Friday, September 28, 2012

Individualism vs. Personalization in the New Media Environment

So, this is a follow-up to a post from last month, Evolution Now?, which was about our understanding of evolution as a concept and a process, and especially as it relates to the media ecology perspective of Walter Ong.  The post was based on some discussion that went on over on Peter Montgomery's McLuhan-oriented email discussion list, and the discussion continued into a discussion of mind, self, and consciousness.

So, here are some comments on these topics:

Ong and McLuhan make passing reference to a growing awareness of the unconsciousness, which perhaps relates to Jung's notion of evolution of consciousness through the integration of the conscious and the unconscious. In this sense, the electronic media may fulfill the same function as psychoanalysis did in an earlier era, and may allow us to raise our consciousness to a higher level, collectively and individually. I do think you can see this happening, not uniformly, but certainly in large numbers.

It seems clear to me that individualism is in decline, but there is something going on that can easily be mistaken for individualism, which I think needs to be differentiated by using a term like personalization, to represent something quite different.  But to take a cue from Ong here, individualism had its contributions to make, it also had its price, and we now can take potentially move forward past that stage, onto something new.  The dichotomy, dialectic, opposition, or tension between individual and community is central to the American experience, with individualism, freedom, and capitalism on one side, and slightly favored, and community, equality, and democracy on the other.

So, maybe our new electronic networks have mediated the contradiction between the two, and taken us to a new dialectic of links and nodes?

Individualism is what we associate with literacy and typography, so I've adopted personalization to distinguish what is happening through the evolution of the electronic media environment, which many mistakenly, in my opinion, see as an extension of individualism.  Electronic media allow for a shift away from mass production and mass communication to technologically mediated personalized production, for example through Google search pages as opposed to reference book pages, or create your own textbooks where the teacher picks and chooses units, or using computers to order and produce shoes constructed to the exact fit of the individual's feet (which will become commonplace in the near future).

Some differences include the fact that the individual is split between public identity and private self, whereas the persona (to use a term borrowed from Jung) has the two sectors blurred and tends to not engage in compartmentalization. In some ways, this is a matter of confusion, but it also has the potential for integration.

Individuals tend to be anonymous. Personas pursue recognition, even if its on a small scale, by putting themselves out there, for example by posting on Facebook and Twitter.

Jacques Ellul makes the important point that the individual is separated from the traditional community, and being atomized in this way, become part of the crowd, the mob, the mass.  Individualism leads directly to mass society.  The persona is associated with retribalization, not necessarily with traditional communities and localities, but through networks of affiliations and homologies. Indeed, Neil Postman points out that actual communities involve people of disparate types who have to negotiate with each other to live together, while virtual communities are based on having the same set of interests and attitudes.

Individuals have integrity, which is the expectation of consistency, despite compartmentalization.  That's the basis of the character that is the subject of some longing among social conservatives.  Personas have been characterized by the decentering of the subject, the saturated self, by multiple roles, identities, selves, associated with a multiplicity of networks, with no expectation or concern for consistency.

Individuals are inner directed to use David Riesman's terms, while personas are outer-directed, and other-directed.  Individuals are constrained and have depth, personas are freely spread out across surfaces.  Individuals suppress and repress building the unconscious, personas let it all hang out, freely drawing on and perhaps draining the unconscious.

Some further elaboration:  Content is a function of medium, hence the medium is the message.  Industrial technology gave us mass production, one size fits all, replacing the handicrafts of organic, traditional life in the village and tribe, where everything produced, while formulaic, is tailor-made, and no two items are identical.  Individuals become isolated atoms in mass society, as I noted, and in their individuality, paradoxically, are under pressure to conform on a mass scale, rather than on the local level of the village and tribe, and mass production creates the ground for such conformity.  Electric technology opens up the possibility of feedback and technology that can be individualized but I shy away from using that term because it causes confusion, and upon reflection, personalization is a better map for that territory.  It's not the handicraft of days gone by, but it's a shift away from mass society and mass conformity into a have it your way approach and networked identities.

The term role comes to us from George Herbert Mead and symbolic interaction, and the idea from the beginning was that we play many roles, and this in fact constitutes many selves, that there is no true core self, but that we are the sum of the roles that we play, and they are not necessarily consistent, and rarely if ever are so in practice.  Erving Goffman's extension of this stresses the needed to keep front and back region, that is, public and private separate, in order to engage in effective performance of roles, what he called the art of impression management.  Joshua Meyrowitz's integration of Goffman and McLuhan indicates how, with electricity, the blurring of public and private change the dynamics radically, so that roles are no longer compartmentalized the way they were previously.  The blurring of boundaries is a major change of great significance from the previous era.  It's also true that, as Gregory Bateson commented, a role is half of a relationship, and Kenneth Gergen in The Saturated Self talks about how proliferating communication technologies have vastly increased the number of relationships we are involved in, and therefore the number of roles we play, and each role being a self, leads to saturation and a loss of that sense of integrity and centering of the self.

