Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Musings on Jewish Identity at Christmastime

So, I wrote another op-ed for the Jewish Standard, which was published this past Friday, December 18th. It's timely, as you might gather from the title, Musings on Jewish Identity at Christmastime, and that link goes to the post on my Times of Israel/Jewish Standard blog, but of course you can just read here, below, starting now...

Adam Sandler performed an update of his “Chanukah Song” last month at the New York Comedy Festival, with a second performance in San Diego available on YouTube. The new rendition is the fourth version of the song he debuted in 1994 on Saturday Night Live, a song that is as much about Jewish identity as it is about the holiday.

Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” is not without its critics, however. In an editorial published in the New Jersey Jewish News last month, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Silow-Carroll of Teaneck, expresses much ambivalence about Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities. He worries that while it reflects a sense that it is cool to be Jewish, that coolness is a shallow expression of ethnic pride, lacking the depth of religious commitment.

In my view, Silow-Carroll sells Sandler short.

But first let me note that I agree with the general argument that Jewish identity ought to be based on something more than ethnic pride. If Jewish identity is reduced to ethnicity alone, it eventually will be lost within the great American melting pot. Think of how many Americans today claim to have a Native American great grandparent. But the key to understanding “The Chanukah Song” is not in the list of Jewish celebrities, even though that constitutes the main part of the song.

Steve Allen once observed that the comedian is usually a person with a grievance, and Sandler explained the grievance behind “The Chanukah Song” when he first introduced it on December 3, 1994. “When I was a kid, this time of year always made me feel a little left out, because in school there were so many Christmas songs, and all us Jewish kids had was the song, ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,’” he said then. And while Sandler goes on to say that he “wrote a brand new Chanukah song for you Jewish kids to sing,” in actuality the song actually has very little to do with the holiday.

Sandler does begin with a reference to religious tradition, as the first line of the song tells us to “put on your yarmulke,” and goes on to identify the holiday as the festival of lights. But for the most part, the connection to Chanukah is tangential, a list of famous people who are more or less Jewish, motivated by the mostly unstated implication that they also celebrate Chanukah instead of Christmas. In other words, the song is not about Chanukah itself, but rather about not celebrating Christmas, about feeling like “the only kid in town without a Christmas tree.” About feeling left out.

Certainly, the song’s appeal to ethnic pride is an effort to compensate for that sense of alienation, and there is something very Jewish about taking note when a prominent person is a member of the tribe. Indeed, doing so constitutes a link to our tribal roots, an expression of a group-centered communal sensibility, one that stands in marked contrast to the extreme individualism of American society. Moreover, it can serve not only as an expression of shared pride, but also of collective shame. For example, in the new version of the song Sandler expresses his disapproval of former Subway spokesperson and convicted sex offender Jared Fogle, and his disappointment that Fogle is Jewish.

To understand the peculiarity of American-Jewish life over the past century or more, it is helpful to consider how the equivalent of “The Chanukah Song” would work for other groups. A song pointing out the identity of African-Americans or Asian-Americans, for example, would seem pointless; it simply would state what is obvious to all. The same would be true, to a large extent, for a song about Italian-Americans naming Pacino, DeNiro, Stallone, DiCaprio, etc.; or for Hispanics naming Lopez, Garcia, Longoria, Montalban, etc. And yes, we have our Levines, Shapiros, and Cohens, but then there are also names like Gyllenhaal, Johansson, and LaBeouf, all named in Sandler’s recent update.

That Jewish identity is often not immediately apparent goes hand-in-hand with the fact that for most of the time, Jewish-Americans are privileged to feel and function as if we are part of mainstream American society. Even when we take off for Jewish holidays, fast on Yom Kippur, and avoid chametz on Passover, we may be diverging from the mainstream, but we do so by taking an alternate path, a detour, rather than running counter to its current. It is only at Christmastime that we find ourselves at odds with the vast majority of Americans and can feel like strangers in our native land.

And let’s be honest, generic phrases like “holiday season” and “season’s greetings” are essentially euphemisms for Christmas. The attempt to acknowledge that there is more than one holiday at this time of year essentially translates to “Christmas and others,” or more accurately “Christmases and others,” by which I mean not only the Orthodox Church’s Christmas that falls during the first week of January, but more importantly the distinction between the religious observance of the Christian holy day and what has become, for many, a secularized American holiday.

