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High-Tech and Haimish

Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America
By Jeffrey Shandler
New York University Press, 341 pages, $75.00.

Recently, in pursuit of a story about Christians who have become interested in Judaism, I stumbled across QualityLifeNow, an outreach program organized by a pair of genial Lubavitcher Hasidim. Every Wednesday evening in midtown Manhattan, these “Hassidic motivational speakers” lecture about an aspect of Jewish law that pertains to non-Jews. The proceedings are a mixture of high-tech and haimish: Chunks of homemade cake are passed around, while the lectures are recorded for Internet video. If the men behind QualityLifeNow could not be described as slick — their Web site is a little wonky, and one of the speakers pans his camera by rotating his laptop — they are astute when it comes to technology, and they seem to be acquiring a following.

Can?t Talk Now, I?m Bedeking: Mobile phones and traditional marriages are the least of the juxtapositions noted by Shandler. ?G-d Willing? by Esther Kamphuijs, the collection of photographs from which this image is taken, makes visible further juxtapositions between the modern world and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Image by ESTHER KAMPHUIJS

For some, this combination of religion and information technology may seem incongruous. But according to Jeffrey Shandler, the confluence of Judaism and media technology is nothing new. Shandler, in fact, argues that “the social practices of media can be the key to understanding Jewish religious life.” For instance, the Torah itself is a form of media, and investigating the rituals that still surround the scroll is a means of investigating Jews. This approach also can be a way of understanding non-religious Jews, as the texts and “textual practices,” like books, movies and even tours based on movies (like the ones in Krakow of sites that appear in “Schindler’s List”), are how “post-Halachic” Jews experience their Judaism.

It’s an intriguing topic, and a huge one. Even though the Jews never have controlled the American media, they certainly have been deeply and intimately involved in it. Thus Shandler investigates the prewar popularity of cantorial LPs; early radio and TV shows like “The Eternal Light”; bar mitzvah videos, and the episode of “Oprah” where the eponymous host was filmed, with Elie Weisel, in Auschwitz.

Taken individually, most of these discussions are interesting. But while “Jews, God, and Videotape” has an ambitious agenda — to examine “American Jews’ encounters with new media during the past century and the implications of these encounters for religious life” — it doesn’t really add up to much. Perhaps this is because the book is more of a collection of essays than a sustained argument. Certainly I was both horrified and fascinated by Shandler’s description of the emotional pornography that Oprah Winfrey wrung from Auschwitz. And “The Virtual Rebbe,” an essay on the Lubavitch movement’s historical enthusiasm for new media, helped me to connect an organization like QualityLifeNow to the Lubavitchers’ proselytizing philosophies. But Shandler’s one attempt to demonstrate broader connections — between all American Jews and all forms of media — dissipates into mists of academese.

Another (perhaps related) problem is that Shandler often doesn’t distinguish between religion and popular culture. While the two are frequently conflated — especially in America, and especially by Jews — Shandler himself treats them as interchangeable, which undermines the force of his observations. For example, when he investigates the December dilemma (the ambivalence that American Jews experience at Christmastime), Shandler gives equal attention to Yiddish terms for Christmas, to holiday episodes of bygone TV shows like “thirtysomething,” and to interfaith greeting cards. He does mention that these are examples of “popular religion,” which emphasizes cultural concerns over theology. Nevertheless, the underlying assumption (which is shared by vast swaths of American academics) is that questions of distinction and emphasis are unimportant and that popular culture is the only culture worthy of study. But how important, really, is a 1997 episode of “South Park” even if it does present a scatological response to the “December dilemma? And can “Chrismukkah” even be called “Jewish?”

Through no fault of the author’s, I found this book depressing, for it inadvertently proves what certain neoconservative critics have been warning us about since the 1980s: that when we lose the ability to distinguish between inquiry and entertainment, we lose the ability to think. And for the subjects of “Jews, God, and Videotape,” the distinctions between high and low, between religious and secular, have indeed disappeared, to the point where “Schindler’s List” is an important re-enforcer of Jewish identity and Chrismukkah seems like a viable holiday. While Shandler is a sharp observer, his book demonstrates that even our intellectuals no longer bother with such distinctions.

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