Individualism goes hand in hand with privacy, and mass society confers anonymity on all but a few.  The public face is a disguise to keep others from seeing what is felt to be the "true self" of the private individual (no such thing as true self in actuality according to symbolic interaction, it's just another role). The relatively few individuals who become public figures are known largely for their public roles, unlike today when private life is largely transparent for celebrities.  What's new is the change in relationships and dynamics and emphases and scale, and these are very significant indeed.  For example, while tribalism is not new, it was never possible to move from one tribe to another easily, or to be a member of numerous tribes at the same time, let alone the fact that the tribes are for the most part divorced from the constraints and demands of physical reality.

The idea that individualism leads to mass society involves much more than being a member of a mass media audience, but also being a part of a crowd in public gatherings, in mass transportation, in mass consumption of products, etc. 

Again, character is the idea that there can be consistency among roles, with the false assumption that there is some core lying underneath it all.  It's an idea that arose with literacy and the discovery of the inner world, and is an illusion that is being dispelled by electronic media, hence the nostalgic calls for "character education" (if you need to be educated to have character, in what sense is it natural?).

All of these points are generalizations about the culture, and of course there will be variation and exceptions, it's all a matter of whether you want to look at the big picture and general trends, or the details.  I'm talking here about not missing the forest for the trees. And that leads to some concern about preventing forest fires, or failing that, dealing with them once they've begun.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

History and Freedom

So, you may recall that I've been doing a Quote of the Week feature every so often for the Hannah Arendt Center blog (see my previous posts Arendt Come Due, Charlie Chaplin and Hannah Arendt, We Create the Conditions that Condition Us).  

So, last month when we went over potential dates for my next installment, one of the possibilities was September 17, and that leapt out at me because it was my birthday, and more importantly Rosh Hashanah.  And as it turns out, I found a perfect quote for the occasion, so I wrote it up ahead of time, and it was posted on their blog on Rosh Hashanah morning. You can see it in its original context, with the same title as here:  History and Freedom.

So, once again, I'm sharing the post here with you on Blog Time Passing, I hope you like it.  And I want to say thank you to Bridget Hollenback, the Hannah Arendt Center's Director of Outreach and Social Media, who takes care of the blogging, and provided the images for my post over there, which I've taken the liberty of including here as well.  So, without further ado, here is my Hannah Arendt Quote for Rosh Hashanah: 

The history of humanity is not a hotel where someone can rent a room whenever it suits him; nor is it a vehicle which we board or get out of at random.  Our past will be for us a burden beneath which we can only collapse for as long as we refuse to understand the present and fight for a better future.  Only then—but from that moment on—will the burden become a blessing, that is, a weapon in the battle for freedom.
 -Hannah Arendt, "Moses or Washington" (March 27, 1942) 

This eloquent quote from Hannah Arendt moves through a series of metaphors for historical consciousness. The first two, history is a hotel, and history is a vehicle, are rejected as misleading.  Hotels and vehicles are both transitional spaces, areas inhabited on a temporary basis, not permanent dwellings.  History is not a place we visit for a short period of time, or a place we merely use to get from point A to point B. Arendt further implies that history is not a commodity to be bought and sold, used and disposed of according to our mood.  But this is less a statement of fact than an admonition, in response to the fact that it is indeed possible for individuals to reject and deny their past, to ignore and abandon their history.  It is a commonplace to say that we cannot choose our parents, and the history of humanity that Arendt is concerned with is, after all, an extension of our personal and family histories.


 As an admonition, Arendt's remarks may seem to be a simple restatement of George Santayana's famous 1905 quote, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  And clearly, she shares in this sentiment about the importance of collective memory and the need to learn from the errors of previous eras. But she goes beyond this simple formulation by invoking the metaphor of history as a burden. History has gravity, history has weight, and the longer the historical memory, the heavier the baggage that accompanies it. Historical mass accumulates over time, and also through innovations in communications.  In oral cultures, where writing is absent, history as we understand it does not exist; instead there is myth and legend, preserved through oral tradition by way of continued repetition via oral performance.  Given the limitations of human memory, details about the past are forgotten within a generation or two, and the main function of myth and legend is to reflect and explain present circumstances.  This collective amnesia allows for a great deal of cultural flexibility and social homeostasis, a freedom from the burden of history that literate cultures take up.  The written word first makes possible chronological recordkeeping, and later historical narrative framed as an ongoing progression of events; this linear conception of time replaces the cyclical past of oral tradition, and what Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return.  And so we hear the complaint of school children in generation after generation, that history is so much harder now than it was for their parents, because now there is so much more of it than ever before. 

