A musical interlude

Religion makes people feel awkward. It even makes me feel awkward and I’m going to be a Rabbi! Some of that awkwardness is Britishness, a discomfort with talking about feelings, emotion and passions publicly or generally sharing things others feel are private matters. Some of it is an intellectual discomfort, am I really seriously talking about religion and God and stuff as a thinking (scientifically educated!) person in the 21st century? Some of that discomfort is because people worry that perhaps someone else is going to try and convert them, or they think that being religious means being intolerant or backwards in some way. For all those reasons, and many more, those of us working in the world of religious identity now and in the future sure have our work cut out!

Given this environment, I’m fascinated by the things that enable people to unashamedly and happily express themselves. In my community it takes two main forms. Social justice work and music. I work in a synagogue that hosts a local muslim community for Ramadan prayers every night at the moment. We held the first Jewish same-sex marriage. We were the first synagogue to go living wage. Social justice work has enabled our community members to grow in confidence and pride.

The other, more surprising perhaps, outlet for identity is through music. I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the most musically inclined, but music has an undeniable power to engage, inspire, enlighten and energise communities and to help individuals and groups express themselves and connect to others in quite incredible ways. I’ve spent the past few days singing and learning with a group of musicians from the US who are at the forefront of teaching and writing Jewish music* and watching how the group of young people I’ve been working with over the years have found form and voice for their values and identity through the music they’ve been learning and writing.

The first person to really ‘get’ this in the context of modern Jewish community was a woman called Debbie Friedman. Inspired by the music of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and others, she brought folk singing and liturgy together, creating an entire new vocabulary for Jewish life and practise. At Limmud in 2010 she kept us up singing until 4am on the floor of the bar for several nights in a row and seemed to have an invincible energy. She sadly died two weeks later, but having almost single-handedly re-composed the entirety of Jewish liturgy and beyond her music is still sung everywhere.

Debbie wrote the music she needed to sing, and inspired generations to do the same. It’s a powerful statement about how community builds when people share that which they are passionate about and enable others to find commonality.

So, on that (musical) note, here’s what that community looks and sounds like in practice:

*Its important for me to note that this isn’t necessarily religious music, a lot of it is secular or folk music, contemporary Israeli music or music without words (called a niggun).

Each one of us has a name…

Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky was a poet. Born in Russia in 1914 she immigrated to mandate Palestine at the age of 12. The daughter and granddaughter of famous Hassidic Rabbis (a mystical form of ultra-orthodox Judaism) she lived a life of ultra-Orthodox life, yet her poetry means she rose to prominence beyond what many/any would expect a woman from a closed religious community to be able to.

I want to talk about one of her poems in particular. Entitled לכל איש יש שם (Everyone has a name) it is one of those poems that has stuck with me since childhood:

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles
and given to him by his clothing.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbours.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him by his death.

Zelda’s words touch at the heart of the issues of identity and circumstance I’ve been exploring. Each of us has names afforded to us by our actions, contexts, conversations, roles and relationships. Those names may well differ from place to place, but in their entirety they make up our selves.

Reflecting on the nature of identity that I’ve explored to date I notice how the discourse around identity as performance doesn’t really talk about how the ‘audience’ receives or understands that identity. The assumption is that which is produced by the ‘performer’ is that which is experienced by the other and my sense is that this misses something. Zelda’s poem observes that the identities we hold aren’t just given to us by the way we construct ourselves in particular situations, but the way that others experience us and our actions.

———————–

On a totally unrelated side note, this is what the end of my evening sounded like:

Dogs and hot cars?

Some things just don’t go well together- socks and sandals, peanut butter and marmite, dogs and hot cars, but what about education and social media? The combination of the two sends shivers down the spines of many a teacher, igniting fears about privacy, boundaries, safety and regulation of online spaces, consent, misuse and so on.

If my MA has taught me anything its that, for better or worse, the zeitgeist in the tech world invariably finds its way into educational discourse. Mobile computing, virtual reality, and now web 2.0 with social media a key expression of its values. It makes sense, classrooms are communications technologies in their own right, and as the dynamics and character of broader social interactions change, its understandable that those interested in holistic, empowered and communicative forms of education are also interested in social media. 

