Contributions from Israel

Like the first Passover, but on Zoom: Jewish rupture and continuity in the days of Covid19

Author: Dr Elad Ben Elul, Digital Anthropologist, Tel Aviv University. Dr Elad Ben Elul specialises in material culture, design ethnography, and documentary filmmaking. His PhD describes privacy practices of urban Ghanaians in a digital age and he is currently lecturing and residing in Israel. You can contact him at Eladbenelul@tau.ac.il.

Fieldsite: Israel

In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other(2011), American psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle describes the situation in which humans have lost various forms of pre-digital communication, and in fact reduced their human experience as a result of the mass “addiction” to technology. Turkle claims that the human race forgot how to be alone and that we surround ourselves with media outlets to make a constant noise and overcome the fear of loneliness. “We create technology to provide the illusion of companionship”, she explains, “without the demands of friendship.” While the crisis she describes purports to paint a picture of all of humanity, it mainly speaks to middle and upper-class people, city dwellers who lead individual lives and spend many hours in homes or offices in front of computer screens.

Quite ironically, the Covid19 epidemic, which brought the entire world to its knees and eliminated the possibility of gathering in physical spaces and holding face-to-face encounters, reversed Turkle’s (and many other internet researchers’) theory. Whatever it marked as a cause of loneliness – nowadays turns out to be a saviour from it, what was labelled as an anti-social or destructive phenomenon – now serves as the main arena for social activity, and what was defined as a violation of our “humanity” – is perhaps the most important tool for demonstrating humanity in this extraordinary times. Everyday relationships with the elderly and the sick in isolation, religious/spiritual activity, educational institutions that continue to exist in the virtual space, economics and commerce, all these and more have moved the bulk of their work from the physical space to the Internet space. Does that mean that Turkle and the pessimistic Internet researchers, also called “techno-sceptical,” have been wrong all along? Should their books be discarded as “expired” sociological commentaries, as the typical rebellious academic likes to do every decade or two?

The truth is that the techno-sceptical Internet researchers were not wrong in quality but in quantity, by presenting their socio-technical theories as an absolute and global reality independent of social, economic, cultural and political circumstances. Covid19 is here to remind every sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher and psychologist that their claims are also subject to time and place. For example, comparative studies of Internet use and social networks, such as “How the World Changed Social Media” have shown that while large groups in Europe and the United States experience the Internet as a space of individualism, narcissism and globalisation, they actually serve as mediums that strengthen community, tribal, tradition, and local power relation in most parts of the world.

And what about the Coronavirus? Does the epidemic itself also have different expressions among different communities? The coronavirus does not spare any community, class, race, religion or gender and therefore receives various and different sociological expressions. The same microscopic cells take on different shapes and forms that correspond to the social structures that preceded it in two major ways: rupture and continuity. Digital cells (binary figures) and virus cells (covid19) are invisible to the human eye but deeply affect the human experience. The following paragraphs are examples for this entanglement, based on the sociological parameters of residence, education, and religion among observant Jewish communities in Israel.

Residence and “house societies”

The transition from public spaces such as streets, public institutions, and shopping centres, to the private and limited space of the home, is perceived as a dramatic rupture by many people, but there are societies that struggle with this transition more than others. While the typical Western middle-class member lives within their nuclear family home, alongside a handful of relatives, other groups such as the ultra-Orthodox communities Jerusalem and Bnei Barak hold most of their routines in crowded spaces and mass gatherings. While the requirement to withdraw into private homes is quite natural for a Tel Aviv resident who works from home on her laptop and orders lunch through a phone app (i.e., continuity), ultra-Orthodox communities are forced to break down lifestyles that include constant gatherings for prayer, eating, and learning (i.e., rupture). Even when they gather in their houses, as families with an average of 7 to 12 children, they usually rely on the fact that most of the children reside in dormitories, as part of their Torah learning.

Haredi (ultra-orthodox) convergence at home becomes even more dramatic when one considers that many members of the community, especially men, do not use technology or smartphones due to religious restrictions, and the option to bridge homes and institutions over the Internet is unfamiliar to them. For the first time, ultra-orthodox families are reported to have subscribed to internet services and migrate their social activity to digital spaces. This stands in sharp contrast to many western cities, where the weather, technology and social structure encourage a prolonged stay of all household members within the private space, which is divided into individual rooms, private screens with unlimited internet, and sometimes even individual toilets and showers.

Working from home with digital technologies, quarantine as a form of continuity for middle-class urbanites

Education and home-schooling

In the field of education, too, there is evidence of rupture and continuity regarding the influence of the coronavirus and its interaction with technology among different groups. Educational systems all over the world have to learn from scratch how to teach in virtual space, how to retain students’ attention, how to deal with the embarrassment of talking to the camera, what to do with unstable Internet infrastructures that impair the learning experience and how to conduct educational events such as Memorial Days and graduation ceremonies. At the same time, there are communities that have been asking themselves these questions for many years: Thousands of Chabad (Chasidic) emissaries around the world, for instance, send their children to a virtual school each morning, due to living in places around the world that do not offer a Jewish educational framework.