 History is a burden, one that becomes too much to bear if all we are doing is living in the past, in rigid adherence to a fixed and unchanging tradition.  But Arendt adds the complementary metaphor of history as a blessing.  The burden can become a blessing if we use the past to understand the present, to serve the present, not to overwhelm or command the present.  The past can inform the present, history helps us to see why things are the way they are, why we do the things we do; being mindful of the past is a means to help fulfill Arendt’s goal ofthinking what we are doing.  But it is not enough simply to live in the present, and for the present.  We also have to look towards the future, to work for progress in the moral, ethical, and social sense, to enlarge the scope of human freedom.  And in light of this goal, Arendt invokes her fifth and final metaphor for history:  history is a weapon.  It is a weapon not to destroy or dominate others, or at least that is not what Arendt intends it to be, but rather a sword of liberty, an instrument to be used in the fight against oppression.


This quote reflects Arendt's overriding concern with human freedom.  The battle for freedom that she refers to is a collective struggle, not an individual quest.  It can only be achieved by political cooperation and unity, not by solitary escape from tyranny.  The commonly used phrase in western cultures, individual freedom, while not without value, all too easily eclipses the necessity of freedom as a shared responsibility, and in excess becomes oxymoronic.  As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and "no one is free while others are oppressed."  Freedom for all, shared freedom, requires a sense of affiliation, kinship, connection, which in turn requires a sense of continuity over time. Just as individual memory is intimately related to individual identity, our collective memory is the key to group identity.  History is the foundation of community. 

Historical consciousness, which is derived from literacy, did not become widespread until after the diffusion of typography.  In addition to making written history widely available, print media such as calendars and periodicals made individuals aware of their place in history as never before, down to the basic knowledge of the year, month, and date that we all take for granted, not to mention awareness of our date of birth and age.  And as the great historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein explains, more than any other factor, it was the printing revolution that gave rise to modernity.  The irony is that as printing made the past more accessible, it also made it seem less valuable, resulting in modernity's ahistorical tendencies.  Focus shifted from venerating tradition to revering progress, from looking back to origins to looking forward for originality.  This is exemplified by the fact that printing gave us two new literary forms, the news, and the novel

And so we get Henry Ford saying, "history is bunk," and dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 portraying future societies where history is either deleted or subject to constant revision.  Without a sense of the past, sensitivity to the future is undermined, and with the advent of instantaneous electronic communications beginning with telegraphy in the 19th century, more and more emphasis has been placed on the now, the present tense, leading us to lose touch with both the past and the future.  Conceptions of the past have also been affected by the rise of image culture, beginning with photography in the 19th century, so that a coherent sense of linear history came to be replaced by a discontinuous, and therefore incoherent collection of snapshots evoking nostalgia, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography.  What Arendt makes clear is that contemporary present-minded ahistoricism risks more than Santayana's Sisyphean purgatory, but a true hell of oppression and slavery. 

So far, I have stressed a universal interpretation of this quote, and ignored its particular context.  Arendt's admonition originates in a column she wrote for a Jewish newspaper, Aufbau, published in New York for German-speaking Jews, as part of a critique of the Reform movement in Judaism.  The movement originated in 19th century Germany, as a response to the Enlightenment, and the Emancipation initiated by Napoleon, wherein Jews were released from ghetto confinement and given a measure of equal rights and citizenship.

To accommodate their newly established status, the Reform movement sought to recast Judaism in the image of Protestantism, as just another religious sect.  Apart from a liberalizing and modernizing of worship and religious requirements, this meant abandoning Jewish identity as a people, as a nation in exile, so as to give full political allegiance to the new nation-states of the west, and embrace a new national identity as citizens of Germany, or France, or England, or the United States.  Consequently, the Reform movement rejected Zionism and made loyalty to the nation of one's birth a religious duty.  Jewish identity and tradition were thereby reduced, compartmentalized as only a form of religious belief and practice, their political significance abandoned. 