It is pointless to deny the power of secularized Christmas, whose elements include Christmas trees, magic snowmen and reindeer, elves, and of course Santa Claus as a figure akin to the tooth fairy. And Sandler doesn’t mention the fact that in an effort to avoid feeling left out, some Jews actually do celebrate some form of secularized Christmas.

While I don’t believe that Santa Claus ever can be fully separated from his origins as the Christian Saint Nicholas, or that Christmas ever can be the kind of pluralistic national holiday that Thanksgiving is, my point is not to criticize attempts to create a kosher Christmas. Rather, what I want to emphasize is that if it is possible for us to celebrate some form of secularized Christmas, then the decision not to celebrate Christmas becomes a conscious choice that we have to make, an act of resistance to the dominant culture, an affirmation of our group identity as a people, and most importantly, an affirmation of our faith.

The decision not to celebrate Christmas is much more than a matter of ethnic pride. It must be based on religion, and this is the underlying assumption of Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” and the point that Silow-Carroll misses. We are defined by what we are not, as well as by what we are. Admittedly, it is not enough to define ourselves against others. We also have to define ourselves positively, by our beliefs and practices. But we should understand the hidden ground of faith behind Sandler’s humor.

We should also understand the grievance behind the song, stemming from a sense of isolation that may be felt only or much more acutely at this time of year. Sandler’s song counters isolation through the creation of a sense of connection, achieved by naming others who are “just like you and me.” What he gives us is an imaginary community of people who are known to us, but who do not know us in return. In doing so, he points the way to the real solution, which is to seek out a real sense of community, something we can only find through our Jewish congregations, synagogues, and community centers.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fatal Amusements

So, back to Villanova again, this time to note that one of my obligations as this year's Harron Family Endowed Chair was to deliver a public lecture. Of course, you knew that from my previous post, Fatal Amusements Talk, where I shared the advance publicity for the address, which I delivered on November 3rd.

The full title of the talk was "Fatal Amusements: Contemplating the Tempest of Contemporary Media and American Culture," and it was based, in large part, on my book, published by Peter Lang last year, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. And it's never a bad idea to order a copy if you don't have one, or even if you do...


But aside from making a plug, I would like to note that this was the first time I gave a talk based on the book, as the opportunity has not come up before. The one exception, one that's not really an exception actually, is the talk I gave at Medaille College in Buffalo, a lecture that preceded the writing or even the conception of the book by a number of years. The title of that address was "Amazing Ourselves to Death," and it was delivered almost exactly eight years before "Fatal Amusements" to the day, on November 6th, 2007. You can read about it and see and hear a recording of that talk on my previous post, An Amazing Lecture.

And in case you're thinking, I've already read Amazing Ourselves to Death, so I don't need to see this lecture, do let me note that my "Fatal Amusements" talk contains some new material, based on what's been going on since it's publication, including some references to the current primary campaigns, i.e., Donald Trump. 

I had fun with this lecture, so I hope you like it, and please let me know if you do (and yeah, please don't if you don't...).

The video recording was made by Villanova, and this YouTube video was uploaded to the Villanova Channel, so you can also take a look at it there, just click on the old link, Fatal Amusements: Contemplating the Tempest of Contemporary Media and American Culture, they have comments disabled, but considering that it's over an hour, it's nice to see that the video has gotten a few views online. I suppose the talk itself might be considered a bit amusing, but hopefully not too fatal, or too fatalistic.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Interfacing With the Cosmos

So, with the new Star Wars movie premiering in just a few short hours (and I'll be going to see it in IMAX 3D today), it seems like a good time to share this video.

But first, let me provide some context. Last year, my friend and Fordham University colleague Paul Levinson invited me to contribute to an anthology he was co-editing, entitled Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion. You can read all about the plans for the book on a post on his blog. So, I was very happy to agree, and also arranged for Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey (where I'm currently serving as president), to provide one of his sermons, since Rabbi Schwartz is a strong supporter of our space program.

Some of the other contributors include the Director of the Vatican Observatory, the science fiction author and public intellectual David Brin, science fiction author Gregory Benford, and several former NASA officials, not to mention an interview with John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the planet.

And as you may have guessed, I did provide a chapter as well, and I am very pleased to be in such august company. But regarding my contribution, tempting as it was, being a longtime fan of science fiction, to write something in a positive vein, I warned Paul that I would be contrarian, in conjunction with Lewis Mumford's pointed criticism of the space race back in the sixties. Paul, never one to shy away from opposing points of view, had no problem with that.

