Jews, God, and Videotape

Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America

Jeffrey Shandler
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Jews, God, and Videotape
    Book Description:

    Engaging media has been an ongoing issue for American Jews, as it has been for other religious communities in the United States, for several generations. Jews, God, and Videotape is a pioneering examination of the impact of new communications technologies and media practices on the religious life of American Jewry over the past century. Shandler's examples range from early recordings of cantorial music to Hasidic outreach on the Internet. In between he explores mid-twentieth-century ecumenical radio and television broadcasting, video documentation of life cycle rituals, museum displays and tourist practices as means for engaging the Holocaust as a moral touchstone, and the role of mass-produced material culture in Jews' responses to the American celebration of Christmas.Shandler argues that the impact of these and other media on American Judaism is varied and extensive: they have challenged the role of clergy and transformed the nature of ritual; facilitated innovations in religious practice and scholarship, as well as efforts to maintain traditional observance and teachings; created venues for outreach, both to enhance relationships with non-Jewish neighbors and to promote greater religiosity among Jews; even redefined the notion of what might constitute a Jewish religious community or spiritual experience. As Jews, God, and Videotape demonstrates, American Jews' experiences are emblematic of how religious communities' engagements with new media have become central to defining religiosity in the modern age.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-0888-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Author’s Note
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This joke assumes that the medium of videotape is in tension with religious life, an assumption often made about other new media of the past century in relation to religion. At the same time, though, the joke voices a desire to resolve this tension, rethinking the possibilities of religious practice (why not watch a “replay” of Kol Nidre on one’s home VCR?) and challenging the protocols of religious authority (though one might well imagine the rabbi’s response, Gottlieb’s innovative suggestion is left unaddressed). As an artifact of turn-of-the-millennium American Jewish culture, the joke testifies to the community’s ongoing attention to...

  6. 1 Cantors on Trial
    (pp. 13-55)

    Cantors have long inspired talk, quite apart from the attention paid to their musicianship. In particular, they serve as key figures in discussions interrelating spirituality and art in Jewish life. The position ofhazzan(the modern Hebrew word for cantor) has a long dynamic, with its origins in the Talmudic era, as synagogue worship was inaugurated two millennia ago. As synagogue rites developed during the Geonic period (the sixth to eleventh centuries C.E.), the role of thehazzanwas consolidated as the officialsheli’ah zibbur(community messenger), charged with leading communal worship during services. During the Middle Ages thehazzan...

  7. 2 Turning on The Eternal Light
    (pp. 56-94)

    In the mid-1940s, a rabbi who allegedly never listened to the radio, a broadcasting executive who characterized the medium as a manifestation of divine power, and a Jewish playwright who was a self-confessed agnostic worked together to create a body of religious media unprecedented in form, content, and scope: hundreds of hours of radio and, later, television drama portraying Jewish life, past and present. In these programs’ heyday, which lasted some two decades, they reached millions of listeners across North America and were hailed as outstanding achievements in broadcasting and in public religion. Today, they are largely forgotten in the...

  8. 3 The Scar without the Wound
    (pp. 95-143)

    As Holocaust remembrance became pervasive in American public culture during the final decades of the twentieth century, continuing into the present with no signs of abating, it has frequently been conceptualized in relation to religion. Given the complexity of the Holocaust and the means of remembering it, these conceptualizations are far from uniform. The Holocaust has engendered its own theological discourses, in which different Jewish and Christian denominations have been compelled by the mass murder of Jews and other European civilian populations during World War II to respond anew to age-old questions of theodicy.¹ Holocaust remembrance has also been incorporated...

  9. 4 Observant Jews
    (pp. 144-184)

    Elsewhere in this book I examine media that is professionally produced and mass marketed. But American Jewish religious life also engages media works created by amateurs and small-scale professionals, typically for a limited audience. Indeed, the audience for these works is often confined to the creators themselves. Far from diminishing the significance of these media works, their intimate scale of production, circulation, reception, and inventory can facilitate intense engagement with the nexus of media and religion. Perhaps nowhere else are American Jews so thoroughly involved in issues arising from this interrelation than in these works of personal media. Indeed, I...

  10. 5 A Stranger among Friends
    (pp. 185-229)

    One December in the mid-1980s, I received a greeting card unlike any I had ever seen before. On its cover was a photograph of a bagel, adorned with a bow printed with red and green holly sprigs. Inside the card read, “Oy vay [Oh, woe], another holiday!”¹ I soon discovered other, similar holiday cards for sale in card shops, with new ones appearing in subsequent Decembers. At the same time, I noticed a spate of episodes of prime-time television series in which interfaith couples grappled with what has been termed the “December dilemma”—that is, the coincidence of Christmas and...

  11. 6 The Virtual Rebbe
    (pp. 230-274)

    In the final decades of the twentieth century, one of the most exceptional of the world’s many Jewish communities became one of the most visible. The followers of Lubavitch hasidism, also known as Chabad, were estimated at the end of the twentieth century to number upward of 100,000 worldwide, including some 40,000 in the United States, about half of whom live in the community’s center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.¹ Chabad is thus much smaller than American Jewry’s major religious denominations (the largest, Reform Judaism, reported over 1,500,000 members at the turn of the millennium) or nonreligious organizations (Hadassah, the largest...

  12. New Media/New Jews? An Afterword
    (pp. 275-282)

    While working on the preceding chapters—emailing queries to colleagues, combing the Internet for resources, listening to music downloaded onto my iPod, ignoring my cell phone—I have also had contemporary questions about the impact of new media on the religious life of American Jews very much in mind. The case studies examined inJews, God, and Videotapewill, I hope, offer insights into how to analyze this unfolding phenomenon. Here, in closing, are some thoughts to that end.

    So often, the first responses to new media tend toward extremes and frequently use religious imagery in doing so. These new...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 283-322)
  14. Index
    (pp. 323-340)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 341-341)