 Arendt's criticism is consonant with Jewish tradition, as the Torah repeatedly asks the Jewish people to remember, to remember the Exodus, to remember the revelation at Mount Sinai, toremember God's laws and commandments, to remember God's commitment to social justice.  Rather than make an argument for a return to Orthodoxy, however, Arendt's concern is characteristically philosophical.  Immediately before concluding her column with the passage quoted above, Arendt makes a more specific appeal regarding models of political leadership and moral guidance: 

As long as the Passover story does not teach the difference between freedom and slavery, as long as the Moses legend does not call to mind the eternal rebellion of the heart and mind against slavery, the "oldest document of human history" will remain dead and mute to no one more than the very people who once wrote it.  And while all of Christian humanity has appropriated our history for itself, reclaiming our heroes as humanity's heroes, there is paradoxically a growing number of those who believe they must replace Moses and David with Washington or Napoleon.  Ultimately, this attempt to forget our own past and to find youth again at the expense of strangers will fail—simply because Washington's and Napoleon's heroes were named Moses and David. 

Written in the dark times that followed Hitler's rise to power, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the establishment of Eichmann's concentration camps, Arendt's words are all the more poignant and powerful in their call for taking pride in the Jewish tradition of fighting for freedom and justice, and for an awareness that the cause of liberty and human rights have their roots in that most ancient of documents. 

Arendt's criticisms of the excesses of Reform Judaism were widely shared, and the movement itself changed dramatically in response to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.  Reform Judaism reversed its stance on Zionism, and remains a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, albeit with a willingness to engage in criticism of Israeli government policies and decisions.  At the same time, Reform religious observance, while still distinct from that of the Orthodox and Conservative branches, has gradually restored many elements of traditional worship over the years.  And the celebration of Jewish culture and identity has become normalized during the past half century. 

For example, witness Aly Raisman's gold medal-winning gymnastic routine at the recently completed London Olympics, performed to the tune of Hava Nagila; Keith Stern, the rabbi at the Reform synagogue that Aly attends, explained that " it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew, I think it was so natural to her that it's more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way."


Raisman's musical selection made an important statement as well, in light of the International Olympics Committee's decision not to have a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in a terrorist attack.  I think that Arendt would be nodding in approval at the way in which the teenage captain of the United States women's gymnastics team, in her own way, followed the example of Moses and David. 

Arendt's passage about history and freedom is a fitting one, I believe, for a Quote of the Weekpost scheduled to appear on the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also said to be the birthday of the world.  The calendar year now turns to 5773, and 5,773 years is roughly the age of history itself, of recorded history, of written records, which originate in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.  And while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holy Days, and are popularly thought to be the most important in Jewish tradition, in truth it is the Passover that is the oldest, and most significant, of our holidays, lending further support to Arendt's argument.  But even more important than Passover is the weekly observance of the Sabbath day, which is mandated by the Fourth Commandment.  And in the new Sabbath liturgy recently adopted by the American Reform movement, there is a prayer adapted from a passage in the book Exodus and Revolution by political philosopher Michael Walzer, that is worth sharing in this context:

Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.
The message of this prayer is that only by working together can we transform the burden of history into a blessing, only by working together can we wield the shared history of humanity in the service of human freedom and social justice.  This is what Arendt wanted us to understand, to commit to memory, and to learn by heart.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Scenes from Puebla

So, in my previous post, Puebla Entrevista, I mentioned that last week I was in the city of Puebla, Mexico, as an invited guest and participant at a conference on strategic communication at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, aka BUAP.  And in addition to the video interview in the last post, there were a great many pictures taken at this event, many more than I'll repost here, but I thought I'd share a few of them, along with some sense of what I was involved with down there.

One of my main activities was giving a workshop on New Media and Strategic Communication:  A Media Ecology Approach.  On the left is a photo of me from the first day of the workshop, and it was rather warm in the room, yes, so I took my jacket off.  There were about 30 participants in the workshop, mostly undergraduates, some graduate students, and a few faculty.  I spent the first half of the workshop explaining the media ecology approach, and ways to analyze media and communication environments, with specific attention to social media connections, and then the second half on specifics relating to new media, especially in regard to digital form.

Since I don't speak Spanish, the conference organizers provided a translator, so I started out speaking slowly, and pausing every sentence or two to let the translator translate.  Well, funny thing is, after a little while, the students started to correct the translator's translation!  Seems they understood  English better than he did. And after a little while longer, they asked him to stop translating altogether! They were fine with just listening to me, and asking questions if need be.

Of course, hospitality was a big part of the occasion, and here we are, the conference organizers and invited guests, having lunch/dinner at a restaurant in Puebla. I'm showing something on my cellphone, I don't recall what now, but everywhere you go nowadays, our mobile devices are as omnipresent as cigarettes once were.

