Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Archive for September, 2011

Jews and the Internets

Any keyboard player of a certain age –and I risk dating myself here– will agree that the advent of commercial music synthesizers introduced revolutionary changes in the music scene. While for older or less adventurous musicians they mostly meant a tool for cheap emulation of acoustic instruments (why hire a string orchestra if you can use one of these new synth patches?), for artists who were ready to think outside the box the invention offered a dramatically enlarged sound palette. It just doesn’t make sense to poorly imitate violins when we can create amazing sounds that never existed before. Changing parameters is quite ineffective without a change of mindset.

 

New technology applied to Jewish institutions goes much farther than approaching email as a cheaper form of mass-mailing. Too many people still look at computers as sophisticated typewriters of sorts that will save us a fortune in printing and edition. Although there is a real danger of implementing new technology for the sake of itself, as an end and not as a means, most Jewish groups are rather conservative when investing in technology. Timidly, some denominations and groups are approaching the Internet with a more open mind and consider new possibilities such as podcasting their Shabbat service, using social networks to announce their programs, uploading their benei mitzvah materials online, etc. (I will not extend this post by enumerating potential uses of the internet, their virtues and flaws, but I suggest you to check this interesting article from the Reform movement). These are all good steps, although sometimes I wonder if we are not keeping the old same idea and just switching physical supports, like when we substituted the haftarot recorded on tape for those shiny CD’s. Yes, now the audio files can be downloaded straight to the kid’s Ipod, but isn’t the idea the same?

 

Of course, as the article says, the application of technology is not exempted of dangers. We risk having a virtual community of people connected online, but not in touch with each other in the “real” world. The availability of information may lead some to think that teachers, rabbis, and cantors are no longer needed, since after all the answers are online. We’ll have to believe that ultimately Judaism will find ways to use new inventions like we did in the past. The Talmud, as R. Dan Moskovitz says, was probably the first blog ever. This compendium of vivid discussions is based on a central mishnah to which a number of rabbis through the generations added their commentaries, rebated each other and a few times even reached to conclusions! From our modern perspective, the results may look somehow chaotic but they help us understand the richness of our diversity of opinions. When extending the metaphor to Web 2.0 and Judaism, we see many parallels. The problem –if there’s such a thing– is that today everybody can chime in, both rabbis and amkha, while in the Talmud only an elite was involved in the discussion.

 

New technology is not inherently good or bad; it just changes the rules of the game and, if we are lucky and clever planners, may become the motor for a giant evolutionary leap. The invention of the printing press allowed an unprecedented diffusion of Jewish knowledge and a standardization of key textual sources. What made the Shulhan Arukh the preferred halakhic code for generations was the virtue of being written at the beginning of the printing revolution. It enjoyed momentum over the older Arba Turim, for instance, thus becoming the reference code. Our current configuration of the Talmud –Mishnah and Gemara in the center, surrounded by Tosafot, Rashi, etc.–, was an innovation we owe to the early printers. And yet, the same miracle technology favored the expansion of Sabbateanism through Europe and that almost destroyed Judaism.

 

One of the virtues of web 2.0 is what Emily Grotta calls democratization of Jewish life, although I am not so sure new technology introduces a real democratization but rather an equalization of voices. People and opinions who were in the fringes now can reach big audiences. I think this is ultimately good and is helping create grassroots movements that are making a difference. Just a small example: when in the early nineties the first group for LGBTQ Catalan Jews was created, its founders had to invest many hours, phone calls and snail mail. After a year of hard work, when the group was about to host the European convention for Queer Jewish organizations for the first time in the country, joined pressures of the mainstream Jewish community managed to stop the event dead. The local group disappeared after a couple of years. By contrast, nowadays the new local Jewish LGBTQ group is alive and well. It started as a grassroots movement on Facebook, out of the reach of political games, interdenominational, and virtually unstoppable.

 

In any case, the democratization brought by Web 2.0 is not always so welcome and often has unpredictable consequences. It is a know fact that big pharmaceutical companies are eliminating their social networking groups. They simply are not willing to implement the feedback they receive about their products. Some Jewish institutions may just not really want feedback from our constituents. In another very interesting article Charles Lechner refers his conversation with certain Jewish federation who solicited his advise on online development. His answer was clear: you’ll have to think different, to evolve from the top-down agenda to a listening agenda, to give voice to people other than the big donors. Their answer: this is just not going to happen. The key is fear of democratizing the communication power, fear that information is going to spill out of control. What happens when you don’t listen? That all those marginalized voices stop sending their donations and even using your services. Sometimes –Lechner explains– the interest of the donors can clash with that of the regular patrons, like in the case of New Voices, a magazine targeting Jewish students. After listening to its readers, the magazine opened its pages to voices that were very critical with Israel. The donors, however, were not pleased and pulled their money out.