As a play on the title of the book, I called my essay, "The Touching Interface of the Cosmos," and I made it somewhat poetic in style, my intent was to be reflective and suggestive, rather than academic (the book is intended for a general audience). 

So anyway, as a member of the board of trustees of the Institute of General Semantics, I decided that the  symposium following the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture this fall would be a good venue to give a talk based on my book chapter, and a good opportnuity for Paul to give a talk about the book as well. And that's what happened, with the two of us being grouped together with another paper presented by my old friend and classmate, Paul Lippert. This took place on October 3rd.

 Now, if you want to see the playlist for 2015 AKML & General Semantics Symposium just click on the old link there.

And if you'd like to check out Paul Levinson's talk about the book, Religion as a Necessary Engine of Space Travel, you can click on that old link, and I should note that what he has to say does provide some context to my talk.

But you can also enjoy (presumptuous of me, I know) The Touching Interface of the Cosmos (my talk, not the chapter, the talk being excerpted from the longer essay) on its own, and do so again by clicking on that link. Or by clicking the play button below:

As for the book, here's a look at its very cool cover:

Speaking of the book, it just came out  in an ebook edition for the Kindle, and will be published in print this spring from Fordham University Press. Amazon already has the cloth and softcover editions available for pre-order!


So, while you are waiting, I hope the video provides you with a taste of things to come, and until then, keep watching the skies!

And that's the story!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

VCAN Connected

In my previous post, Villanova Grad School Interview, I shared the interview I gave for the blog run by the graduate program of Villanova's Communication Department. This time around, I want to add the article that appeared in VCAN CONNECT (read it as vee(we) can connect), The Newsletter of the Villanova Communication Alumni Network. It's the Fall 2015 edition, which just recently was distributed. So here we go:

Although my time here at Villanova is drawing to a close, it is nice to see this, after all. It certainly has been a great experience, and this won't be the last time I post about it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Villanova Grad School Interview

As the 2015 Harron Family Endowed Chair in Communication at Villanova University, I was interviewed for the department's graduate program blog by one of our MA students, Mirna Momcicevic. The interview was posted on October 28, under the title of Interview with Dr. Lance Strate, our 2015 Harron Chair.

So click on the link if you want to see and maybe read it on their blog, or read it right here and now, below:

  1. Dr. Strate, as the primary editor of two editions of Communication and Cyberspace and Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment, can you discuss today’s state of social interaction in general, and social interaction via social media? What kind of approach to social interaction, both general and that on social media, should our graduate students take?
Social interaction has been affected by the electronic media in general, especially by television, and even more so by new media and social media. One of the changes has been towards increasingly more informal forms of interaction. While informality can come across as more personal, genuine, and inviting, it also means that there are few if any rules or structure to guide us, to let us know what to expect from others and how to respond. E-mail and other forms of messaging, for example, is often approached as a form of casual conversation, and I am my colleagues may react to a message that starts off with something like, “Hi, Prof, how ya doin?” with some mixture of bemusement or irritation, what happens when your boss sends you a message that is entirely informal and friendly? How do you respond, given the power differential? This also speaks to the blurring that occurs between different roles, and the boundaries between public and private. If you write a letter, the old fashioned kind with ink and paper, there are rules we follow, with the placement of your address and the recipient’s address, opening with “Dear…” and closing with “Sincerely,” and all that helps us to stick to a more formal mode of address in our communication. And all that is absent when we communicate electronically, so it is essential to be very careful about the messages we send, to think about what kind of relationship we have with the person we are communicating with, and what kind of situation we are dealing with. What is the appropriate mode of address? That is a key question.
There has been a great deal of concern expressed about mobile media in particular, and how that affects face-to-face interaction. Being constantly distracted is obviously a major problem. Eye contact is one of the most important form of nonverbal communication for regulating interaction, and obviously that becomes problematic when our attention is always called away to our devices. Being mindful of the ways in which we use technology, and understanding that we do not have to be online and available and instantly receive and respond to messages and alerts 24/7 is essential. Many of the new media mavens who promoted the internet back in the 90s are now advocating for taking breaks and turning devices off, and there are movements like that for having a Technology Shabbat or Sabbath. It is certainly worth considering.