So, the second day I had a different translator, but this was for some plenary sessions that I was participating on.  Students with good competency in English naturally were open to selecting my workshop, and those lacking the same competency would tend to select a different workshop, but for speaking to all of the attendees, a good translator was essential, and the organizers found a doctoral student in linguistics to do the job!

So. the first session I was on, I was asked to speak about the Media Ecology Association as an organization, and media ecology as a field. 

And my second session was a book-oriented panel, so I talked about On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology

Of course, some of the most interesting conversations took place outside of the formal events.

A third session I took part in included my two friends from Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México, Octavio Islas (below on the right) and Fernando Gutiérez (2nd from the right, next to Octavio):

And while I didn't plan on it, since it turned out that they were interested in a formal presentation, and I did come prepared for such an eventuality even though they didn't ask for one in advance, I gave my "If Not A, Then E" powerpoint presentation about general semantics and media ecology.

It went over pretty well, my talk and the session overall. Here are the three of us after the session:

And here I'm posing with some of the other participants and organizers:

Octavio, Fernando, and I were invited back up for the concluding session:

And that about sums up my activity south of the border, or at least what I could find from photographs others posted on Facebook, and I am grateful to all those who shared their images.  But here's one final one, taken after the conference, when a few of us were treated to a little tour of downtown Puebla on the day before Mexico's Independence Day:

That about sums it up, don't you think?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Puebla Entrevista

So, I was in Mexico last week, where I was asked to participate at a conference on strategic communication at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, aka BUAP, located in the city of Puebla.  While I was there, I gave a few interviews for university-based media, and here's one of them:

Yes, it's the age old question, what is media ecology? Ah well, it never gets tired, at least I haven't got worn out by it yet. And maybe one day we'll get it right!

There are some cool scenes, all too brief unfortunately, at the beginning of the video, of a performance they put on at the conference.  I'll provide you with some photographs as well in another post. Until then, adiós!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

In Memory of Meir Ribalow

My friend and colleague, Meir Ribalow, passed away on August 23rd, and I write this post in his memory (and please find at the end of this post information about the memorial for him that will be held in November, and the fund set up in his name). 

We shared many a delightful conversation about movies and movie stars, about sports and especially baseball (and our team, the New York Mets), about comics, Jewish culture and literature, and so much more.  

As a colleague, it was always a delight when I would see him walking down the hall, dressed impeccably, smiling good-naturedly.  As our Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, he did more than his fair share in service of our students, and was always a voice of reason at faculty meetings.  Semester after semester he taught a class called Movies and the American Experience, which was one of the most popular, and hence one of the hardest to get into, in the entire university (and the only course, aside from our required introductory classes, that we always ran two sections of). He also taught Screenwriting, and in that way helped to nurture young talents at Fordham, as he did elsewhere.  He was involved in so much more, and would use his connections to enrich his courses, for example by having Alec Baldwin drop in on a class.

He was a gifted writer, and I tried to go see his plays as often as I could, which wasn't often enough by far.  But I did bring my son to a few, and there was one dramatic reading at the Players Club, where Meir was an active member, that really inspired and sparked my son's interest in the theater.  

When I first joined the Board of Trustees of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, and took over as Adult Education Chair, Meir was kind enough to drive over and give our first ever Havadallah Talk back on April 14, 2007, to talk about Jews in sports, a subject his father had written about and Meir had continued to work on. I wrote a post about that event, back in only the second month of my blogging here, and you if you want to read it, here's the link:  Sports Spiel.

Back about a decade or so, I was contributing a chapter to an anthology on baseball by my old MA program professor at Queens Coolege, Gary Gumpert, and my colleague at Hofstra University, Susan Drucker, entitled Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and I was happy to hook Meir up with them, so he could contribute a chapter on Jews in baseball (mine is on baseball as a medium).  Here's a link, in case you're interested:

And last year, Meir published a baseball novel entitled Peanuts and Crackerjacks:

I was also quite happy to be able to recruit Meir for NeoPoiesis Press, the publishing partnership that I've been involved with, and when he passed away, I wrote the statement for the press, which I'll share with you here:
We join together with Meir Ribalow's family and friends, with so many others whom his life has touched, to express our profound sorrow at his passing. Meir was a man of great talent, of great humor, and of great generosity of spirit. We feel privileged to have played a small role in helping the world to know him a little better through the publication of his writing, and to preserve his words for so many who will never have the chance to know him as the beautiful human being that he indeed was. Meir was one of a kind, we will not see his like again, and he will be dearly missed. May his memory be for a blessing.