 

Jewish institutions are often controlled exclusively by big donors. As I wrote in several occasions, it is not clear what will synagogues and Jewish organizations look like in the future, but something tells me they will have to introduce many changes to survive. Take a look at the average age of these organizations boards. It is no secret that younger boards would probably be more open to technology changes, or to any kind of changes for that matter. And yet, an obsolete Jewish organization will probably not revive just because of a great Internet campaign. We have to face the future with realism, evaluating the actual needs of people and not expecting them to finance programs based on the needs other people had in the past.

 

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Future of Judaism, again.

These days I have been thinking a lot about the future of Judaism, particularly in the US. It is obvious that we are in transition; we just don’t know to what new models! What is sure is that synagogues, Jewish institutions and even Jewish culture itself will be something radically different in twenty years. We can live in denial or begin to work to adapt ourselves. The blogosphere and other media offer so many interesting opinions on that subject that it is hard to keep track. Just yesterday, I was reading two extremely different online articles.

The first one was Daniel Pipes More about the future of Judaism.”After analyzing recent studies and statistics about the evolution of American Jewish population, Pipes reaches to the conclusion that the future is in the hands of Orthodoxy. Two major factors point out to this trend: they have a higher birth rate –and thus a younger population– and a supposedly stronger vitality that helps combat the general trend towards assimilation. Quoting Norman Lamm, Daniel Pipes thinks that in the future the Reform and Conservative movements will be history, an interesting but failed experiment. We will be back to that mythical time when –as Orthodoxy chooses to believe– there was only “one Judaism.”

The second article is Patrick Aleph’s “How do you approach a future of Judaism.” Aleph’s overview of the current state of the Jewish community is, in my opinion, quite accurate: we are keeping a huge number of anchylosed institutions that are essentially duplicate offers targeting an already over-marketed collective. JCC’s gyms and day-cares try to compete against their non-Jewish counterparts; in any given city you have a Hillel, a Birthright Next, plus the youth programs of the JCC and of each one of synagogues competing for a pool of increasingly disengaged young Jews. For Patrick Aleph the trend towards dual-identities (BuJews, HindJews, etc.), interfaith households, and non-theism is rapidly transforming Jewish life, from our prayer to our pastoral care. Patrick Aleph’s opinion is that the future of Judaism is in humanistic, secular, non-theism.

I am not sure if denominations are soon going to be history, but definitely they have a somber future, Orthodoxy included. Otherwise, we would not have so many Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionewal or “just Traditional” Jews (not to mention the closing of seminaries, increasing number of non-affiliated shuls, etc). Diversity is a sign of our times: if historically there never was a “one Judaism,” today each of us chooses its unique identity that is in constant osmosis and evolution, a well balanced cocktail of Jewish-Catalan-American-Progressive-Queer-Recon-yoga-traditionalism. David Pipes is right to declare that Orthodoxy is growing, but I don’t think this goes beyond mere statistics; I am not sure how much retention there is in this growth, nor do I see any particular signs of vitality. If this was true, Israel –and not America– would be the motor of Jewish culture and renewal, the think-tank of Jewish future. Quite the opposite, wherever Orthodoxy is the majority –like in Israel and in my own country of origin– it is exerting an asphyxiating power and influence in the rest of the Jewish community. There is no innovation, no flexibility, no realistic outreach, little adaptation or concern for contemporary issues, and very little intellectual honesty. Everywhere I look, I see insularity, blatant hostility to potential converts, hijacking of Zionism, and less than ethical political lobbying. We will be a handful but boy, will we be kosherer-than-thou! Religious fundamentalism may be a popular global trend in this day and age, but does it inspire any constructive changes for the future? (Disclaimer: I am talking of cases and places where Orthodox are majority, not of individual Orthodox persons).

We have to think outside the box, reinvent Jewish infrastructures. Carthago delenda est. However, unlike Patrick Aleph, I don’t think theism is our contemporary Carthago. The interest for spirituality is not decreasing at all, although the approach to this spirituality is more individual, less group-oriented

and definitely less institutional and standardized. Our concept of the divine may need updating, and we need to be attuned to all forms of spirituality, theistic or not. However, there is still plenty of space for a theistic spiritual community; we will have to figure out what will this community look like.

I agree that Jewish federations and JCC’s are less and less relevant for most people, and that there is a trend to connect with horizontal groups and minyanim rather than with vertical, institutionalized synagogues. Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, more concerns than excitement about this trend. To begin with, there is a danger of atomization: we can create a number of new collectives whose new tradition is so different that it is just not recognizable to the rest of the Jews. At a certain point in history, the Latin spoken in Italy and the one spoken in France became so different that, in fact, they spoke two languages, French and Italian. I am not advocating for a chief rabbinate to decide who is in and who is out –a solution that never made much sense and that now is just anachronic–, but I’m not sure how are we going to hold this together.

