Sunday, April 26, 2015

G-d predicted the mobile phone

In the olden days – I’m talking about pre 1995, you would write something called a letter that took hours to write, perhaps for a love interest that lived across the globe.  You’d craft it in your finest hand writing, being extra careful to avoid spelling mistakes and making sure you said all you wanted to say.  You’d then go down to the post office and (gosh) send it by mail to your friend across the world, using square shaped objects called stamps.  And for weeks, you’d check the post box each day, anticipating a reply, hoping for the reaction you wanted, nervous if you had sounded cool enough or sensitive enough – or completely stupid!  And when that day finally came, where the mailbox would contain the reply you had been longing for, you’d treasure the envelope, caressing it close to your heart, waiting for the right moment to peel back the paper covering and reveal the carefully crafted words inside.

But something happened in the last twenty years.  Our lives changed irrevocably, and the gaps between the lives of our generation and our parent’s generations became a chasm, changed in such a fundamental way that it could never be unchanged again.

Because around that time back in 1995 the Internet hit its strides and started becoming our source for… well, for everything.

Since that moment, all the world’s knowledge became available on a computer, and even since then and now, the very definition of a computer has changed.  These days, all information is now available at our fingertips – we don’t even have to move to unlock the secrets of the world.

And of course, the lines between work and home have also blurred.  And although the idea of leaving the work at the office hasn’t changed – what has changed is the fact that the office in now in your pocket.

Along with the advent of Facebook and Twitter and other social media, our lives have become extremely busy.  We are constantly tied to our handheld devices, scanning them for instant information, immediate results, and live streams of news events.  We even customize our notification alert sounds so that we can simply hear if we’ve been mentioned in a Tweet, or tagged in Facebook, or emailed from a particular account.  We don’t even have to look at our devices – but we look anyway.

Our lives have become fast – so fast, that anything less that instant gratification feels… flat.  If you send someone a text, you remain fixated on your phone, expecting an instant reply, despite the fact that it could be ten in the morning here, and two in the morning there.  And if you don’t get one, then suddenly, you ask yourself, am I being ignored?  Why haven’t they responded?   Why did I get so few Likes??

And with that expectation of instant answers and instant feedback, our senses have become dulled – those moments of anticipation evaporating in the knowledge that everything is instant.

Our lives have become so fast – that the scenery around us has blurred.  We do not always notice the trees swaying gently in the breeze, or the birds tweeting excitedly, or the scent of flowers blooming in the fresh morning air, or the laughter or the tears or the sadness or the joy in other people’s faces as they walk by.

But you see, G-d predicted the mobile phone, and He predicted the pace at which we live our lives, and so right back in the beginning, He gave us Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest.  But he did not do it stop us from watching the latest cat video from YouTube, or the latest Instagram pictures of a cute baby on top of a volcano, or the latest sports results from the European soccer league.  He gave it to us to take a breather, to sit back and think, to spend time with our families, and even dream for a while.  Because every great idea in the world started from a dream.

In a way, Shabbat is that spiritual rejuvenation our minds crave, as well as the physical rejuvenation our bodies need.  Perhaps, it really does allow us to stop and smell the roses, where before we did not even notice them.  Of all the commandments that G-d gave to us back on Mount Sinai, it’s probably the one that is the most community orientated without even mentioning the community!  And the reason is that it actually forces you to put away the technology that controls our lives and interact on a social level with other people.  And in a modern technological society like us, social interaction seems to be an art slowly disappearing.

The world is fast – so fast, but if we slow down just a little, the blurred faces we see going past us can come into focus once again.  And the emotions we all wear upon our faces can become clearer – so clear that the beauty of the world can be revealed to us so that we may gaze upon it with our own eyes, and not just through the amoled screens of a mobile phone.  

Perhaps the apathy that seems to govern much our lives can be replaced with empathy – and oh how better the world would be then…

Monday, July 28, 2014

Defending Israel from abroad

To the average Australian and New Zealander, Israel is a faraway country in a troubled region that does not affect them on any daily basis.  But, as so often happened in the past, the war in Gaza at the moment has taken on international connotations.    In the streets of Melbourne and Auckland, there are protests against Israel, which permeate with anti-Semitic imagery.   Israeli flags are burned and Israel is accused of genocide.  Left wing fascism is in full swing led by people like John Minto, a notorious anti-Semite of who I have written about previously.  Tellingly, no protests have been organised against Russia or Syria where the death toll has topped 170000!  Yet, Israel is not just a faraway issue, and there are times where it comes right back to us and to our community, such as the story of Guy Boyland.
Guy was originally a New Zealander whose family made Aliyah when he was a young boy.  He was featured on the front page of the New Zealand Herald, where his grandfather in New Zealand paid tribute to this bravery and patriotism.  From all accounts, he was someone who loved his adopted country of Israel and died while destroying tunnels thereby making it safer for all Israelis. 
Too often, in the diaspora, we speak of support for Israel, and we write tributes to Israel, and we defend Israel on radio shows and in newspapers and that is important, yet there are no articles written by Guy Boland, and there are no radio interviews given about his support for Israel.  Instead, he actually defended his country and he fought for it and died, so that many people could live.  He, like many of the international volunteers, turned a theoretical support into a practical one.
Sometimes, in the diaspora, there are internal conflicts going on in Jews that care about Israel.  It is a real tribute to the bravery and courage of those Jews who choose to put themselves in harm’s way for a just and righteous cause.  From a far flung corner of the world, we salute them and all the people and soldiers of Israel who stand, sometimes alone, against a darkness that threatens us all.  They are not just defending the people of Israel but the Children of Israel too.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Being Jewish in a modern world