Before he passed away, Meir was able to publish another novel, Redheaded Blues, and two books of poetry through NeoPoiesis Press:

That last one, The Time We Have Misspent, is a book of sonnets that are wonderfully humorous and touching.  And interestingly enough, one of the individuals working for Fordham's internal communications recognized the NeoPoiesis statement as my writing, and used it for quotes for their post for Fordham's newsletter and website, Fordham Mourns Artist-in-Residence Meir Ribalow.  Here's the piece:
The Fordham University community mourns artist-in-residence Meir Ribalow of the Department of Communication and Media Studies. Ribalow died Aug. 23. 
A prolific author, Ribalow was widely-published in various media. He wrote 24 plays and numerous books, articles, and poems on a range of topics, including theater, sports, chess, and travel. His award-winning plays have been produced more than 180 times in cities throughout North America and Europe. 
“Meir was a man of great talent, of great humor, and of great generosity of spirit,” said Lance Strate, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies. “Meir was one of a kind, we will not see his like again, and he will be dearly missed.” 
Ribalow was a well-known film scholar as well as playwright. He frequently served as a film historian for documentaries, including a Discovery Channel feature on the portrayal of scientists in film. He also wrote for The Sciences magazine as a film columnist and co-wrote the program for the 1990 World Chess Championship. 
In addition to working hands-on in the industry, Ribalow served in many administrative positions. He was the production associate at the New York Shakespeare Festival for several years, founder of The American Repertory Company of London, and the artistic director of New River Dramatists in North Carolina. 
His administrative duties brought him in contact with an array of personalities. He served alongside Alec Baldwin as vice president of The Creative Coalition, a non-partisan, nonprofit group for members of the entertainment and arts industries who are active in social and political issues. As international arts coordinator for The Global Forum, Ribalow worked with the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and other notables. 
Ribalow taught at Fordham for more than 27 years. A devoted teacher, he lectured at more than a dozen secondary schools, colleges, and universities over the years. 

“We feel privileged to have played a small role in helping the world to know him a little better through the publication of his writing, and to preserve his words for so many who will never have the chance to know him as the beautiful human being that he indeed was,” Strate said.

Glen Hirshberg wrote a lovely piece for the Jewish Daily Forward entitled, Remembering Meir Z. Ribalow, which I won't reproduce in its entirety here, but I do want to quote two paragraphs:
I first met Ribalow at a Seder given by my uncle, Rabbi Judah Nadich, during my first semester of college. We turned out to be related, vaguely. We talked baseball, and writing, and the Holocaust, and writing, and early films noir, and writing. I was eighteen, and thought I knew about these things. Meir knew about these things. When I got home to my dorm, the phone was ringing. Meir was calling to continue the conversation. It continued for nearly four decades. Meir didn’t teach me how to write, but he probably taught me how to be a writer. He taught me how to care for and support and teach and learn from other writers. He taught me how to immerse myself in my work without disappearing into myself. Very early in our relationship, I realized Meir was carrying on similar conversations with literally dozens of other artists, activists, and passionate people of all stripes . He awoke us all to ourselves, and to each other. 
A deft satirist and exceptionally witty craftsman of dialogue, Mr. Ribalow’s work blends bleak comedy with bursts of ironic, surprisingly gentle humor and hard-won wisdom. The New York Times hailed his play, “Sundance,” as “A deceptively savvy cultural essay about the mechanics of a beloved American genre wrapped inside a pitch-perfect satire.” His dramas have received over 180 productions worldwide and regionally across the United States and Canada.

I know that Meir was especially proud of being able to publish as well as put on plays from the New River Dramatists group that he led, and two volumes that he edited are available, each one including one of his own plays as well as two others:

And since Glen mentioned it, Amazon also has copies of "Sundance" for sale:

Meir's father, Harold Ribalow, was an editor who dealt with just about every major Jewish-American fiction writer of the mid-20th century, and every year, Hadassah Magazine gives out a prize in his name, as they explain:

Hadassah Magazine's annual literary award for outstanding Jewish fiction was established in 1983 by the friends and family of the late Harold U. Ribalow, an editor and writer known for his passion for Jewish literature and his interest in promoting the work of many now-famous writers. Ribalow was inducted posthumously into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 for his contributions to society through Jewish sports writing.
I was very happy to be invited to attend the awards presentation each year, where the author and an invited speaker would be part of the program, and Meir would always give a talk. I remember how he would say that in his family, going into business and making a lot of money was considered a perfectly respectable thing to do...  for those individuals without talent!

