A Robot Speaks, and Online Fans Express Joy

By Steven I. Weiss

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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Christmas Eve comes with a lot of anticipation for those who celebrate the holiday. But for thousands of Jewish fans of the online comic strip “ShaBot6000,” anticipation took a different form: On December 24, 2004, their favorite cartoon character spoke.

The creation of animator William Levin, ShaBot6000 is a “try-weekly” (he tries to get one done every week) comic strip in which a pious Jew has created a robot to serve as his “shabbes goy,” naming it “ShaBot.” Then, as the strip’s introduction states, the robot decided to act as a fellow pious Jew instead, starting a dialogue about Jewish issues between robot and Jew. With its online presence and technological references, the strip has become a regular read for many since it was introduced in January 2004. It now enjoys a devoted fan base, especially among younger Jews.

After nearly a year of jokes about Jewish life and observance, Levin gave voice to his creation in a special animation titled “A Very ShaBot Christmas.” In the sequence, ShaBot ordered Chinese food for Christmas Eve, which fell on a Friday evening in 2004. When the deliveryman asked for payment, the sky darkened and ShaBot was forced to declare, in an actual voice that could be heard from one’s computer: “I am sorry, we cannot pay: Shabbes has begun.”

ShaBot’s wily ways and smart-aleck attitude have helped the comic strip reach a broad readership, well beyond traditional circles. While his strips average about 14,000 views per week, traffic quadrupled one day last year when the popular technology Web site www.BoingBoing.net cited his Rosh Hashanah strip. (In that strip, ShaBot had dressed as a chauffeur for the holiday as part of the classic Jewish joke about the ritual use of the ram’s horn [blowing Shofar/chaeuffuer.) “ShaBot6000” gets much of its regular readership through viewings on blogs, in addition to those on its homepage at www.ShaBot6000.com.

Levin writes the strip under the pen name Ben Baruch, a contraction of his Hebrew name, Dov Tzvi ben Baruch. Like his creation, Levin himself has a fascinating pedigree. The product of a Conservative Jewish household in Vineland, N.J., he is a descendant of original settlers of the Jewish Alliance of Norma, a 19th-century farming community that emigrated from Russia. He is also a descendant of the premier 18th-century sage, the Vilna Gaon.

Levin devoted much of his life to cartoons, eventually producing popular technology comics and acting as an animator-for-hire, as well as speaking as an expert in Flash animation — a format common on the Web — at universities and technology conventions. But it wasn’t until he met his Jewish girlfriend on JDate that he started thinking about a Judaism-focused comic. It was while visiting her Orthodox family that Levin gathered inspiration for the comic.

“I felt like this Orthodox community looked down upon other streams of Judaism, and put more emphasis on being a good Jew than being a good person,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “It was this delightful mix of hypocrisy, piety, enlightenment and amusement that inspired me to create a comic strip.”

Once set to his task, Levin saw ample opportunity to break new ground. “As far as I could tell, there were really no comic strips about Judaism out there,” he wrote in his e-mail, noting, “The few good comics from Israel are more about Israeli politics than Judaism.”

After adding his technology background to the mix, ShaBot 6000 was born. As Levin puts it on the comic’s Web site, “ShaBot spends his days asking questions about Judaism, trying to find logic in a religion that sometimes DOES NOT COMPUTE.”

In a tone that speaks to the irreverence with which Levin approaches his task, the ShaBot6000 site prominently features rejection letters from various publications — including the Forward — with whom he hoped to publish the comic when he launched it.

But now, having tried hard to make his “try-weekly” a success, some other publications have come calling. The trickle of inquiries started with teachers asking to use the strip in their classrooms and in school newspapers, to which he assented at no fee. Soon enough, he was fielding inquiries from larger publications, including one that wants to translate his strip into Italian.

With Levin finally seeing print publications take up his strip, ShaBot6000 could well become a Jewish household name. But whether or not the lovable Jewish robot lasts, the relationship that inspired it seems ensured to: Nearly five years after their JDate, Levin and his girlfriend, Tova, are still together.

Steven I. Weiss authors the blogs Canonist.com and KosherBachelor.com, and is the editor and publisher of the just-launched CampusJ.com.

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