At the same time, new media have extended our ability to connect with one another, and organize ourselves socially, and that has been enormously empowering. For example, my wife used email discussion lists (e.g., Google groups) to connect and organize parents of children with autism in the northern New Jersey area. Before this kind of connection was possible, parents in that situation were simply too overwhelmed and lacking in time and energy to meet face-to-face, and are often lacking in basic information on services and how to deal with schools and boards of education to receive what they are entitled to. Electronically-mediated social interaction has been a great boon for individuals who would otherwise be isolated.
  1. Dr. Strate, after so many years of being an expert, and with so much experience in the communication field, what are some of the most important advice you could offer to our graduate students? How should they approach the “real world” that comes after education?
Being an “expert” in communication is quite challenging, because the state of communication is always changing. Back in the early 90s, there were many predictions, some relatively accurate, about the future of communication, regarding the internet, virtual reality, increased access to information, and the like, but almost no one predicted the mobile revolution, the almost complete disappearance of telephone booths, or texting. So our job is harder than folks in many other fields, because we have so much to keep up with. The most important advice that I can offer, though, is never to forget that communication is fundamental to the human condition, that what counts are human beings and human relationships, and what Martin Buber termed the I-You relationship, treating others as persons, not as objects.
  1. How do you feel at Villanova? How is Villanova similar/different to other universities?
Villanova has proven to be a very convivial, congenial, and collegial environment, and I have very much enjoyed my time here with the communication faculty. I am very impressed with the quality of students at Villanova, and especially the graduate students. Coming from Fordham University, there is a great deal of common ground, although the Jesuits have their differences from the Augustinians. Fordham is more of an urban university, which has its advantages, but I very much like the Villanova area, the relaxed atmosphere, and of course all of the interesting historical and cultural attractions of the Philadelphia area. Villanova is also smaller that Fordham, and Fordham is much smaller than other universities like New York University, where I did my doctoral work, so Villanova has a very intimate feel.
  1. How would you describe our Department of Communication here at Villanova? What are some of our strengths, and how could we, in your opinion, improve ourwork?
You have a great department here, and I especially like the fact that it is so well grounded in the discipline of communication. I find that very refreshing, since that it my background, and it’s something missing from my department at Fordham. At the same time, I would certainly urge the faculty to take advantage of the interdisciplinarity of our field, which is in many ways our strength. Reaching out to and communicating with the general public is also very important. And I would certainly stress the need to have faculty with a background in media ecology, that is very important in my view, really essential, but of course I’m biased in that regard.
  1. Why is graduate school is important? Can you tell us how did graduate education impact your personality and life? What would you advice to our perspective students who have hard time deciding whether or not start graduate school?
I know some of my colleagues decided as undergraduates that they wanted to go to graduate school, maybe even were interested in academia that early, but that wasn’t the way it worked for me. Simply put, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a senior undergraduate at Cornell University, so I wound up going on for my MA at Queens College of the City University of New York, where I met some doctoral students working in the Multimedia Lab there, Ed Wachtel, who I later became colleagues with at Fordham, and Joshua Meyrowitz,  and when they heard that I was interested in the work of scholars like Marshall McLuhan, Daniel Boorstin, and Jacques Ellul, urged me to apply for Neil Postman’s doctoral program in media ecology. So I did, was accepted, and again, having nothing better to do, started my studies there, but was not convinced that I wanted to be an academic until many years later. Somehow, it turned out to be the right thing to do, and I wound up being fairly good at it. So as far as I’m concerned, this path found me, I didn’t find it. And I remember Neil Postman saying that he decided to become a professor because it was in the classroom and with students and colleagues that he found a universe of discourse that he felt comfortable with, felt good about, and I guess that’s the same for me. It just fits. And when I was unsure, he said to me that nobody is getting rich these days, so you might as well do something that you love, that makes you find meaningful and fulfilling. He also suggested that if I didn’t, many years later I would realize my mistake, regret it, try to come back, and things would never be the same—this was said in a joking manner, he had a great sense of humor.

But apart from all that, being able to go to graduate school is a great privilege, it’s when you really know how to learn, what you want to learn, and can really appreciate the opportunity to do so. There are so many things in life that can interfere and interrupt the chance to pursue graduate education that you really ought to go for it if you can. And while it’s never too late, it certainly is easier when you’re younger, before life gets increasingly more complicated. And learning about communication gives you an edge in anything you might pursue in life. It’s practical in so many ways, but it also goes to the heart of what makes us human, and helps us in our efforts to retain our humanity in a technological age.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Jewish Trinity

So, I had another op-ed published in the Jewish Standard back on October 30th, this one gets a little theological, specific to Judaism, a bit of a departure from my more typical broad cultural commentary, but also informed by the study of communication and rhetoric. The title of the piece is The Jewish Trinity, and here it is:

This past Rosh Hashanah, as I was sitting in the sanctuary at Congregation Adas Emuno, listening to the Torah portion known as the Akedah or, the binding of Isaac, my thoughts turned to the Avot prayer, and the phrase God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.

