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Empty Frames

This morning, I posted a video from Aish

Holiday video fever is very high here at EdibleTorah HQ after this Facebook post appeared a few days ago on the Maccabeats fan page:

  The Maccabeats
It’s about time we release a new video, what do you think?

I believe the release of a Rosh Hashanah is imminent. Other groups have realized the buzz created by the Maccabeats, and that this is not a “you-win-I-lose” competition. When it comes to Jewish videos it is definitely a case of “the more the merrier”.

When I saw that Aish had created their own video, I didn’t think too deeply about it. I just copied, clicked and posted. Yes, I watched it first but not with a critical eye. (Since I’m getting up at 5am these days, it is more of a bleary eye.)

Not thinking turned out – as it usually does – to be a mistake. As it turns out, my Rabbi, an insightful, sincere and eminently thoughtful person reads my blog. He was, to put it bluntly, not impressed.

“This one made me feel empty inside. Its apparent purpose of exciting people about Rosh Hashana. But the words are meaningless because the actual message of the video is actually false. The Rastafarian Aish newbie points out that Rosh Hashana is boring. According to his standards, after the three-minute dance clip, it will still be boring. […] Seriously, is anyone expected to walk away from that video appreciating Rosh Hashana or even looking forward to it on any level?”

He’s right. I re-watched it and, while I have a huge respect for Aish HaTorah – the content on their website, the staff that lives in my city, the classes I’ve attended – this was a bit of a stinker.

So what’s my take-away message for Elul here?

First, that I need to be more thorough. Not just in what I post, but in monitoring what I say and do and generally “put out there” in the world. This month I need to consider all the times my hasty actions have led to results which were sloppy, wrong or (worst of all) hurtful. That’s not just me being all bloggy-preachy-wishy-washy. I – Leon Adato of EdibleTorah – shot my mouth off more times than I can count in the last year and some real live people I know were hurt for it.

al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha b’vitui s’fatayim – for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.

My second Elul take away is that it’s done now. Moving on. Aish, with all the good they have done, can make a bad video. It happens to the best of us. Remember Ishtar? That extends beyond Aish (or even big Hollywood movie studios). It also counts for me. In this month of Elul, as I look back at my mis-steps and ill-advised actions I need to remember that once I recognize what happened and have acted to correct it, I need to forgive myself and not so much forget as keep in mind that it’s in the past.

For those who are interested, here is my Rabbi’s entire response:

“Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem”, a youtube video, officially produced and distributed by Aish Hatorah, was recently forwarded to me. I watched it and felt sad for Klal Yisrael. Let me explain.

Do Jews do pop and reggae tunes? Sure. I am familiar with Matisyahu etc. I can get some Shlock Rock on. Have people been producing video pieces of candy to remind people about an upcoming YomTov? Sure, they’re short, innocent enough, like the one of the fellow who blows his shofar to open his garage door.

This one made me feel empty inside. Its apparent purpose of exciting people about Rosh Hashana. But the words are meaningless because the actual message of the video is actually false. The rastafarian Aish newbie points out that Rosh Hashana is boring. According to his standards, after the three minute dance clip, it will still be boring. The attempt to grab my attention is just so absurdly transparent that I felt used.  Just because these half a dozen bochurim (or guys dressed like bochurim) do these dance moves does not make Rosh Hashana any more interesting or exciting. Is rockin’ and breakdancing what we should be doing on RH itself? Well, no. So all we’re left with is a case of “Look at these cool moves I learned before I was frum/from a Ba’al Teshuvah.” Seriously, is anyone expected to walk away from that video appreciating Rosh Hashana or even looking forward to it on any level?

Even that sexually suggestive Shabbat.com video, while inappropriate from an honest Tznius standard, did convey that Shabbos is, or should be beautiful. Pure performers grasp this. Matisyahu is not committed to Klal Yisrael’s education. He’s a performer. Yet even his lyrics inspire. Another case in point: The trendy and meaningful card was played masterfully by the Maccabeets last Chanuka, as millions know. Could that not have been attempted? If Aish could not pull that off because the skill was just not there, then is this substitute worth it? Nope. And this is AISH. They’re not supposed to be cool to be cool. There is supposed to be a point!

What did this RH video do for God, Torah, Mitzvos, enhanced Rosh Hashana meaning, or even the very very low-ball goal of Jewish pride? Nothing at all. People, myself included, have defended Aish against all sorts of conversational attacks for years. The argument has always been that the packaging might be all “Look! We’re trendy and sexy.”, and that might and should be a turnoff to already frum people who disdain the fleeting and often-trashy trends of the modern world-at-large. But at least when you opened the packaging, i.e. removed the gloss, there was actually a message, small though it might be because they don’t want to overwhelm the systems of their uber-assimilated target audience. But this? There is nothing underneath except more wrapping paper. The wrapping is toxic and there is no gift. I have the capacity to appreciate the policy of some in the kiruv world that “Yatza Hefseido B’Scharo”, “The Loss is offset by the reward”. But give me some reward!

2 Responses to “Empty Frames”

  1. Jack Goldhoffer says:

    With all due respect to your rabbi (BTW, his opinion would be taken much more seriously if it wasn’t anonymous), I think he totally misses the point. The Aish film has only one goal: To get people to click and visit the Aish.com website, where there is tons of real Torah. It’s a simple one-step connection. That’s how the Internet works. Ergo, that’s how kiruv works today.

    • leon says:

      Jack: Thanks for the reply! The anonymization was my fault – I just didn’t include it in his quote (the post was already long enough). You can find more information about and by Rabbi Raphael Davidovich here.

      With that out of the way, I appreciate your main point but I think that’s setting the bar awfully low. They already spent a lot of time and money creating a video with high production values, why skimp on the script? From where I sit, having a video that’s relatively empty *might* get clicks, but having one with good music, some hot dance moves AND a good (relevant) message would result in MORE clicks.

      Compare this video to their Google Passover” video. The former was cute, modern, relevant AND had more than a passing nod to the holiday in question – even if you didn’t know the Haggadah by heart, you could still be intrigued by why Moses would buy that many frogs on eBay.

      Meanwhile there was (as R. Davidovich points out) not much Rosh Hashana in this RH video. A couple of lyrics and that’s it. Not a shofar, siddur, apple or honey in any of the frames. If you turned down the sound, it’s really just a hip hop video that does more to promote great sites in Jerusalem than it does Rosh Hashana.

      Again, I think the question is whether Aish could have set the bar higher on this one. I’m inclined to agree with the Rabbi that they could.

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