Vacating the premises
This week's portion: relationship, work, self

J-blog Q-and-A

We're back from our holiday. Coastal Maine is, unsurprisingly, very beautiful. And now, a return to our usual VR programming...!

A while back I did an e-mail interview with Lauren Breslin, who writes for The Canadian Jewish News, "Canada's largest weekly Jewish newspaper." Lauren's article about the J-blogosphere, which arose out of conversations with several different J-bloggers, ran in the August 24th edition of the CJN; if you're interested in reading it, it's available for download [.pdf], and the article is on pages B6 and B7. Meanwhile, Lauren graciously gave me permission to reprint the interview here.


What, in your opinion, constitutes a j-blog?

This reminds me of the perennial question "what defines Jewish literature?" which was an obsession of mine through part of my [first] grad school career. (For what it's worth, after spending a term studying that question in-depth, the best answer I could come up with was, "Jewish subject matter counts; Jewish authorship counts; use of Jewish themes and tropes count; but mostly what counts is a kind of indefinable Jewish neshama, such that we 'know it when we see it.'")

Similarly, in this case I would say that if a blog focuses on Judaism and Jewish subjects (which might include Torah, Jewish texts, Jewish literature, Jewish culture, ritual, liturgy, customs, Jewish life) it is a J-blog. If it's written by a Jew but doesn't focus on anything Jewish, it might not be a J-blog per se; if it focuses on Judaism but is written by an outsider, it might still be a J-blog. There's a sense in which the blogger's passion for Judaism is what defines a J-blog, rather than the blogger's official religious identity.

Would you agree that, with the growing popularity of j-blogs, the Jewish community is more connected than ever before?

Absolutely. The blogosphere enables the Jewish community to form tremendous connections and interconnections, and I think that's fantastic.

If so, do you think J-blogs connect the Jewish community in a meaningful way?

I think J-blogs have the capacity to connect the Jewish community in a meaningful way. Which is not to say that this always works; it's certainly possible to form superficial relationships online, just as it is in-person. But I think J-blogs open the possibility of meaningful connection in a way that wasn't there before.

For instance, I read about 80 J-blogs on a daily basis. Some of these are written by Reform Jews; some by Conservative Jews; some by Reconstructionist and Orthodox Jews. Some are written by self-described ba'alei teshuvah; some are written by self-described mitnagdim; some are written by self-described secular or humanist Jews. I engage in conversations on a lot of these blogs. So on any given day, I'm engaging in conversation with my fellow Jews truly across the religious spectrum. I think that's fairly unprecedented.

For example, is it possible that J-blogs contribute to Jewish identity building, or a deeper understanting of what it means to be a Jew?

Absolutely yes. Certainly blogging has helped to shape my Jewish identity. As I strive to write clearly and cogently about issues within Judaism that matter to me, I articulate my thoughts both to myself and to the greater community around me, and that's a valuable process.

What do j-blogs offer young, curious Jews that either the mainstream media or the "real" world (face-to-face conversation) does not?

J-blogs can offer a "safe" way for people on the fringes of organized Judaism -- young people; unaffiliated people; people who aren't certain that organized Judaism is for them; those who question Judaism; those who may be intermarried or interdating -- to dip into the Jewish world, to meet passionate and interesting people, and to begin wrestling with the question of their own Jewish identity. Walking into a synagogue for the first time if you don't know anyone, or don't know the local customs, or aren't sure you know how the prayerbook goes, can be terrifying; clicking over to somebody's blog is a much smaller commitment. It's an open door, a way to welcome people in.

How are blogs a safe space for people to explore their Jewishness or Jewish issues? What other purposes do you think j-blogs serve for the Jewish community at large?

I think I just answered the first part of that question...

As far as other purposes go -- J-blogs have the capacity to serve the community in a variety of ways. They offer virtual spaces for Torah study (broadly defined), they archive and preserve an ongoing conversation about what it means to be Jewish in this day and age, and they provide a platform where passionate, engaged Jews can enter into dialogue about what our Jewishness means to us. Many young Jews seem to feel that the organizations which served our parents' and grandparents' generations don't necessarily speak to our needs or to the ways in which we want to enact  our Jewishness; in the blogosphere we can speak up about what we want Judaism to be, we can work together on shaping the Judaism to come.

Is there a social impact of Jewish blogging?

I hope so. There are some terrific Jewish blogs dedicated to social action and justice work -- check out JSpot, run by Jewish Funds for Justice. Jewish blogging can be a consciousness-raising tool. Blogs can be self-referential and self-obsessed, but J-blogs necessarily engage with the Jewish tradition of looking beyond oneself and striving to repair the world; as Rabbi Akiva famously said, "Which is better, study or action? Study -- if it leads to action."

What is the advantage of blogging over traditional newspapers or magazines?

