For most of us, Facebook is an easy way to keep tabs on friends, enemies, exes and currents. But from the start of the Facebook phenomenon, Jacob Orin Gold, 22, saw the site as a means of helping Jews stay connected to their heritage. In June, the recent Princeton grad launched “Straight Reppin’ My Shtetl!,” a fast-growing Facebook group that allows members to post shout-outs to the cities and shtetls from which their ancestors hailed.
“Word up to Vilna,” “Wat up Teresin?” and “Holler at Kiev and Chernobyl” are typical postings that can be found on the wall of the group, which boasts 143 members.
“I was trying to belie the homogenous shape today’s American Jewry has taken and bring awareness to a certain loss of diversity, while at the same time recognizing the current culture by making it all articulated through shout-outs,” said Gold, speaking by phone from his hometown of Chicago. Neighborhood shout-outs are a form of expression made popular by rap and R&B radio stations.
While some might expect any group recognizing pre-Holocaust Europe to adopt a somewhat somber tone, Gold was adamant that in an Internet community where “poking” is a form of flirting (when one Facebook member fancies another, he or she will often send a “poke” message; the poked can then choose to “poke” back or, as in life, to simply pretend that no “poking” ever occurred), “Straight Reppin’” needed to remain lighthearted.
“I thought solemnity would be inappropriate for the group,” he said. “Even though that world is destroyed, this later generation, the descendants of descendants of survivors are giving shout-outs with — not to sound cheesy — exuberant cries of Am Yisrael Chai.”
Gold, who recognized his own ancestors on the group’s wall with a hearty “Kiev and Staviche! Ukraine where you at!?,” sees the Web site as a single, massive game of “Jewish Geography,” wherein Facebook-using members of the tribe learn how they are connected to other Jews. “Facebook users share a desire to be in other people’s business,” he said. “The site makes a yenta out of everybody.”
The group grew quickly initially, but Gold is worried that numbers may soon become stagnant and plans to send a message to all its members imploring them to seek out new posters among their own friends.
“Obviously, I’d like to see more people join up,” Gold said. “The point of the group is to celebrate the past and recognize what led up to you through the use of a contemporary idiom. You may feel like your life is radically different from your ancestors, but it’s not really all that different.”
In keeping with that spirit, I’d like to acknowledge my own heritage. And though I cannot for the life of me figure how to spell the name of the shtetl where my grandpa was born and raised, I’d still like to say: big ups to Poland!
Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York.