Meir was very much his father's son, very much dedicated to helping others, in addition to being very talented in his own right.  His enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of movies, sports, and literature made him a delightful conversationalist, and his good humor and generosity of spirit was a blessing and an inspiration.  I think his New York Times obituary is worth sharing here as well:

RIBALOW--Meir Zvi, Internationally renowned playwright, poet, novelist, critic, and activist, died on August 23rd after battling prostate cancer. He was 63. Mr. Ribalow had 24 of his plays receive some 180 productions worldwide, winning awards in London, New York, and regionally. He won national awards for fiction, his widely published poetry, and musical lyrics; co-wrote ten children's books; and published articles on sports, music, theatre, literature, film, travel and chess. 
He was co-author, with his father, Harold Ribalow, of three books on sports, and was Director of an award-winning sports website. Mr. Ribalow's poems have recently been collected in two volumes, "Chasing Ghosts" and "The Time We Have Misspent" and two novels, "Peanuts and Crackerjacks" and "Redheaded Blues" -- along with a new play, "Masterpiece" -- have all been published in the past eighteen months during a typically furious burst of creativity that his illness did little to slow. 
He wrote articles for publications as diverse as The New York Times, The Sciences, Hadassah, and the program for the 1990 Kasparov-Karpov World Chess Championship, commented on films for the Discovery Channel, and hosted the online radio program "New River Radio" on His scholarly film commentary appears on a number of special edition classic DVD's, including High Noon and Sergeant York. A popular and widely respected educator, he served for almost three decades as Artist-in-Residence in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. 
Mr. Ribalow was born into a family of writers and scholars -- his grandfather, Menachem Ribalow, edited the only weekly newspaper published in Hebrew in the United States, and his father, Harold, was an internationally renowned author and anthologist of Anglo-American Jewish literature--and was supported and encouraged by his passionately engaged music educator mother, Shoshana, and sister, Reena Ribalow Ben Ephraim (also an award-winning poet and fiction writer). 
Mr. Ribalow graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1966 and was a University Scholar and Class Poet at Princeton, class of 1970. He was a co-founder and Vice President of the Creative Coalition, a group of entertainment professionals devoted to social and environmental advocacy, working alongside fellow board-members Alec Baldwin, Christopher Reeve, Ron Silver, and Stephen Collins. He was also International Arts Coordinator of The Global Forum, where he worked with the Dalai Lama, Robert Redford and Mikhail Gorbachev. 
Mr. Ribalow was the Founding Artistic Director of New River Dramatists, the dream child of indefatigable producer Mark Woods, which offers playwrights week-long residencies in the mountains of North Carolina and has developed some 400 new plays and screenplays, almost half of which have already been produced or optioned worldwide. Mr. Ribalow attracted and mixed established, high profile playwrights such as the late James McLure, Wendy Hammond, Richard Dresser and Lee Blessing, with lesser-known, often young, but always deserving writing talents such as inaugural McLure Fellowship and 2012 O'Neill Residency winner Hilary Bettis. 
Mr. Ribalow directed numerous plays in London and New York, was Joseph Papp's Production Associate at the New York Shakespeare Festival for several years, and founded the American Repertory Company of London. A Broadway Gala Theater Benefit reading of his play Nature of the Universe with Blythe Danner and Brian Dennehy raised funds for The ALS Association of New York. 
Mr. Ribalow is survived by his mother, sister, nephew Shaiel Ben Ephraim and niece Riora Kerr, and by a grateful and still-expanding community of artists, writers, actors, performers, and philanthropists who learned much of craft and even more of care through his vision and by his example.
Yesterday, I received notice from the executor of Meir's estate about the memorial event that will be held in November at the Players Club:

There will be a celebration of the life of
 Meir Z. Ribalow
 Poet, Playwright, Novelist, Actor, Director, Teacher,
Activist, Sage, Son, Brother, Uncle and Friend….
Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 7:30pm
The Players
16 Gramercy Park
New York, NY 10003

We will have our own memorial at Fordham University at a later date, but also, for anyone interested in honoring his memory, here is additional information about the fund set up in his name:

THE MEIR Z. RIBALOW ’66 PRIZE AND THEATRE FUND By gifts made in memory of Meir Z. Ribalow, Class of 1966, Phillips Exeter Academy will establish a permanent endowment fund titled The Meir Z. Ribalow ’66 Prize and Theatre Fund. In recognition of Meir’s distinguished career as a renowned and award winning playwright, poet, novelist, critic and activist, the Academy’s annual prizes in theatre will be named The Meir Z. Ribalow ’66 Theatre Prizes. In addition to this public acknowledgement, proceeds from the endowment will also be used to support activities of the Theatre Department that will benefit the performances and drama instruction of our students. Among the uses of the Ribalow Fund will be the support for visiting actors, producers, playwrights and other theatre professionals to come to campus to meet with students and faculty. In addition to supporting classroom participation, the Ribalow Fund will encourage instructional opportunities through master classes. Working with students and young artists was a particular passion of Meir and it is believed that he would be pleased with a fund in his name to support Theatre and the Exeter Harkness instruction that he held so dear throughout his lifetime.

