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Let’s talk

Even if he didn’t bring his family to Egypt and set the stage for Jewish nationhood, history may have remembered Joseph for delivering the first TED talk.

Okay, they didn’t call it a TED talk back then — that would have to wait until 1990 and the first Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in Monterey, Calif. These gatherings of various creative types spawned the signature “talks” — brief multimedia presentations by scientists, geeks, writers, and other visionaries, often meant to distill a lifetime’s obsession or a recent breakthrough into a jaw-dropping 12-minute slide show. Videos of TED talks, available at ted.com, have been seen over a billion times. The most-watched include Stephen Hawking on the mysteries of the universe, psychologist Daniel Gilbert on the secret of happiness, and author Elizabeth Gilbert on unlocking creative genius.

Some of my favorite talks focus on cheap technological fixes to intractable problems, like recycling cast-off electronics for use in the Third World or a low-cost filter that “can make the most revolting water drinkable in seconds.”

Joseph’s TED talk would fit right in. In Genesis 41, Pharaoh hears about Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams. Plucked from jail for his brief audience with Pharaoh and his retinue, Joseph uses just 282 words (according to my English translation) to lay out his plan for a Strategic Crop Reserve that would see Egypt through a looming famine. Pharaoh is wowed, and you know the rest: Joseph becomes a bigshot, and the Jews flourish in Goshen (until they don’t — at which point Jewish history begins again).

The transformative power of an idea brilliantly (and briefly) expressed is inspiring a lot of people to adapt the TED format to various fields and settings. I count at least two Jewish versions. A year ago the Avi Chai Foundation helped launched “ELI talks” (for Engagement, Literacy, Identity). The ELI talkers tend to propose big fixes to looming problems in Jewish life, mostly about getting the next generation to make positive Jewish choices.

In England last month I was introduced to jDOV (short for “Jewish dreams, observations, visions”). It was launched in 2010 at the annual Limmud study festival there and repeated again this year. Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, an American rabbi living in London, hatched the idea to augment her work as head of jHub, a support group for British Jewish organizations involved in social action. Inspired by TED, she saw jDOV as a way “not only to incubate organizations but also inspire people to do good in the world.” (See past talks at www.jhub.org.uk/jdov.)

The talks I heard ran the gamut from the inspiring to the baffling. That’s the peril and promise of the format: Even when a speaker fails to connect, the talks don’t last longer than 15 minutes. And when they do connect, you find yourself, like Pharaoh, wanting to sign up.

Last month’s talks were heavy on identity and pluralism. The Jewish rapper Yitz Jordan, known as Y-Love, spoke about the need to embrace Jews of color like himself. New Yorker Vanessa Hidary, a spoken-word artist who performs as “the Hebrew Mamita,” talked about reconciling her Jewish identity with her love of black and Hispanic street culture in the Bronx. And Jude Williams, who heads Tzedek, a British global poverty project, related how after years of silence her father began to tell about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

None of the talks I heard suggested the “next big thing” in Jewish life — like a Birthright, or a PJ Library, or a Moishe House. (If you want to read about cutting-edge Jewish problem-solvers, get a copy of Slingshot, “a resource guide for Jewish innovation” compiled by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. It lists 50 up-and-coming organizations working in areas like environmental activism, the arts, family education, and new media.) But if jDOV talks don’t change your life, they seize your attention and demand that you look at something new, or look at an old thing in a new way.

The TED format comes with its own pressures built in. One of the presenters, normally comfortable in front of audiences, told me he couldn’t believe how nervous he was in compressing all his work and experience into a single 15-minute talk. (jDOV calls it “the talk of your life.” Gulp.) You can almost imagine how Joseph felt, facing his make-or-break moment before the king.

Boyd Gelfand also encourages speakers to “express their Jewish passion,” which forces a listener like me to look in the mirror. What is my Jewish passion? Is it personal, or something I’d like to duplicate and share with others? Is it already being done, or do I bring something new to the table? If I were given an audience with the Pharaoh, would I nail it or waste it?

There’s an opportunity here for any school, synagogue, or organization that wants to bring out the best in its staff or members. Give people an opportunity to express their passion while standing on one foot. Let them hear from others. Like Joseph, you might help turn some dreams into the next big thing.

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