration of the sabbath, a group of young hip Jews (courtesy of Reboot) have nominated tomorrow as a national day of sabbath observance. The qualities of the day are outlined in 10 point “Sabbath Manifesto.”

It’s gotten some play, and its an interesting effort to reinvigorate the ancient, if hardly radical tradition of observing the sabbath by taking a day off. Ummm, by my calculation, it was the sabbath about a week ago!

But you can count me out this week. Here’s why:
1. I’m pretty sure there was already a Sabbath Manifesto. It is in the Bible (Exodus 31: 12-17). And on Wikipedia. And, it hasn’t changed much in about 1800 years. The Communist Manifesto I get — it was introducing or formulating a new way of understanding the workings (or failings) of capitalism, and envisioning a new world. So what good, exactly, is a manifesto for a thousand-year-old message?

2. There’s nothing Jewishly radical about celebrating the Sabbath. If anything, its just about the most traditional thing you could do (next to not worshipping idols, not making graven images, and not coveting your neighbor’s ass). It’s in the top ten commandments, for goodness’ sake. There is little new in this effort to raise consciousness about the sabbath and its relative goodness, other than the branding (which seems so perfectly not in the spirit of the sabbath that its almost laughable).

2a. Ironically, the Sabbath Manifesto looks a lot like this which has been around since 1987, and is scheduled to be enacted (GASP) TONIGHT! March 19, 2010. Two ways I can celebrate shabbat in one week? It’s like manna from heaven. Shabbat Across America is a project of the National Jewish Outreach Program, which describes itself in the following way:

NJOP consistently breaks the mold when it comes to promoting Judaism, using cutting-edge marketing techniques to convey the vibrancy of Judaism and to attract those Jews who are not currently being reached by conventional efforts.

(sounds a little like Reboot, frankly). But of greater concern to me is the overtly and avowedly religious operationalization of what “Jewish” means for the NJOP, and the ways in which the National Day of Unplugging echoes that, as well. Both cases seem like fairly narrow manifestations of what it means to be Jewish, as defined in particularly — and particularly religious — terms.

3. There seems to be a failure of ways to imagine a radical expression of Judaism in both cases, and both Reboot and NJOP end up promoting a deeply normative, Biblical conservative, and religious framework for being Jewish. This, to me, is a serious problem because, in this case, both efforts masquerade as radical, while promoting deeply conventional views of Jewish life and celebration.

True, it would be a “good thing” for all of us to unplug one day a week, and spend more quality time with our loved ones, to give the earth a break and so on. But I won’t be unplugging this weekend, thank you because I’m not interested promoting this whole Sabbath thing as something new or radical, as an opportunity for “outreach,” or even somehow innovative. It’s deeply, fundamentally, and even beautifully old school. But let’s not turn the sabbath into something its not.


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Genes and Jews

I just got an letter in the mail inviting me to a retreat by organization that has been called a “Jewish hipster skull and bones.” The letter wasn’t an invitation as much as it was a provocation, inviting me — in advance of the retreat — to get myself genetically tested (FOR FREE!!) and then, take part in a conversation about “how genetics influences our sense of identity.”

Um…. I’m creeped out. really? you want me, a post-holocaust Jew to get my Jewish genes genetically tested because there is a correlation between my genes and my Jewish identity? And presumably, you expect there to be some value in understanding my genetic makeup as it pertains to my Jewish self?

Apart from the obvious creepiness that my genetic makeup is going to be cataloged by a for-profit corporation, and apart from the fact that the relationship between one’s genes and one’s health (to take but one example) is still really dicey, there are so many, many ways in which this is troubling or otherwise difficult to swallow, so I’ll focus here on just two:

1. I am pretty sure that my notion of “identity” is well-past the tribal-genetic-blood-quantum idea of identity that sits firmly in the maw of late 19th century pseudo-science. I believe that W E B DuBois was right, when he said that the “color line” was going to be one of the definitive phenomena of the 20th century, and I was hoping that here, nine years into the 21st century, we maybe figured something out that would allow us, at least, to ask more interesting questions about identity — particularly communal or “ethnic” identity — than what our genes (might) tell us. Most of my scholarly life (and my personal life, too) is about working AGAINST these archaic ideas about identity being tied to one’s bloodlines, and just because we now can find out a person’s genetic makeup doesn’t seem to me to promise a whole lot in the way of helping us understand our identities.

