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In our age of digitized this, that and the other thing, I often wonder -- and worry -- about the kinds of sources that will be available to future generations. What will become of history, as we know it? Will the chroniclers of the 21st century have materials to draw on as they take the measure of American Jewish life?

Cel-ray
Cel-ray. Flickr/jojomelons

If this week was any indication, there’s little cause for concern. American Jewish history is kept alive and well and nourished by those in the food business, from Russ & Daughters in New York to DGS Delicatessen in D.C.

To set the bar high (yes, bad pun intended), consider the New Yorker, which just published a piece about the debut of Russ & Daughters Cafe, whose décor as well as bill of fare celebrates the Lower East Side of yesteryear. "The Café is a master class in how to court both the old and the new, imbued with a hard-earned air of authority and gorgeously designed to pay detailed homage to Russ & Daughters’ history,” the magazine noted admiringly.

And then, on the heels of the New Yorker article, came word, courtesy of a former student, of the latest offering from DGS Delicatessen in D.C.: Delicatessen After Dark, which this past week paid its own version of homage to the summer resorts of the Catskills, or more to the point, to the steady round of alcoholic libations its Jewish patrons reportedly imbibed while around the pool, in the dining room and late at night while laughing away at the comic antics of aspiring performers. “Delicatessen After Dark,” its website explains, “is a celebration of the new delicatessen drinking culture inspired by our grandparents’ long nights in Lower East Side taverns, getaways to Florida and jazzy escapades to the Catskills.”

Drinking culture? I was under the impression that our ancestors were more inclined towards quaffing seltzer and variously flavored sodas, among them black cherry, cream and Cel-Ray tonic than spirits.

But no matter. Future generations, curious about the everyday lives of their forbears, can now look to restaurants and their proprietors for the details. They’re the ones, after all, who are most zealously tending to the flame of history.

I returned home this weekend from an intellectually stimulating visit to Vanderbilt University only to learn that my cherished refrigerator, once the very last word in technological sophistication, was on its last legs, its gentle and familiar purr now scratchy and uneven. Its imminent demise threw me for a loop.

Albert Dorne 1948 illustration
1948 ad. Flickr/pds209

What unsettled me wasn’t the prospect of having to throw out scads of food, now gone bad. After all, I was never one of those efficient balebustas who cooked soups and stews and compotes in advance and then froze them. In fact, a long running joke in the family was the disconnect between the ample size of the refrigerator and the slim pickings that typically resided inside.

In our house, the refrigerator functioned more like a billboard than a cooling system, its exterior pockmarked with tickets for and announcements of various cultural events. The disparity between the manifest and latent functions of our refrigerator even prompted a wonderful bon mot from my father who, observing the many pieces of paper which had taken root on the outside of our refrigerator, remarked that we clearly needed a bigger one.

Throwing me into a tizzy was the prospect of having to purchase a new appliance. In the many years since the last (and only) time I had had a conversation about what kind of refrigerator to call my own, the universe of options expanded exponentially. You now need a scorecard to sort out the range of possibilities, which include refrigerators with French doors and refrigerators with side-by-side doors; refrigerators that dispense ice and even refrigerators that keep Shabbat. When programmed in “Sabbath mode,” the doors of this uniquely sensitive appliance can be opened "without concern of directly turning on or off any lights, digital readouts, solenoids, fans, valves, compressors, icons, tones or alarms."

Daunted and nearly defeated, I’m put in mind of the difficulties early generations of consumers no doubt faced when it came to purchasing an icebox or their very first Frigidaire. In a strange concatenation of events, one that blurs the line between the professional and the private, I was just about to begin work on a guest lecture about the immigrant kitchen and the many challenges -- both technological and cultural -- its inhabitants faced, when my longstanding and faithful refrigerator gave up the ghost.

The lecture, I’m afraid, will have to keep. A trip to P.C. Richards awaits.

Many, many years ago, when I was a graduate student in history at Columbia, aspiring historians like me were inclined to give the university’s computer center a wide berth. It wasn’t just that the place was downright inhospitable: noisy, freezing cold, airless and even a tad scary. It was also a matter of illiteracy. Much as I tried, I simply could not summon up the requisite digital skills.

DEC 10 main frame computer operations at BYU -- Circa 1969
DEC 10 main frame computer operations at BYU, c. 1969. Flickr/arbyreed

If you had told me way back when that, someday, I would be involved with a project that sought to deploy the latest digital technology in the study and teaching of Jewish history and culture, I would have laughed myself silly.

But lo & behold, there I was earlier this week, back on Morningside Heights to participate in a remarkable initiative, the New Media in Jewish Studies Collaborative, whose objective, among other things, is to energize the discipline of Jewish Studies through the sustained and thoughtful use of the latest digital tools.

I came away from my two day campus visit in the company of web savvy colleagues, dedicated teachers and the imaginative technologists of Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching & Learning all agog about the possibilities of enriching my teaching and, in turn, the experiences of my students were I to engage more fully -- and strategically -- with the marvels of the digital universe. I also acquired a brand new vocabulary, whose lingo ran the gamut from “multi-modal presentation” and “web-based environment” to “digital assets,” “demo-ing” and “chase the zoom,” a reference to a practice particular to Prezi.

I can’t wait to brandish these new words. More to the point, I look forward with keen anticipation to putting them to good use and, with a battery of technologists by my side, to coming up with ways to enlarge my students’ capacity for wonder. Here’s to revelation, ca. 2013!

The recent revelation that iTunes has created an “app” that seems to substitute for confession underscores the power of technology to redefine the very notion of ritual practice.

So, too, has “Tweet Your Prayers,” in which electronic kvitlakh, or personal petitions, can be sent to the kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, via twitter, or www.e-daf.com, in which the age-old custom of studying a page of Talmud a day can now be handily accomplished online.

iTalmud
iTalmud. Aaron Freedman/Flickr.
Whatever will they think up next?!

More to the point, perhaps, what are we to make of these newfangled phenomena? Should we embrace them? Hold them at arm’s length? Or simply shrug our shoulders and give them a pass?

I, for one, would have wanted to know what Charles Silberman would have made of it all. The author, among other things, of A Certain People: American Jews and their Lives Today (1985), Mr. Silberman, a longtime Upper West Sider with a keen and discerning eye, died recently in Florida at the age of 86.

I had the pleasure and privilege of spending time in his company at a secular humanist conference in Detroit several years ago where the two of us -- for different reasons -- felt like fish out of water. Our mutual sense of perplexity brought us together and for a while, in the wake of the conference, we kept in touch.

But then one thing or another got in the way -- his relocation to Florida, my comings and goings between New York and Princeton and D.C. -- and that was that.

I never did get around to asking Mr. Silberman where he stood on the digitization of Jewish life, but I suspect that, in his gentle but firm manner, he would have aptly taken its measure, totted up its strengths and limitations and then made a case for the importance of actually being there -- in the belly of community.

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