The Pew Research Centre’s recent report on Jewish identity is a sobering reality check on Jewish identity and what it means.  Although the report is based on American Jews, there are many factors that lend themselves to diaspora Jews in general. 
Of the report, the most alarming figure that comes to mind is that 58% of Jews marry out of the faith.  That means that it’s more common for Jews to marry non-Jews in America today.
When I look at Jews in Australia today, it is also quite common for Jews to marry out of the faith with figures reportedly ranging from 25% to 30%, although in reality it can be much higher.  Although intermarriage has always occurred, it is only in the last 50 years that it seems to have taken on an ever increasing rate. 
But what is driving this increasing rate of Jews leaving the fold, as it were.  Does being born Jewish really mean anything anymore?  The reality is that there has probably been a steady erosion of Jewish identity through the years, and by saying Jewish identity I don’t mean just religious - being Jewish means lots of things to lots of people.
Perhaps with increasing globalization, we consider ourselves citizens of the world, rather than any ethnic religious group.  It might be that in this ever busy world where time is the most precious commodity, we don’t have the patience to be bothered with something so seemingly trivial as Jewish identity.  It could even boil down to simple economics.  Getting a formal Jewish education at a Jewish day school in Australia is highly prohibitive, costing up to $30000 for a single student, meaning if you had three kids, you’d require an additional income of $100000 a year, which puts it out of many peoples’ reach.  There are, of course, alternatives such as yeshiva schools, but not everyone is comfortable with sending their children to a religious environment.
The reality is that there is probably no single factor that has caused Jewish identity to erode, but it is a reality of assimilation in an open and free world of which no diaspora community is immune from America all the way to Australia.  The most important reality check in all this is that children of mixed marriages, even with a Jewish mother, have diminishing chances of retaining their Jewish identity in the future.
Is that even important though?  Well, that depends on the individual and how important being Jewish means to you.  We are a part of a 4000 year old people that somehow through pogroms, exile, war and genocide have still managed to remain as an identifiable people through the ages.
Over 300 years ago, Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher, was asked by King Louis XIV of France to give him proof of miracles. Pascal answered: "Why, the Jews, your Majesty ― the Jews."
I don’t believe that as a people, the Jewish people are in danger of disappearing; however as individuals many of us are destined to be absorbed into our surrounding cultures, leaving our Jewish heritage behind. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

I love the America's Cup - I just don't understand it!

The America’s Cup yachting race is one of those events in world sports, which generates excitement, anxiety, angst, elation and depression.  It is also one of those sports that no one actually understands!

So I decided to sit down – well it was about 6am so make that lie down – and watch one of the races between Team New Zealand and Team USA taking place in the San Francisco bay.

You see - this is how it works.  They start off with a countdown which is somewhere around 5 minutes.   A white line then appears in the sea like magic!  It must have taken them ages painting it, especially with the sea moving and all… Unlike a running race where you shout ready, set go – the America’s Cup is more like ready, set, slow!  They are not actually stationary prior to the race starting – they are in constant motion circling around each other and making grinding noises.  Anyway, the race starts – and they’re off!  I know this because the white line finally washes away.

At this stage, the commentators are particularly excited – not sure why yet.  Oh right, there was a gybe or is it a tack?  Thankfully, there are also lots of camera angles and computer screens showing computer generated imagery of exactly who is winning, because to tell you the truth, it kind of all looks the same on tv!

The commentators then start going crazy, because apparently, Team New Zealand did a starboard tack, which I think means something on the right.  A couple of questions here like - what the hell is a tack?  And what the hell is starboard?  I mean – where am I – the Starship Enterprise?  Why can’t they say left or right like regular people?
The commentators are now delirious as they start shouting something about an ebb flow coming in from the warm southerly current.  Yes, I also don’t know what that means.  They almost pass out now, because apparently Team USA have a code zero!  A what - ?  The only code zero I’m aware of is the one that you have right after having a big Indian dinner, and you’re running down the hallway towards the toilet yelling “Code Zero! Code Zero!”

Suddenly, the race has taken a dramatic turn – or tack!  Team New Zealand are way ahead and heading for a win, when suddenly the match referee who is sitting in another boat somewhere fishing calls for the race to be abandoned – as 40 minutes have passed.  Apparently under the rules the race can only be 40 minutes, so as not to delay proceeding.  So instead of letting the team win, they now have to extend the day by another hour instead of another 5 minutes.  Perhaps on bizarro world that might make sense, but here in the real world where we tack and gybe, it doesn’t!
So the race comes to a sudden end where there was clearly no winner – unless you include the team that was about one kilometre ahead.  Everyone is now standing around and talking excitedly about the day’s events.

It’s always amusing watching people talk about things about which they have no idea.  People are kind of nodding knowingly, arms folded and all, giving an appropriate grunt when needed and saying things like, “Yup, that’s what I was thinking.”  It’s like when your car breaks down and you stare into the engine, with the bonnet up, not knowing what the hell you’re staring at!  But being manly and all, you don’t actually want to admit that and end up making inane comments like, “Yeah, engine spin cycle definitely sounds a bit off”

Anyway, so the race continues with Race number 417 just having been completed with so many questions remaining.  Will there be enough hot air in the room for the next race to start?  Will the wind direction change?  And will Nicholas Cage get off Alcatraz in time before it explodes?

The America’s Cup – it’s like an old relative from a faraway country.  We don’t really understand her, but we love her anyway.