School Net  is a global remote schooling system used by diplomats and emissaries to maintain a continuous educational framework in the digital space, independent of geographical location. The Chasidic children are used to waking up, wearing their uniform, sitting down in front of the computer screen and studying together for many hours. Some of them go through their primary school years without physically meeting their class peers. During my conversations with children who learn this way, I have heard of various tactics to avoid the teacher’s gaze by manipulating the camera, the difficulties raised by unstable Internet infrastructures in places such as Bolivia, Ethiopia or India, and the close bonds between virtual classmates.

Even school ceremonies such as holiday celebrations and end of the year parties are already well-rehearsed in their digital format, as students prepare ornate backgrounds, dances and plays that take place exclusively through the computer. In the Israeli south, too, many residents are accustomed to security emergencies, forcing them to stay for extended periods of time in their homes and absent from school. These days, teachers from all over Israel take their inspiration from teachers and students from the South who have previously organized virtual ceremonies for Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence day in times of intense rocket launches by Hamas.

Chabad emissary children are well-accustomed to remote learning through the SchoolNet system. Photo taken by a research participant.

Religion and prayer

Each religion has different cultural and sociological characteristics that dictate the nature of its rituals and customs. The coronavirus profoundly influenced the religious and spiritual practices of various groups, again through rupture and continuity. The Passover Seder, for example, is so deeply rooted in Israeli society that both religious and secular people observe it in one way or another. Eliminating the possibility of converging on long tables as an extended family was seen as a deep violation of the holiday’s characteristics and even led to heated halachic (religious law) discussions about the possibility of opening the Zoom software during the seder, to ensure that elderly family members in quarantine are not left alone (according to Jewish law, electricity and technology are strictly prohibited during holydays and Shabbat).

However, the crisis of Passover during Covid19 is in fact not a cultural rupture for the essential requirements of the ceremony are domestic, familial, and intimate either way.Like so many other rituals in Judaism, Passover dinners put the cultural and spiritual centre of gravity on the family’s home space, and so any nuclear unit (and even one individual) can perform the ritual properly in their home. Furthermore, the first Passover eve in history also took place in a nuclear family setting, and the word “home” appears nine times in the description of the first celebrations in Egypt (Exodus, chapter 12). Religious and Secular Israelis were amazed as they went into strict quarantine in Passover Eve, when the weekly Torah reading (“Parashat Hashavoa”) stated: “None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning.” In that sense, the Jewish collective memory and scriptures were intimately intertwined with the pandemic in forms of ritualistic continuity.

The Ramadan celebrations, on the other hand, face a major rupture in the days of covid19, as the holiest month in Islam depends on mass gatherings in the public space for nocturnal feasts and festivals, mass prayers in mosques, large markets and consumption spaces visited by extended families throughout the night. As publicly oriented celebrations, these traditions require a more dramatic adjustment. In Judaism, comparatively, the inability to convene in a quorum (ten worshipers at least to bring out a Torah scroll and say the Kaddish) is a profound and significant rupture. In traditional neighbourhoods, a fascinating phenomenon of “quorum” has emerged in which worshipers simultaneously go out on balconies and conduct joint prayers while upholding the rules of the Ministry of Health. Religious Jews living in secular or non-Jewish neighbourhoods, on the other hand, are forced to practice entirely new prayer habits under conditions of isolation. It is interesting to note that many isolated worshipers are experimenting with a Chasidic prayer technique (“Hitbudedut”) developed by Rabbi Nachman from Breslev over 200 years ago: praying in complete isolation to establish a deep and meaningful spiritual bond with the creator. The Breslev Chasidic jews, therefore, experience isolated prayers as a form of continuity while those used to pray in quorum face a religious rupture.

Balcony quarry, and the adaptation to isolated prayer as an expression of cultural rupture. Photo circulated on social media.
A viral WhatsApp image comparing an official order to enter lockdown with the biblical scriptures of Passover, and Godly call to remain indoors in Egypt.

In conclusion, Sherry Turkle and the pessimistic Internet literature saw the age of digital screens as an age that separates us from the social experience of shared physical presence and promotes loneliness, a claim that turned out to be problematic and inaccurate when examined by anthropologists in specific contexts of time, place and culture. Similarly, the Coronavirus also meets various communities and affects them in different forms of rupture and continuity. The term “social distancing,” for example, is a basic cultural norm in American and Japanese societies, while Israeli culture heavily relies on physical contact, in ways that require adjustment to the new restrictions and their alien bodily etiquettes. Culture, technology and plagues intersect with each other like three vectors of a dynamic triangle that constantly redefines itself with respect to its various parts. It is important to remember that when anthropologists investigate a cultural fracture, it is not necessarily a tragedy or a crisis, but a shift in which a group discovers its ability to reinvent existing patterns of behaviour in unfamiliar space, conditions, and languages.