2. Even if we take a cultural constructionist approach to identity, adding a little about one’s genetic makeup to the mix seems to me not a bad idea, necessarily. I mean, our identities are constructed, in part, by social responses to our physical manifestations (whether one presents as tall, short, good-looking, a male or female, light or dark-skinned, and so on). Thus, genes aren’t completely beyond the pale of conversation, but they’re no more part of the conversation, it seems, than those other aspects of identity; Why not also convene conversations about height? about blonde-vs-brunette hair color? About left-handedness.

Apart from making people panic about their health (or the potential proclivities toward particular diseases), I can’t figure out why or how looking at one’s bloodline – from a strictly biological standpoint — is really going to help advance this conversation, or our understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Or tall. Or good looking. Or a man or a woman. Or, simply, human.

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Curation vs Commercialization

So, I just finished a week’s worth of interviews in Nashville, TN, with folks in the music industry. It was fascinating for me, and I learned a ton about how the record industry works from many of the good folks who work there: in radio, in A&R, creative and so on.

And one of the questions I asked almost everyone I met was: what are you doing, working in the record industry right now? I asked the same question of folks at majors that I did of folks at independent labels.

My interviewees offered a really interesting take on the record industry right now. Many explained that record labels are even more important now than they ever were because there is so much music out there — too much for any person to reasonably listen to — and that record labels play a curatorial role in the quest for the next great song.

As anyone who studies the challenges of the “information society” will tell you — the problem now isn’t necessarily a lack of information, but too much of it. And the challenge now is how to help people wade through the information they uncover to find the information they need. The commercials for Bing emphasize this over and over again, as they try to distance themselves from Google.

These record label professionals expressed a similar role for labels: how would you know what is good or bad, if not for the curatorial role of record labels, deciding which songs are recorded, which bands are signed and which albums are produced?

Its interesting, but its missing one important historical dimension: record labels started not to produce the best music they could, but to produce the most popular music they could. The idea was not to create a cultural standard of musical worth, but to make recordings that they could sell.

The “brand” of a record label speaks to a certain kind of product that they make. Sub-pop is different from numero group is different from EMI. And while they all claim a kind of curatorial relationship between themselves and their products, one of the obstacles in the future of the record industry may lie in its over-inflated sense of itself as a curatorial venture rather than the recognition that its only ever been a commercial one.

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Power Law, Twitter, Headlines, and the NBA Playoffs

I’ve been thinking more about the “power law” distribution graph of communities and the role of information in maintaining something we might identify as a “community.” These thoughts are pretty scattered right now, but there’s something here, I think, so bear with me.

I was watching “sportscenter” last night. I’m not really a sports fan, and I can’t recall the last time I watched a sporting event on TV from start to finish. But, in watching highlight after highlight, I realized that I knew a little bit about a lot of players: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul. And that I, like a lot of people are “casual fans” of the NBA.

I imagine that every cultural phenomenon has a lot of casual fans. In all likelihood, they have more casual fans than hardcore fans.

And, I think, that the casual fans are where the balance lies. Hardcore fans (of any cultural phenomenon) are a gimmie — they’re going to watch everything or buy everything of listen to everything or read everything because they’re interested. The rest of us have limited time and attention for the intricacies of the phenomenon, but we’ll pay attention for big events (the Oscars, March Madness, end-of-the-year lists, and so on).

But because there are more of us casual types than the hardcore types, not only does the shape of viewers look like a power-law distribution, but, I would argue, the reporting does too — because it wants to attract people like me, and takes the harder core center as a given.

So: while the community might follow a power-law distribution pattern, conversations of and about the community might follow the exact INVERSE — treating me and the rest of the casual fans as the primary audience. What does this mean — if I’m the primary audience of something I don’t really care that much about?
I don’t know, but I’m beginning to think that there are tons of ways of re-thinking how communities work, and I’m just scratching the surface.

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Quick Data Visualizations

There’s been a bit of press about “data visualizations” lately. Basically, following in the footsteps of the great Edward Tufte, people are beginning to catch the wave of graphic renderings of complex data sets. And, the internets being what they are, are now able to comb through pretty big chunks of information and produce some interesting (if inconclusive) images that can hip you to all kinds of interesting things.

One of my current faves is Wordle, a pretty simple interface lets you type in text or blog-url’s or websites and it trolls the content of those sites, and presents a “word map” that shows which words pop up the most by representing them in larger fonts.

You want to know who the 800 pound gorilla of social networking is? Mashable’s visualization makes it pretty clear.

You want to know the relative popularity of terms in Borges’ “The Library of Babel?” Check it here.

How about the US Constitution?

Wordle is just the latest fling in my ongoing love affair with data.

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