The interactivity of blogging is what sets it apart from traditional mainstream media. Blogging allows the disenfranchised to have a voice, and the very medium -- hyperlinks, trackbacks, and so on -- encourages interactivity. A blog post written in a vacuum, however interesting, might not be that different from a piece of ordinary journalism; a blog post written in response to another blog post, or which references other blog posts, or which includes links to other posts and other resources, is automatically part of a conversation.

That's what I love most about the blogosphere: the sense that I'm constantly in conversation with so many people. I live in a small town where the Jewish community is terrific but limited; through my blog-reading, and my blog-commeting, and the email correspondences which have arisen through my reading and commenting, I'm in ongoing dialogue with Jews of every stripe around the world all the time.

Is nothing sacred in the j-blogosphere?

I wouldn't say that. It's a great soundbyte, but I actually think plenty of things are sacred in the blogosphere -- the same kinds of things that are sacred in "real life." Jews who blog, like Jews who don't, are engaged in a search for meaning. In my end of the J-blogosphere, anyway, relationships are sacred; creation is sacred; our texts are sacred.

That doesn't mean that we don't occasionally fall into snark or unpleasant conversation; bloggers are human just like everybody else. And I'm not sure we'd all agree on which texts are sacred, or what "sacred" means in that context. (You know the old adage: where there are two Jews, there are three opinions.) But I think it's facile to say that because we connect over the internet, we're necessarily secular or secularizing.

What are the downsides, if any, to the proliferation of j-blogs?

I don't see any downsides, personally. The more, the merrier! Naturally as more people enter the world of J-blogging, evolving hierarchy is inevitable; some blogs are going to be better-read, others will have fewer readers. But even so, I think there's the capacity for community-building and networking across the J-blog world. I wish there were more Jewish bloggers, particularly outspoken religiously-liberal Jews to balance the religiously-conservative slant of some parts of the Jewish blogosphere.

How and why did you get involved in blogging? 

[Full disclosure: I'm recycling this answer from an interview that Faithful Progressive did with me a while back.]

I started Velveteen Rabbi in October of 2003. I'd been working on a nonfiction manuscript about Jewish rituals, a combination memoir and how-to manual which attempted to interweave my personal story with background information on the round of the Jewish year and tips on writing one's own prayers and rituals. After working on the book for three years, I realized that the whole first draft was a "ladder" into the book -- which is to say, in the process of writing and researching it I'd learned enough to actually begin the work! I couldn't quite face  the thought of beginning a rewrite at that point -- I was tired of the solitariness of that process, and I wanted to be connecting with people and engaging in dialogue about religion in general and Judaism in particular -- so I figured, hey, why not start a blog? I hoped it would keep me thinking and writing regularly about Judaism, with the added bonus of conversation with readers.

Tell me a bit about your blog.

I blog about the wheel of the Jewish year (festivals and observances), liturgy (musings on our prayers and how they came to be what they are; also on the nature of prayer), Jewish texts (Torah; sometimes Talmud; sometimes contemporary Jewish books), community work (pastoral care), rabbinic school (my coursework and training). I try to strike a balance so that my blog posts will be accessible to a variety of readers, but in-depth enough to hold the interest of other folks who are engaged in Jewish life. I do my best to respond to comments, either on-blog or via e-mail, and I try to keep conversations civil and comfortable; my blog feels a little bit like my livingroom, where a group of friends from around the world can regularly gather to talk about this subject about which we are all passionate.

What types of people have you met through blogging that you might not otherwise have met?

Oh, boy, this could be a long list! Here is a very abbreviated version: my circle of online friends now includes Soen Joon Sunim, an American-born Korean Buddhist nun now living in Korea; Chris Tessone, an independent Catholic seminarian; Gordon Atkinson, a Baptist preacher in San Antonio; Aviel Barclay, a soferet (female scribe) in Vancouver; Talmida, a woman teaching herself Biblical Hebrew in Canada. I've met many of these folks in person now, after corresponding regularly through our blogs, though there are dozens of others who I only know virtually. All of these people have enriched my personal and religious life, and we never would have crossed paths were it not for blogging.

Who are some of your favourite Jewish bloggers? 

Danya Ruttenberg -- Danya Ruttenberg
The team at Radical Torah -- Radical Torah
The team at JSpot -- JSpot
Jonathan Edelstein -- Head Heeb
Mah Rabu -- Mah Rabu
Rabbi Rami Shapiro -- Toto
Aviel Barclay -- Soferet

If you asked for a list of who I think are the most popular or most-well-read Jewish bloggers, it would be a different list... :-)

Where do you think j-blogs are headed in the future?

I hope the future of J-blogging will include more varied Jewish voices. Part of the J-blogosphere's strength is the way it showcases so many different ways of being Jewish in the world -- and it allows us to form connections with one another although our Jewish practice and beliefs may differ. I hope that trend continues, and strengthens in ways I can't even imagine.

Technorati tags: , , .