Can You Hear Me Now?

Friday, May 23, 2008
Special to the Jewish Week

Is there such a thing as “virtual closeness?”

As I write, my married son and his wife are in Israel for the year, my older daughter is living in Manhattan, my younger daughter is in Poland with her senior class and about to depart for Israel for a year, and one son remains at home.

As I get older and my children move, one by one, inexorably away from the nest, I find that what I crave the most is having them all in the same place at the same time. It is increasingly rare to achieve my favorite actualization of that longing- to have them all sitting around our Shabbat dinner table, like the fruitful vine that the ancient psalmist envisioned.

I find it the harshest realization of aging. Though it is the way of nature, watching them leave one by one nonetheless reflects a loss of something more precious than words, a stage of life that can never be reclaimed.

More than any generation that has ever lived, ours is blessed with technology that “connects” us to those who are far away, in immediate and previously inconceivable ways. I can be on top of an ancient shrine in Teotihuacán in Mexico and call my wife in her office in Manhattan, as I did on my cell phone a few years ago (just to make her a bit jealous…). I can video-skype with my children in Jerusalem, e-mail one daughter, g-chat the other…. Yes indeed, the technology is amazing and awe-inspiring, but at the end of the day, it’s all “virtual” contact, lacking the immediacy of a good hug, or a sweet kiss.

And, of course, the same technology that enables this “virtual connection” also enslaves people like me in our work lives. It used to be the case that one could be unreachable occasionally, and the world somehow continued to spin on its axis. Even rabbis. But these days, there is no such thing as being unreachable. Data phones, laptops, wifi…. Is one ever alone? It is so ironic to me that the same technology that works so hard to connect us in positive ways has also served to deprive us of any solitude. The technology is wonderful, but not redemptive.

I increasingly hear discussions of the potential for technology to bring people together, and it sounds wonderful.

People are talking about “virtual minyans” to connect the home-bound to a synagogue service (but can you say kaddish from your bedroom when the minyan is somewhere else?), and, of course, using teleconferencing to more effectively reach those who might never be able to come to a convention. But in both cases, it seems to me that something precious is lost without the human contact and sociability that are part of real encounters.

All in all, I’d rather have all this imperfect technology than not have it. Like so many people, e-mail is my primary means of communication for work, and my iPhone enables me to actually do work no matter where I am. But when all is said and done, I’d still like to have my kids around the Shabbat table….

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