It occurred to me that the patriarchs constitute a trinity, but we never call them that. We shy away from that word, trinity, no doubt because it is so strongly associated with Christian Trinitarianism, which posits one God taking the form of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Christians do not have a monopoly on divine trinities, however. The Hindu religion also includes a doctrine of three-in-one, in which the divine Godhead is composed of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. And then there is the Triple Goddess, a New Age notion based on ancient polytheistic beliefs, in which the three manifestations of the Goddess are referred to as the Virgin or Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone or Wise Woman, corresponding to three main stages of life.

Apart from religion, we encounter countless other trinities in many different realms, from Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and superego to the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; from Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers to the three little pigs of fairytale fame; from Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici, to the French Revolution’s liberté, egalité, fraternité; from Abraham Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people, for the people, to Kellogg’s Rice Krispies’ Snap! Crackle! Pop! Lists of three are psychologically satisfying, conveying a sense of completion. They are especially quotable and easy to remember: blood, sweat, and tears; sex, lies, and videotape; and stop, look and listen.

The Jewish trinity, especially as expressed as God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, is certainly memorable in being a list of three, and even more so through the poetic technique of rhythmic repetition. Also, from an anthropological perspective, our trinity uses the motif of family to represent relationships between peoples, so that the Children of Israel share a degree of kinship with the other descendants of Abraham via Ishmael, and the other descendants of Isaac via Esau.

Of course, there is another trinity, of Noah, who, like Abraham, hears God’s voice and follows his commands, along with Shem, one of the three sons of Noah and the ancestor of the Semitic peoples, and Arpachshad, the father of the founders of the city of Ur and the ancestor of Abraham. But we don’t invoke that list of three in our prayers.

From a theological perspective, the parallel structure of God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob is interpreted to mean that each of the patriarchs had to form his own individual relationship with God. So, from a purely subjective standpoint, the God of Abraham is not the same God as the God of Isaac, and both are distinct again from the God of Jacob (referring to each person’s own personal conception or perception of the Divine).

So what are the differences? Abraham, who hears God’s voice commanding him to leave home and go forth to a foreign land, is a model of obedience. That is never more true than when he demonstrates his willingness to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son Isaac. A religion that follows Abraham alone would be one of submission. Submission alone, obedience to a higher authority, may include license to kill, without question, in God’s name. That is why a religion of Abraham is incomplete.

Isaac also submits to God’s will, but does so by playing the part of the martyr. The religion of Isaac therefore is one of sacrifice as well as submission. Certainly, Abraham also demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice by offering up his own son, but there is a world of difference between being the one who wields the knife and the one who is the sacrificial lamb.

Sacrifice alone threatens to privilege death over life, and rituals of sacrifice suggest that the appetite for such forms of submission may never be satiated or appeased. That is why a religion of Isaac also is incomplete.

Jacob does not reject submission and sacrifice, but adds the all-important element of struggle. His religion is one that is not only about a voice that commands, but also about a vision that inspires, of a stairway to heaven that suggests the possibility of reaching for a higher state of being. His story is one of laboring for love—he worked for 14 years to earn the right to marry Rachel. And as the patriarch who wrestles with God, he is renamed Israel, becoming the eponymous ancestor of the Israelites, the Jewish people.

Jacob adds the vital third element of struggle, not blind obedience, but questioning, grappling, reasoning, a raising of awareness, of consciousness, and that is what makes the religion of Jacob complete.

The Jewish trinity is an altogether human one, consisting of three different and distinct individuals, not in any way consubstantial, not a three-in-one, but rather three patriarchs who simply are related to one another by direct line of descent. And yet they point to what might be considered a divine trinity in Judaism, what might be thought of as three faces or aspects of God, but more appropriately as three relationships to God: submission to God in the religion of Abraham, sacrifice for God in the religion of Isaac, and struggle with God in the religion of Jacob.

Perhaps, then, there is a message of caution against the varieties of religious experience that include submission and/or sacrifice alone? Without the third person of Jacob, without the struggle, there is no Israel, and Judaism as a religion would not be complete.