My second concern is how much effort and money do we really want to invest in these well-needed new Jewish venues and structures. While I am a strong believer in horizontal communities and equality, I am also concerned that a trend towards independent minyanim may hide an unwillingness to pay for a synagogue membership or for a rabbi/cantor salary. It is great that people take responsibilities, learn to lead services, teach what they know to others; but sometimes we need a better-educated person to help us go the extra mile. A professional clergy can expose the minyan to things they never heard about. An unfortunate example of the opposite is the present state of hazzanut: it is nice that so many people are knowledgeable and feel empowered to present themselves as cantorial soloists. What would a synagogue hire a more-expensive ordained cantor if this volunteer can do it? As a result, so much of our musical tradition is just lost. You may not even know there is a nusach for the holidays, since we all sing Shabbat modes for Shavuot. Those of you who know me, know that I am the last person to advocate for an five-minute operatic cantorial recitative. I am more for spirited singing and clapping, but I also deplore the fact that people think there is only one melody for Salm 92.

So here it is: wish I had innovative ideas to expose. I think that the motor for change is our willingness to not take anything for granted. We have been changing and evolving for centuries and this is just another step. Let’s all get involved and excited about it, keeping an open mind and a passionate heart.

Trophies for showing up: on the educational value of effort.

It’s back to school day. While I am hooking the projector to my laptop, one of the kids is telling me something I have heard way too many times in the last two weeks: “I don’t want to play recorder anymore; I’ll be trying viola.” The 4th grader has been playing recorder for less than nine months and he cannot yet tell a G from an A. Nevertheless, he’s got enough: it’s just too boring. While this conversation is taking place, another girl, of Russian origin, has unpacked her violin and started playing, page after page, a rather elaborated concerto with accuracy and gusto. I never taught her that, so I ask how has she improved so much in the short span of three summer months. Apparently, she has been in Russia all summer visiting relatives, and she has taken lessons there. Being of European origin, I confess I had almost forgotten how different the musical education abroad is, even with its many flaws. As a kid I was taught to take my music practice very seriously because the effort pays off. From the age of nine, I took lessons twice a week, practiced daily, and took exams in front of three teachers year after year. There was no money to go around jumping from instrument to instrument: your choice or an instrument implied a certain commitment to it. Yes, it may have been a little too tough, but I’m grateful for all that discipline, which fostered in me a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong: there is nothing bad about children trying out instruments and different kinds of sports, nor about making their education a little more playful. My big question is if we –teachers and parents– are actually doing enough to encourage them to persevere on anything, to stick to that recorder another year, and this time actually taking five minutes a day to practice. Of course, no child can be left behind, but should we really stand still or barely move forward out of fear of challenging kids too much? Yes, the education we received was too dry, but perhaps –only perhaps– today we are expected to teach in a way that it’s all games an glitter, no effort and no challenges. Trophies for all, just for showing up, are great for the students’ self-esteem, but are they good for their preparation and maturity?

Almost at the same time this was happening, there was an uproar in my area because the shul where I work –otherwise out of the way, invisible, even ostracized by the bigger congregations in the area– dared to reduce its Hebrew school from twice a week to only once, even if doubling the learning time on that one day. It was a democratic decision based on demographic changes, availability of volunteer teachers, etc. The accusation from the big shuls in town is that this policy is watering down Jewish education and giving unfair advantage to our synagogue, because apparently everybody will flock to the “easy shul.”

In my opinion this statement reveals two big dilemmas. Firstly, people do not seem aware or concerned that Jewish education is already watered down to a rather clear little soup. Concentrating education in a single day will most probably not change a thing. After seven years of twice-a-week Hebrew instruction, an alarmingly high number of children end up learning by heart a haftarah from some transliteration, without understanding a word of what they’re saying. We just seem to love to pretend in front of our friends that the kid is proficient. Secondly, we not only acknowledge but even sanction the fact that many parents have one main goal: the fastest and easiest path to their kids bar/bat mitzvah. Once children are “barmitzvaed” (since, whoever invented this verb, set it in the passive form), they can graduate from Jewish life altogether, maybe to reappear, if lucky enough, for their wedding. As a result, adults go around with a mere varnish of Jewish culture and the concept of G-d of a 13 years-old.

Have we made Jewish education (or music education for that matter) so “nice and friendly” that it just lost its purpose? Have we decided that the best way to avoid boredom and desertion is simply to demand very little effort? These are questions that cannot be solved in a day but require a deep revision of our education systems. Among other things, I think it’s time to de-emphasize the centrality of benei mitzvah rituals, and even to delay them until age 16 or more, so that little Sarah doesn’t just “get barmitsvaed” by some rabbi but consciously chooses to accept on her shoulders the responsibilities, privileges and blessings of an adult member of our people.

