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Confronting the clash of religion and media
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Confronting the clash of religion and media

Jeffrey Shandler signs a copy of his latest book, Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America, following an Oct. 15 program at Rutgers University, Greeting the Season: The December Dilemma in American Jewish Popular Culture.
Jeffrey Shandler signs a copy of his latest book, Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America, following an Oct. 15 program at Rutgers University, Greeting the Season: The December Dilemma in American Jewish Popular Culture.

Modernity has forced religious authorities to come up with answers to never-before-imagined questions, including, “Can you Skype a minyan and be counted as one of 10 participants?”

The software, after all, allows people around the world to see and hear each other in real time.

But rabbis who said “no” came up with a reason rooted in Jewish law.

“They said you had to be there body and soul, and you can’t transmit your presence electronically,” explains Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

These kinds of encounters between technology and tradition are the subject of his latest book, Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America, and the subject of his recent talk at the Douglass College Center in New Brunswick, sponsored by Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.

In his talk and in a phone interview with NJJN, Shandler outlined how in “an age where barely a day goes by when we do not encounter a new technology,” religion and ritual are struggling to catch up.

From cartoons in the secular and Yiddish press, silent films, greeting cards, radio, and records to television, digital photography, videotape, and the Internet, technology has forced Jews and others to confront the very meaning of cherished traditions.

“Not only do we have to confront how we use media, but how we reject them,” said Shandler, also a visiting scholar at New York University and co-convener of the Working Group on Jews, Religion, and Media at its Center for Religion and Media.

People often consider the videotaping of lifecycle events no longer a way to just remember them, but “one of the ways we know they are meaningful,” said Shandler. At some brit mila ceremonies, some mohels have even had to ban flash photography as distracting or forbid videotaping during the actual circumcision.

“It used to be the caterer who ran the wedding,” Shandler added. “Now it’s the videographer. I’ve heard stories where the videographer didn’t get something and asked them to do it over. Then what do you have, a movie or a wedding?”

Shandler’s book also discusses the role of material culture in the American celebration of the December holidays.

In the 2004 season of the Fox TV series The OC, the half-Jewish character Seth Cohen came up with the hybrid holiday of Chrismukkah. It set off controversy in segments of both the Christian and Jewish communities, but also reflected modern media coming to terms with the “December dilemma.”

Shandler showed photos of early anti-Semitic cartoons depicting Jews profiting off Christians during the season.

However, as the next American-born generation confronted Christmas, they chose to “Judaize” it creatively, as in a parody in the Forward newspaper that parodied the famous Christmas carol “by decking the halls with boughs of hallah.”

Postwar America saw a proliferation of Hanukka merchandise. Greeting cards reflected a wider acknowledgement of the December dilemma. Shandler said that eventually led to a series of personal essays by Jews in such publications as The New York Times on how they engaged with Christmas.

Modern times have spawned menorot shaped like Christmas trees and cards for interfaith families that blend messages for both holidays, said Shandler, “interestingly, in a way that acknowledges our diversity.”

This unique American way to embrace the season as a celebration of diversity suggests that the solution to the December dilemma is to avoid religion altogether.

“We can play dreidel — it’s a safe gambling game,” said Shandler. “But our Christmas carols should not have Jesus in them…. Religion, which we think of as the center of all this, is basically avoided.”

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