That doesn’t mean its an easy fit, its complicated (although new purpose built social networking tools for educational settings are easing this somewhat) and also disruptive as web 2.0 principles challenge conventional classroom hierarchies.  

Leaving aside practicalities, of which there are many to consider, I think there are essential issues at stake. The foremost of these being the contextual value of actions. As Charles Crook observes, “Communication practices do not exist independently of the socio-cultural structures that communicating agents occupy“. In other words, context matters. This manifests itself in regard to things like the practice of collaboratively curating information rather than re-writing it. In the world of the internet, this is commonplace, but in schools where the structures still prioritise individualised assessment and would class curation as plagiarism, it doesn’t fit so well. Similarly, nobody HAS to listen to anybody online. Web 2.0 spaces are flat and somewhat self-regulating. This is fundamentally at odds with traditionally structured  formal learning environments which place the teacher in an elevated position and which often strictly regulate internet use. I also think there are stylistic challenges- when I use the internet for work I’m also usually listening to music and facebook chatting with a friend (I seemingly have a lot in common with the students Cook spoke to!)- and this kind of free rein is a considerable departure from what is permitted in schools. 

Some thoughts:

  • It’s ok to have differences between home and school– children will experience this distinction throughout their lives in the form of a personal/professional identity and home/work spaces and learning that there are different ways of communicating, acting and levels of sharing and social intimacy or informality that exist in these spaces is a good thing to learn.
  • Social technologies can be embedded in a particular community and don’t need to be connected beyond their context to have value- just as some workplaces use social tools such as Yammer to organise work and encourage thought, collaboration, self-publishing etc that utilise social media within a workspace, schools can do something similar without invading student’s private social spaces.
  • Informal learning environments which rely on peer community and material equally have a lot to gain from using social media– groups that form around learning such as sports teams, music groups, coding clubs, youth movements etc avoid some of the challenges that schools might face when wanting to go social. Whereas I find myself wondering how many kids really want to willingly spend their Monday night’s on the school’s instant messaging service talking about how cool their homework is, I don’t have the same concerns about how many kids want to learn new Judo moves, share sports skills, arts techniques etc.

Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy and the strange world of internet identities

UPDATE: This is getting silly. A week after writing this I can now list 3 more friends and 2 organisations who’ve had their profiles disabled because of this policy. FB insists they’re not on a drive but thats beginning to sound dubious…

————

/u/chooter/ was fired this week from reddit and sent the ‘front page of the internet’ into meltdown.

When @Zozeebo tweets a link to a video, thousands of teenagers race to be one of the first 301 people to view it before youtube begins verifying views.

From LulzSec, Solo and Dark Dante to Berkeley Blue and Oaf Tobar, hackers are shaping our economic, social and political landscape.

What all these people have in common is an internet identity tied to a community, strongly expressed through their actions online that differs from their ‘real world’ name. Forums and online communities have long offered users the chance to define their online identity through their choice of user name. Those usernames, especially for individuals who contribute significantly to the life of online communities become synonymous with their character and within the shared language of internet socialisation, don’t seem to impede the building of relationships. It’s the ultimate example of a performed identity, the username or avatar construction becomes a vehicle for someone’s self to the point where they and their avatar are indistinguishable.

My own username history (including the infamous pre-teen buffy_angel_spike_4eva) reflects my growing sense of self and construction of my online life, but usernames do a lot more than communicate your interests (@iluvonedirectionomgwtf) or appearance (@talldarkandhandsome), they also enable people to try on new identities or genders and to hide from real-world dangers. It’s this particular facet of identity that is proving newsworthy.