Gone with the ruach: dancing with Pentecostal Jews.

Summer is always too short and leaves me yearning for more. Undoubtedly, the spiritual highlight of my summer has been co-leading services at the Nehirim camp with my friend R. David Bauer. There were around 70 adult men of all ages lightning the candles, joyfully singing the kabbalat Shabbat psalms to the sound of drums and other instruments, and welcoming the Bride with dances. Next morning, the genuine fervor and love of the many active participants sitting on the floor of an improvised temple literally moved me to tears. Ruach –the Hebrew word for “spirit,” “wind,” and even “divine breath”– was something very palpable and touching.

 

The following Shabbat I lead services at my home shul. The songs were almost the same and I played pretty much the same music notes. The spirit, however, was different. Feeling the Divine, touching heaven with your two hands was certainly still possible, but it didn’t come as easy. It required an extra kavanah effort to be there, present, receiving the Shabbat. Nobody danced down the aisles or peacefully swayed, their eyes closed. Who knows, maybe it was the pews, the more formal setting. Maybe we all instinctively conformed to what it is expected of a suburban synagogue-goer. In the morning I visited a nearby shul for the first time. The service was more traditional than ours, with no instrumental music. The melodies were familiar but their tempo was a lot slower, in a way that made the song linger forever. Right after the song, the service leader chanted the openings and closings of prayers in a succession that not even me, a quite fast and proficient Hebrew reader, could follow. We “did it all” and it all was smooth and flawless, but I didn’t feel anything spiritually uplifting.

 

That’s why, in my end-of-summer melancholic mood, I ask myself where’s the ruach? We have built magnificent synagogues and created impressive Jewish institutions. We may have learned how to be as reverent as our neighbors, how to mourn and say kaddish, and how to beat our chests on Yom Kippur. However, we have almost forgotten how to dance with the scroll on Simchat Torah; how to sing hallel joyfully; how to act silly on Purim; how to rejoice genuinely on sukkot under the stars; how to welcome the Queen dancing in the woods, like the Kabbalists of Sfad when Lekhah dodi was composed. It is shocking and quite sad to see that we have relegated Purim parties and Shimchat Torah celebrations to our Hebrew schools, with almost no participation of the adults, as if the joy of Judaism was only to be experienced by children.

 

In a way, I would like to daven at some sort of a “Pentecostal shul” with all its joy, ecstasy, clapping, dance and joyful noise. A kind of service that has deep Torah study, but also moments of pure enthusiasm and freilikh. Admittedly, some Jewish denominations are more or less spirit-aware, but I think nobody is yet experiencing truly Pentecostal Judaism or, if you want, Shavuot Judaism, since ultimately the Christian fest of Pentecost is not but a transvaluation of our Shavuot. On Pentecost, Christians celebrate the moment when the spirit miraculously descended on the believers and –so to speak– “energized” them for their mission. On Shavuot we celebrate our joy for the reception of the Torah on Sinai, the precise instant of our covenant with the divine. Among other things, we mark our joy with a strange meeting: the tikkun. We gather for an all-night long session of singing, study, meditation and fellowship.

 

Somehow, my crazy idea of a Pentecostal Judaism is not that far from a Hasidic tish (without idealizing a movement that has its clear downsides). It combines moments of ecstatic singing and dancing with Torah discussion, with calm contemplative nigunim, and with joyful fellowship. I just wonder how can we pack all that and bring it to our shul and to our Shabbat table, how to become uninhibited and genuine as children once more.

 

Now, not everybody relates to spirituality in the same way. In her book Discover your spiritual type, Corine Ware presents four types of persons, four different spiritual identities: mystic, feeling, thinking and visionary. Silent prayer may touch the mystic or contemplative people, while boring other worshipers to tears. Lively music, clapping and dancing connects with the feeling individual, but may bother those who are more cerebral. A deep Torah study moves the thinking type, but may seem spiritually dead to the feeling person. Individuals with a visionary spiritual type will find themselves at home in a service that calls to action or in tikkun olam programs; and, again, some people will think that these events are nice and necessary but not spiritually fulfilling. The last of the services I described at the beginning was probably meaningful for somebody. Probably, in every group there is a predominant spiritual type but, essentially, they all contain people of all types.

 

I think that the point is to ask ourselves: for my own spiritual type, in my own understanding of spirituality, is this service or meeting fulfilling and edifying? What would have to happen for it to be? What’s my next step towards a more fervent, joyful, and meaningful Judaism? How can I get closer to the Divine –she, he, it– and be more fully human, more fully Jewish?