Meir moved in so many circles, touched so many different people, and worked with so much talent, of others and his own, and yet he never bragged about all of his accomplishments and connections. He was a modest, humble, and down-to-earth individual who always had a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face, a good word for everyone he came into contact with, and a helping hand for those who needed one. It was a privilege to know him, and to call him friend.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


This post is a bit of a follow-up to my previous one, Congregation and Community, which focused on a front page article in our local community newspaper, Leonia Life, on an event held last month at Congregation Adas Emuno, the report including a quote by yours truly.

So, we've been doing pretty well with that local paper since then, as they included two of our press releases last week, which I've provided links for just in case you were curious:  Adas Emuno in Leonia Announces High Holy Day Services, and Leonia Congregation Welcomes New Student Cantor

And this week's issue of Leonia Life features another front page report by Raeshelle Middleton on our recent screening of the documentary Connected, by filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, daughter of Leonard Shlain.  And you may recall my post here on Blog Time Passing about the film last September, Get Connected!, which itself was connected to the special screening we held at Fordham University, one of the first screenings of the completed documentary anywhere.

So anyway, the article in Leonia Life is entitled Leonia Gets ‘Connected’with Film, and here is what Raeshelle had to say about the event:

Community members gathered to watch Tiffany Shlain's documentary "Connected," which discusses the interconnectedness of human society, at Congregation Adas Emuno Aug. 25.

Before continuing with Middleton's report, I do want to thank Tiffany Shlain for her generosity in giving us permission to hold this exclusive screening of a film that is still making the rounds of film festivals, and was recently shown at the Democratic Party's national convention. It was a privilege for those in attendance, as well as a treat.  Now back to the article:

Focusing on the mind, the filmmaker referred to present topics such as the advancement and use of technology, the issue of pollution, health and some of the advances in modern science and how this has affected the evolution of human communication.
The film focused on multiple subjects as the documentarian went into detail about what was going on in her personal life at the time as well as the relationship that she had with her family.
Members of the community from all age groups came out to watch the movie. There were refreshments served and almost every seat was filled. Afterwards there was a discussion about how the audience viewed the film.
The movie studied how during different eras people have used different parts of their brains such as the right side and the left side during certain circumstances. One of the subjects that were introduced in discussion was the way that friendship is viewed in modern day with the increase in dependence on social media and technology for communication and how that affects face-to-face interaction.
Let me interrupt for a moment to note that the audience enjoyed the film quite a bit, and there was a great deal of appreciation for the personal side of the film.  And the report now turns to some of the discussion that followed the screening:
"What's happening to those brains when they get overloaded, when if you're like me and you check your cell phone for e-mail 100 times a day?" said Rabbi Barry Schwartz.
Now, here's the view of an older audience member who was a bit disdainful about Facebook: 
"Young people and old people my age talk about friending, and then I recognize that this is a person that they've never spoken to or seen face to face, and they think that this is a friend. To me the internet has separated people. It has brought more information into my life but is hasn't brought more friends into my life." said Muriel Haber. "A friend in my definition is somebody that I can call up and say, 'Hey meet me for coffee,' and speak on a very intimate and depend on."
And here's a point that I emphasized in the discussion, and that I do think is a wonderful idea: 
The movie also spoke about Technology Shabbats, which is encouraging people to unplug technological devices on a particular day in order to become more mindful of the world. The movie discussed subjects such as the overuse of the Internet and the cellular phone which may be responsible for changing the way of thinking for many people.
And now what you all have been waiting for, to wrap it all up, another quote from your humble servant: 
"Unplugging and taking a break is how we can become mindful of what we are doing, rather than doing it unconsciously," said Lance Strate, president of the congregation.

And, after all, while Marshall McLuhan stressed art as an anti-environment to provide some objectivity in regarding the electronic media environment, and Neil Postman made a similar point about schools, the same can be said of religious services and houses of worship, that they can take us out of our constantly wired and plugged-in, always-on-call worlds, and provide a counter-environment that is rooted in an older, calmer, quieter kind of situation.  Just remember to turn off those cellphones when you come in, okay?