A few years ago, during the height of that anyone-can-start-an-app meshugas, some people I know began talking about a shiva app. Jews are busy today, the crux of their pitch to me went, and the experience of sitting in a house for eight whole days was ripe for Silicon Valley’s brand of disruption. What if they could digitize the essential parts of the shiva experience? With the help of videoconferencing, social networking, and crowdsourced-support materials, you could get the benefit of a shiva, delivered right to the palm of your hand, without all that inconvenient … sitting.
“OK,” I said, “but what about the babka?”
Seriously, did these fools think about the babka, which would presumably have to be delivered to the virtual shiva somehow, either as some idiotic babka emoji, or a real babka sent by courier, to be consumed alone by the bereaved, along with various other Amazon and e-commerce gifts of condolence, in what would undoubtedly be the saddest goddamn excuse for a shiva in modern history? A babka sitting at a table uneaten at a virtual shiva is a thought so tragic it deserves a shiva of its own.
Jews are on the internet, but the internet is not Jewish. Yes, many of our landsmen play key roles in its most influential companies (founders of Facebook, Google, Dell, plus all the digital wonders made in Israel) and yes, you can find pretty much every Jewish institution, viewpoint, cultural movement, and culinary delight online, including this publication. But if you want to go looking for the essence of the Jewish experience, it will not be on the World Wide Web.
I don’t even care about the cancerous anti-Semitism online. The thing about the internet that disqualifies it as Jewish is its inherent, goyish positivity. Since its early days of bulletin-board hacker communities rooted in the post-hippie ideals of the Bay Area, the internet has fostered a Utopian belief in the positive change that will happen when you connect mankind with digital technology. This kumbaya of cascading 1s and 0s has preached the gospel of our coming harmony like some never-ending Soylent-fueled TED Talk.
That messianic belief runs from the startup hub of Silicon Valley right into the corridors of political power, and it stems from the fantastical notion that if you simply bring enough of us people together online, we can solve any problem, from ordering chicken wings to tackling dictators. The rapturous belief in the internet, proposed as gospel by such techno idealists as Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil, is that man is Earth’s ultimate master, able to transcend any problem, even death, if we just get the science right. With enough processing power and artificial intelligence, these people believe we can disrupt … God.
The Jewish experience, by contrast, is grounded by an in-built, healthy skepticism established over millennia of persecutions, near-exterminations, and tweets featuring cartoons of Jewish journalists being placed into the ovens of Auschwitz for criticizing Donald Trump. The Jewish faith, and our resulting identity, is built on the very notion that our lot in life is to continuously struggle with imperfection. We are Israel: the God wrestlers. There’s no end goal. We start as dust and end as dust, but what happens in between is what counts.
And so any worthwhile Jewish experience will always be analog, not digital. We are a people rooted in real things and places. The physical, visceral, hairy-chested, ample-tushed reality of our time on this world. We will dance with, kiss, and even hold funerals for books, and travel around the world to speak our deepest prayers to a wall. We are a tribe, at its strongest when we gather in person: at shul, in a camp cabin, on a bus speeding through the Negev, in line for bagels and whitefish salad at Russ & Daughters.
And this is because, in the end, the height of being Jewish is talking. Not chatting. Not commenting. Not posting. Speaking loudly and with terrific passion, punctuating arguments with the flailing of hands, the projection of poppy seeds, whether the topic is the correct price for a wholesale bar mitzvah suit or the direction of Israel’s foreign policy. This kind of talking—this kind of real conversation—does not exist on the internet. The internet flattens out emotions, and renders sarcasm inert. It’s the difference between a gorgeous diatribe on the perfection of the Langer’s Deli pastrami sandwich delivered in situ, over that very sandwich, and some schmuck’s hyperbolic Yelp review with its cavalier cluster-bombing of tone-deaf exclamation marks!!!!!
We can put together the most brilliant intellectual dissections of the Mishnah in a blog post, or lead the most engaging Seinfeld thread on Reddit, but all we’re doing is simulating Jewishness. The great debates that crafted our collective experience, from the Talmud to the impact of Philip Roth’s novels on the American-Jewish identity, were protracted, deeply contemplative, intellectual battles. The internet has evolved to simply capture whatever comes off the top of mankind’s head, which falls into the cascading waterfall of crap that you scroll through daily. Yes, it can be a fun, scary, crazy, wild playground, but in the end, it leaves us with as much to hold on to as a fart in a windstorm. Being Jewish is about being surrounded by your tribe—your closest relatives, long-forgotten friends, and the inevitable schnorrers only there for food and drink—a mass of warm, nutty Yids whose very presence is the whole goddamn point. The internet is wandering in the desert, endlessly eating manna, but never crossing that river and finding home.
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