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Jews, God and Videotape, Religion and Media in America by Jeffrey Shandler

Living Judaism

How the Media has Changed Jewish Life
Jews, God and Videotape, Religion and Media in America, by Jeffrey Shandler

-- Rabbi Jack Riemer

I had a disheartening experience the other day which made me realize how old I am, how fast the world is changing, and why this book is important.

I walked into a Radio Shack store and asked the salesman—who was probably around eighteen years of age or so---if I could buy a cassette. He looked at me politely, the way the young are taught to relate to their elders in stores, and he said to me: “Excuse me, sir. What’s a cassette?”

I walked out of the store that day, not only feeling my age, but realizing that the media is changing the way we live and the way we communicate with each other so quickly that we cannot begin to keep up.

Is there anyone alive today who can begin to imagine what life was like before the invention of the phonograph, which made it possible to hear your favorite artists perform whenever you wanted to? Can anyone alive today begin to understand what a powerful educational device the phonograph was when it was first introduced? No more did you have to go downtown and purchase a ticket in order to hear your favorite soloist. Now you could hear him or her at home.

Soon there will be a generation that will have no idea what it was like before the Ipod or the cellphone or the internet. They may see typewriters on display in a museum, but they will have no idea how dependent on them we once were.

These new devices that our children know more about than we do will seem to future generations as if they were always here, And so it is the work of social scientists like Jeffrey Shandler to study the ways in which these instruments of communication changed the world before we come to take them all for granted.

During the twentieth century we were bombarded by one revolution after another in the way we communicate with each other. During the first decade, silDuring the twentieth century we were bombarded by one revolution after another in the way we communicate with each other. During the first decade, silent movies and sound recordings arrived, and transformed the way in which we understood each other. By the end of the twentieth century, we had email, DVD players, digital cameras, websites, Ipods, cell phones, and the internet, which made our lives in some ways easier and in some ways more pressured. In the first decade of the twenty first century, we already have Facebook, Tweeter, and text messaging, and who knows what the next decade will bring us? And who knows how long it will take before these new inventions become so much a part of our lives that we will have no idea what life was like without them or how precisely they changed the way we live.

Jeffrey Shandler, who is a student of both modern Jewish life and the media, has brought his two interests together in this fascinating until he brought the implications of some of these changes to my attention in this book, I had never thought much about the ways in which the media has transformed the ways in which Judaism is understood by the world and by Jews.

Shandler shows how greeting card manufacturers have responded to the needs of a new generation by creating hybrid holiday cards.

Let me share some of his insights with you in this brief review:

The cantorate: The role of the cantor was transformed by the invention of the phonograph record---and by the cassette and the disc which followed it. There had always been a certain tension within the community over the role of the cantor: Was he the community’s emissary to God or was he---it was always a ‘he’ until recent times---was he a performer whose task was to bring aesthetic pleasure to his listeners? Was his focus meant to be on the God to whom he prayed or on the people whom he entertained? The phonograph brought the issue into sharp focus. It made it possible for the cantor to perform a prayer as a work of music, in a context completely separate from the service. It turned the congregation into an audience. It amplified the role of the cantor as a star. And it led to outsize iconic figures like Jan Pierce, Richard Tucker and Moishe Oysher who straddled the bimah and the stage, and who gave status and pride to an immigrant generation by performing in both worlds. Shandler uses the movie, The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolson and Neal Diamond among others starred over the years, as an example of how the American cantor became the archetype of those who were caught between the values of the old country and the values of the new land, and who had to try to navigate between these two worlds.

The Eternal Light has gone the way of all the radio dramas that once dominated American culture, in the days before television. No one remembers ‘Our Girl Sunday’ or ‘Henry Aldrich’ or “Amos and Andy” or ‘The Lone Ranger’ or any of the many other programs that united American culture in the heyday of radio, but in its time the Eternal Light was a powerful medium through which the history and the values of the Jewish people were broadcast, not only to Jewish listeners but to all Americans. The Eternal Light was the achievement of three people: Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, of whom it was said that he never owned a radio, David Sarnoff, who saw the new medium as an instrument of immense educational power, and Morton Wishengrad, a playwright who was a self-described agnostic. Together they produced a weekly program that reached millions of listeners and made Judaism understandable to people who had never had any contact with it before. The challenge for the Jewish community became: what image of Judaism should be presented in this new medium which would reach an audience larger and less informed than any in all of previous Jewish history?

Shandler’s third chapter is about the way in which the Holocaust has become a part of the consciousness of American Jews and of America itself. He studies the ways in which this new ‘secular religion’ has been institutionalized. He discusses the rise of Holocaust museums all around the country, and the new custom of pilgrimages, especially by young people, to the sites of the concentration camps that have become so popular. Shandler sees these pilgrimages as part of the greater phenomenon of tourism, which is a major cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century. He points out that the young people who go on these pilgrimages bring cameras and brochures with them when they arrive, study the history of the sites they are going to see before they arrive, buy souvenirs and send postcards while they are there, and make scrapbooks of the experience when they come home. They are taught to see Jewish existence through the paradigm of “Exodus to Redemption”.

Shandler devotes a chapter to a phenomenon that I had never thought about before: the role of the camera in contemporary Jewish rituals. Someone takes pictures at every brit and every naming ceremony. A professional is hired to take pictures at almost every wedding. Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, and not just the party afterwards, are recorded for posterity, and pictures of the child at every stage from birth to this day are on display at almost every bar and bat mitzvah party---as if this event marks the end of childhood, and not the beginning of adolescence. And now there is beginning the trend of recording funeral services, first, for the benefit of out-of-towners who cannot get there, and then, as a memento for the family to keep afterwards. Shandler suggests that the pictures are beginning to overshadow the event itself, and explains why.

Shandler devotes a chapter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who was ahead of the curve by using modern technology to record his gatherings and to distribute them to his followers all over the world, long before anyone else in Jewish life understood the value of this technology, Cynics called what he did a combination of ‘seventeenth century theology and twenty first century technology”, but it worked. It brought hope and inspiration to Chabad followers in the Soviet Union who had no educational facilities of their own, and it made Chabad a world force, even before it was able to send shlichim to countries all around the globe.

Shandler has a chapter on how the media is helping Jews deal with ‘the December dilemma’ and the challenges of living in a world where interfaith marriages have become common. He shows how Hallmark and other greeting card manufacturers have responded to the needs of a new generation, and how these cards reflect a hybrid holiday, a kind of mish-mash meant to satisfy the feelings of people who are still attached at some vestigial level to their Jewish identify, while involved in interreligious marriages.

And he goes on to study how Thirty Something, ER, Beverly Hills 90210, South Park, Saturday Night Live, and other television programs deal with this tension. My favorite example, which for some reason Shandler omits, was the program of Northern Exposure, in which a Jewish character in a far off corner of Alaska learns that he has lost a parent and has to decide how to make a minyan so that he can say Kaddish. Should he count his closest friends for the minyan even though they are not Jewish, or should he gather ten Jews on the internet and say Kaddish with them?

This is surely a question that previous generations of Jews did not have to deal with.

I recommend Shandler’s book as a fascinating account of how the Jewish world is changing before our eyes.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent reviewer for journals of Jewish Thought in America and abroad. He is the Co-editor of So That Your Values Live On, and the editor of The World of the High Holy Days.

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