I was prompted to post as a friend just shared this on facebook:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 17.43.30

A public individual with an impressive career in the digital world, he has clearly been reported to Facebook under what they call their ‘real names’ policy. This controversial part of Facebook’s terms of service requires users to go by the name they use in the real world and which they can prove with official documentation. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg’s justification for this is that “There are a lot of online communities that are separated from reality and the world. That we ask everyone to use their real name kind of grounds it to reality and ties it back to the person’s real identity,”. Whilst his point is interesting and in some ways represents the appeal of facebook to me, its not a generalisable principle for a number of reasons:

  • The ‘real world’ name someone has is not always the name they wish to be known by. This causes particular harm to members of the transgender community whose legal or documented gender may not correspond with their felt gender and for whom mis-naming and therefore often mis-gendering can cause harm. In that sense requiring someone to go by a documented ‘real’ name that they do not identify with is a form of violence.
  • Requiring ‘real names’ has become particularly problematic for the Native American community, with a number of individuals experiencing account shutdowns on facebook as users report their names (e.g. Shane Creepingbear) as ‘fake’. This is discriminatory.
  • Individuals who have been stalked or abused may wish to be able to hide from those who committed crimes against them, and using a real world name online makes them vulnerable.
  • Professionals in high profile or responsible positions e.g. musicians, doctors, politicians, journalists who receive a lot of attention are vulnerable to invasions of privacy if they can be found online. This can also expose their friends and family to unwarranted attention or invasion of their personal lives.

There are some fundamental problems with Facebook’s explanation:

  • It conflates offline life with real life as if online identity is bound in the social constructs of offline life.
  • It assumes that online friends aren’t able to connect more than one name or identity expression to a single individual.
  • It makes a value judgement about where authenticity lies and how it can be measured
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the strength of online community that is built through encountering an individual in conversation or exchange rather than through consuming their profile like reading a book.

As I reflect on how my perception of online identity has changed I am surprised that, given the fact that the constructed or performed nature of online socialisation feels socially and intellectually  problematic to me, I find myself wanting to strongly defend the right of people to self-define their identity and particularly their name online. Having said that I’m in little doubt that there’s a responsibility involved here on the part of internet users to be judicious in the way we manage the privilege of anonymity should we wish to avail ourselves of it, as it is misuse of this privilege that threatens our right to have it.

All the world’s a stage, and the internet even more so

Last week I ate dinner with a food blogger. As each dish arrived at our table it was carefully organised and presented, resulting in some rather lovely photos:

It was however quite a stressful experience, and not just because I was starving and the food smelt amazing, but because in that minute the value of the moment wasn’t in the beautiful setting, or the delicious food, but how well those things were translated onto social media. At least we didn’t go as far as some of our friends who went for dinner at Catit in Tel Aviv, a restaurant that has pioneered instagrammable plates (yes, really, click the link if you don’t believe me!).

I shouldn’t be surprised, there’s a wealth of aids out there to assist in producing the perfect image for the internet’s consumption. It’s not just plates, its mini flash bulbs and soft-focus filters for mobile phone lenses, hundreds of photo editing apps and companies who specialise in cleaning up your online reputation. Some of this is as old as time, makeup, reputation management and the like existed before the internet, but the ubiquitousness and time that is invested in it is something novel and still quite bizarre to me.

Obsessive curation/focus on presentation does make sense, as Hannah Arendt (quoted by danah boyd) observed, “everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity.” The internet stretches the notion of widest possible publicity beyond anything Arendt could’ve conceived and so public behaviour which was once confined to traditional public spaces now enjoys few of those boundaries. Thus, as I started to observe in my last post, the expectation of some of the protections afforded by un-recorded or more intimate moments no longer necessarily applies.

The price for nearly always needing to behave online in a way that presupposes the widest possible audience (even if steps are taken by moderating privacy settings etc to try and mange this) is a loss of either candour or the creation of parallel or detached identities. danah boyd observes teenagers creating coded language and second profiles to either hide in plain sight, or to satisfy the needs of multiple audiences. Whilst this works for teenagers, my anecdotal experience tells me that for my peer group (the tail end of the millenial generation) don’t modulate their behaviour in such a way. Some of my friends, mainly doctors and teachers, have opted for code names on social media, but the majority choose to use more private networks e.g. whatsapp and snapchat for the ‘good stuff’ (i.e. salacious gossip) and heavily moderate what is displayed on their social media. Whilst functional, I notice that it creates partial identities, that can appear to be a full self to a casual observer and that can obscure some of the relationship building potential of social media as someone’s real experience of life and that which they project can rapidly become disjointed.

Can Rabbis wear short skirts?

