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Jewish World Review
Sept. 14, 2004
/ 28 Elul 5764
Thank Heaven for the simple, spiritual life
Ari L. Goldman
What a former religion reporter for The New York Times has come to appreciate about the oppressiveness of his religion
Growing up Orthodox, there were few things we feared more than the three-day yom tov that oddity of the Jewish calendar that juxtaposed a festival with a Sabbath, giving us a stretch of days we called "the triple whammy." For us, it meant three days with no radio, no records, no television, no telephone, no travel and no shopping.
As a series of three-day yom tovs approaches this year, however, I actually find myself looking forward to the experience. The first comes with Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 16-17), followed by Sukkos (Sept. 30-Oct. 1) and Simchas Torah and Shmini Atzeres (Oct. 7-8). Each observance is lengthened one day by the Sabbath that follows it.
It's not only that I'm an adult and have come to appreciate what once was oppressive. It's not only that I have a family of my own that I want to savor for an extra day. The main reason that I look forward to nine days of yom tov in the coming weeks is the galloping growth of technology in our daily lives.
It is relentless. I easily get a hundred e-mails a day. And there's no escaping it. I've got a desktop at work, a laptop when I travel and another desktop at home. Between the five of us in our family, there are six computers, five cell phones, two Palm Pilots and two Ipods. My children, with earphones in place, remind me of Secret Service agents. Someone's phone is always ringing, or, if not, beeping to let us know that a message is waiting.
When we had to give up television for three-day yom tovs 40 years ago, it meant giving up three channels. Now there are 300. TV is a constant barrage of entertainment and information. And even if we manage to limit it at home, it's at the airport, in stores, in hotels, in the office, even in school. News comes at us at a rapid pace, from the radio, from our phones, even from news zippers on top of taxicabs. FOX and CNN have taken the pleasure out of reading a daily newspaper. We know what happened well before it lands on our doorstep.
Israelis, who manage to escape most three-day yom tovs because of their one-day observance of most festivals, will get a taste of it this Rosh Hashanah, which is two days everywhere. Judging from my Israeli relatives, they're even more in need of a high-tech break than we Americans are. They had cell phones long before we did. Their obsession with the news makes us look like amateur news junkies.
My extended family spent Passover in Israel last April and, like other Modern Orthodox families, were swayed by a newly popular rabbinic ruling that diaspora Jews visiting Israel did not have to observe the second day of yom tov. At first it seemed like a relief, but I soon realized what a diaspora Jew I am. I actually missed the second seder.
We won't be in Israel for the coming holidays, so bring on the triple whammys. As Sabbath observers, we already know what it is to unplug for a day. Two days is unusual, but three is almost imaginable. I can't wait. I've got my holiday reading all lined up. And I'll read it in book form old-fashioned paper between two hard covers and not on my Palm. I can't wait to pick up The Times in the morning, see a headline and declare, "I didn't know that!" I look forward to a family meal uninterrupted by the ringing or beeping of a telephone. I want to talk to my children without waiting for them to press the "Stop" button.
The challenge, of course, is to try to have some of the three-day yom tov spirit permeate the rest of our lives. Rosh Hashanah represents new beginnings, so maybe we can change our daily behavior and not race after every message. ... But, wait, there goes my cell phone and my computer just dinged with a new message and I've got to catch the latest news and play my favorite album. … Thank G-d for triple whammys.
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Ari L. Goldman teaches journalism and is the dean of students at Columbia University Journalism School. He welcomes your comments. To send a message, please click here.
© 2004, Ari L. Goldman. This column first appeared in the New York Jewish Week.