404777_10150498793493958_733731707_n_Fotor_Collage_Fotor

This blog post starts with a playsuit, this playsuit to be exact, worn in a hot and sweaty dance bar on a hot and sweaty night out in Jerusalem last week. The kind of night out where diplomats, journalists and busy professionals go to forget the bomb that killed dozens at the bar up the street ten years ago, or the stabbing at a checkpoint last week or the war that is taking place beyond the Syrian border 3 hours drive north where they’ll be heading to report in a few days time.

These nights, snatches of normality and tequila fuelled moves last seen at a year 7 disco, are sacred. And so, amidst the awkward shuffles of western journalists trying to dance in the desert gear they packed when they thought this city-that-is-sometimes-a-warzone-but-mostly-a-normal-place was the dusty wasteland the 3 minute TV clip makes out, we danced the night away.

The next morning, over breakfast and strong coffee, a friend of a friend asked me a question. “Are there any rules?” she asked, “like, is there a code you have to follow?”. Not exactly the clearest question, and so she clarified. “I guess what I’m saying is that I look to my religious leaders for spiritual guidance, and I’d find it hard to follow a religious leader who didn’t conduct themselves in a moral way”. Ok, interest piqued. I had no idea what she meant, and so I asked her, and she replied. “What I’m really saying is how can you be a Rabbi and wear a playsuit”. 

Ah, so we’re having THAT conversation…

I’ve been focused recently on the construction of online identity and the question of how much identity in online spheres can be read as performance. In doing so I’ve become increasingly aware of the other kinds of performance present in social interaction, and particularly where we present a curated or modified self to others.

The most pervasive and fascinating (for me anyway…) example of this, partly because it straddles the online and offline worlds, is that of fashion and beauty.  And so back to the playsuit. My friend’s friend (I’m not sure her and I are ever going to be friends) was saying a few interesting and I think quite important things:

a.) People make inferences about your values from the way that you dress- In this case the most obvious assumption being made was that I don’t observe (or indeed care for) Judaism’s laws around modesty. And she’d happen to be right-ish. The TL-DR version is basically that women’s bodies are a provocation to men and it is women’s responsibility to cover up so as not to tempt men into sin. I don’t value the part of my tradition which objectifies women- either by saying bodies are a provocation when on display or demanding that they are covered- but that doesn’t mean I don’t value Jewish tradition. For this particular individual, the two are indivisible, but for me the distinction is essential. I see modesty as a question of discretion, but read it as something that is much more to do with behaviour, ‘flashiness’ and what we seek attention for from others than a question of covering enough of our arms or legs. Despite this, it leaves me with a question about how someone reads unexplained public behaviour and what responsibility I have as a leader to account for my actions.

b.) Women in public roles are sexualised, and the onus is often on them to moderate that- It’s not just Jewish tradition that constructs female sexuality as a power that needs to be restrained or managed in the public sphere. Our society is full of examples- women don’t walk, they ‘parade their frames’, newsreaders, ‘flash their legs‘ when wearing short skirts, it’s everywhere (yes, even beyond the mail, it was just an easy target…). Column inches about female politicians are filled with discussions about their hair, shoes, and wardrobe makeovers. Women’s appearance is a public issue and female bodies are public property ripe for discussion and criticism, thus women are told to ‘cover up‘ and manage the public’s response to their bodies. I know that stepping onto the bimah (Jewish version of a pulpit) puts me into this category, and have heard horror stories from female colleagues about the kind of comments that congregants make about their appearance. Observing the internet storm around Rev. Sally Hitchiner’s fashion choices a few years ago (here and here) raised interesting questions about whether the public are able to handle the confluence of fashionable dressing and clerical status. I guess this was my first taste of a much longer conversation ahead…

c.) Private acts (such as wearing a bikini) are often compromised by the eternal presence of cameras and social media- We all (clergy or otherwise) have to be much more careful about what ends up online because there are cameras everywhere. I think this is far more complicated than worrying about a bikini picture ending up online, because its really a conversation about what is deemed wrong or inappropriate about that. Is it the picture itself? Is it what the picture shows? Or is it the forum it is displayed in? I think the answer is probably that the problem arises from the question addressed above, the implicit sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies which is what makes a photo like that ‘inappropriate’. This means I don’t have a principled problem with this kind of picture being online, I think we ought to trust people to be able to cope with the idea of seeing someone in a swimsuit and not reducing them to that image in the rest of their lives, but also would never allow one to be on the internet, because I don’t trust people to do that.

d.) It’s possible to know something is wrong and still be required or choose to go along with it– The bit I’ve figured out the least, because in spite of my quite strong views around the problems with modesty laws, I do often dress modestly out of choice. I love fashion, but also recognise that it suffers from the complex challenges that any predominantly female act of expression faces when it is constructed within a patriarchal society. These challenges include questions about who someone is dressing for, how much (and what kind of) value is placed on aesthetics, how dress is used as a symbol of money and power and how sexuality is express and/or policed. It’s because of this that outside of dingy, hot, sweaty Jerusalem night clubs full of other people with similar professional considerations, I do dress modestly and am judicious about what my curated self (and I would say buying and dressing in fashionable clothing is a kind of curation) is saying to the world.

So, what’s the answer? Can Rabbis wear short skirts? Yes. Should Rabbis wear short skirts? Jury’s out…

ROI-flections

1

Me (far right) and some of my ROI buddies

Described as an “international network of activists and change makers who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens“, the ROI Community is the baby of American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Its aim is to identify and then support and develop young Jewish leaders from around the world who have a vision and a proven track record for creating change in their communities. I’ve spent the past week as one of 150 ROI newbies from around the world who were gathered together for an induction ‘summit’ in Jerusalem and have been reflecting on what I’ve learnt and observed about building a productive and creative network in the digital age.

In person gatherings matter- Taking a step out of the rat race and creating time to reflect and connect with others can feel like a luxury but its fundamental. Shifting perspective and taking the time to have intentional and deep conversations with others provides a level of connection and exploration that is easy to avoid online. There’s a level of responsibility that people feel towards one another through face to face conversation that creates stronger networks and a deeper sense of knowing someone (Levinas was onto something…).

Good tech enhances the potential for connection at events- ROI used the the E-180 Brain Dates platform to enable summit-goers to make the most out of the people around them. Brain dates are targeted meetings based around a series of ‘offers’ and ‘requests’ that people can make on the platform. Its a great way to find out who is at an event with you and to make sure that you aren’t reliant on luck and spontaneous conversation to find those who have overlapping areas of interest or skills. As someone who is not the kind of person who just goes up to random strangers at events I found this a great way to move beyond small talk and have productive and interesting conversations with the people around me.

Even those in the know feel outpaced- We heard a number of times over the week from leaders in the worlds tech and social entrepreneurship. I found it strangely reassuring that even those who have given TED talks, work for google or are on Forbes 30 under 30 lists find the pace of change in the world as frightening as it is exciting!

Content-light programming makes space for great conversations- ROI took much from the principles of unconferencing which can be summed up in the maxim that ‘the sum total of knowledge in the room is greater than that on the stage’. Using open space technology and doing things like flipping panels so that experts sought knowledge from the audience and providing ample time for peer-led sessions created a rich and deep conversation that was led by the interests, knowledge and skills of attendees. Unlike many conferences I’ve been to, I left feeling like I knew the people around me well and that we’d heard more from each other than any speaker talking down to us from a stage.

Online communities need nurturing- ROI understands that online connections can sustain and develop community, but that communities need managing and weaving to maintain their identity and purpose. They do this by providing continued offline opportunities to engage that are woven through the year and through a multitude of social media channels. I’m impressed by the way that livestreaming, carefully curated posting, blogging, webinars, facebook groups and newsletters hold together a large community through the year.

Virtual reality headsets are really cool- Got to play with one of these, it was mind-blowingly awesome.

I’m still a little overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of the experience I had over the last week. The quality of the individuals present, ranging from activists fighting to uncover sexual abuse in their communities, to the creators of the world’s first Yiddish web series, from musicians using EEGs to create guitar beats, to environmentalists singing about poop and people creating communities around baking challah or eating ashkenazi food, was truly extraordinary. It’s also a huge challenge, being part of ROI means having a responsibility to return the investment that The Schusterman Foundation makes in each of us, and that’s daunting.