Close Encounters: ‘The Future is Analog’ author David Sax talks to Canadaland podcaster Jesse Brown about reviving reality

David Sax and Jesse Brown. (Photographed exclusively for The Canadian Jewish News by Daniel Ehrenworth)

Two good friends squeezed into a tiny room to record a conversation about the challenges of a screen-dominated life, timed to the publication of Sax’s new book, which is subtitled How to Create a More Human World. It’s about how physical proximity is an essential part of appreciating experiences, including Jewish ones. Restoring these connections might come in handy should you find yourself in need of a minyan or, at the very least, a poppyseed danish.

Their jousting at Canadaland’s Toronto studio was edited and condensed by Phoebe Maltz Bovy.

Brown: I think Jews are digital, not analog.

Sax: If only.

Brown: I think I can back this up. I think that Jews are digital from before digital. If we understand Judaism as a network of information that was detached from any kind of physical analog. We revere the book. Not a fetishization of the Torah. But it’s the words themselves. In Judaism, ideas are what’s valued, and communication is what’s valued. Jews don’t have a lot of reverence for the physical.

I know there’s evidence to the contrary, and that there are Jewish laws about nature and the physical world. But I’m going to put this thesis forth anyhow, that consideration of the life of the mind and the soul, and of morality, and of the law, and outside of the religious aspect, finance and credit, given that we weren’t allowed to do a lot of other jobs. These are all digital concepts that predate digital technology. It’s hard for me to find the common ground between that and what you’re putting forward.

Sax: Can you be Jewish by staying at home alone? By reading the texts of the Torah and wrapping your tefillin alone? Is it like Buddhism, or a type of meditation, or even a type of Christianity, where, regardless of where you are, and who you’re with, you can be Jewish? And you can do those rituals, and that will give you the meaning? Everything you need is in the words, it’s all there in the Torah, it’s all there in the five books plus the Talmud and Mishnah. In theory, you should be able to do it.

But there is a requirement, in Judaism, for embodied, in person community. The commandment of a minyan, a minimum of 10 people, is the essential core of that thing. You can celebrate Shabbat on your own, but it has more meaning when you do it with other people. You can celebrate the holidays in some way that’s personal, but the meaning, the community, the identity, the strength of it comes from that embodied presence. You can believe in Israel as a state or a symbol or the centre of Jewish life, but the meaning comes from going to Israel, from going and standing and touching the wall of the Kotel and actually being there.

Brown: You lost me with the last one. I think you’re right that Judaism is designed in a certain way to be very portable, and we don’t make a huge deal about the temple itself. Anything could be a synagogue, but you need Jews, you need Jews to be Jewish. Israel actually is like a bit of a…

Sax: Let’s skip Israel.

Brown: No, it’s interesting, because it is about physicality, and about analog. And that’s maybe where we run into trouble.

Sax: What is Birthright? It’s not just, yes, Israel, you love Israel, whatever, but it’s, come to Israel, actually go to Israel. It’s not a commandment in the way that Muslims have the commandment to do the hajj. But Judaism without the embodied presence, without groups of Jews, without the community is a set of shared genetics and the inability to digest certain foods. And texts, and maybe a shared history.

Brown: I think that the things that a lot of Jews prioritize are going to be about frame of mind, a sense of humour, a shared culture and history. What you write about are these things that are so sensual, and sensory. And that’s very important to me. It feels like Judaism is in opposition to things, and sensual experiences. It’s a life of a mind kind of a thing.

Sax: But what is the life of the mind? It comes from those lived experiences. Imagine someone who is born to a Jewish mother, and they grow up on a desert island. And then years later, they’re plucked from that desert island, they’ve lived there alone, eating coconuts, kosher coconuts, obviously, and whatever else. And they’re brought in the world. All those things that you talk about, those values, the embodied sense of humour, the mannerisms, the dietary tastes, all the things that we identify, in a very broad sense, with being Jewish or Jewishness, whether it’s religious or cultural or otherwise, where does that come from? It comes from those experiences we have in the real world. Where does this sense of humour come from? It’s not something that’s like passed down through our genes, like Tay-Sachs.

That was a joke.

It comes from spending time around people who have that sense of humor, and the time you spend in physical space with them. It’s something that’s woven into your sense of being.

Could you get it digitally? Could you have someone who grew up in rural Mali, and sit them down and show them every season of Seinfeld and every Mel Brooks movie, and all of a sudden, they’ll sort of get it? Yeah, I suppose you could. But so much of what we get from the Jewish experience is that actual experience and it’s not something that you can detach from physical embodied reality.

Brown: It’s interesting for somebody to be so right. And yet, so inevitably defeated. It’s a crusade that’s already lost.

Sax: Like a windmill that I just keep tilting against.

Brown: Yeah. You can nod along to every idea. We all know this, and it helps to have it articulated that we we’ve gotten so far from the things that matter most. By accident, by the fluke of a virus, we’ve rediscovered the importance of walking in the woods, which I’ve done with you many times in the last few years. People were discovering that, oh, there’s a simple pleasure to baking bread, and doing it in the way that it’s been done for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s worth inhabiting physical space with one another. You and I have gone on walks in the frigid cold at night, just because we just miss being around each other. Or just being around other people. And no one else was around that night.

You write about some of the etiquette behaviours that have been lost, due to technology. If you’re having a conversation, you don’t go and look at some other conversation because just somebody happens to have dinged your device. We’ve forgotten that, and we’ve let these devices run roughshod over us. So yeah, I’m just vigorously agreeing with everything. But I’m like, Yeah, but good luck, buddy.

Sax: There’s TikTok out there. And it’s tasty.

The book is not an attempt to reverse the sort of flow of evolution and progress, it’s a way to redirect it.

Let’s stick to Jewish life. At the beginning of the pandemic, and during various parts of it, because I think non-Orthodox sects of Judaism are still amongst the most cautious, COVID-fearful, groups. If you want to go and see places where everybody’s wearing a mask, out of an abundance of caution, in 2022, go to a Reform synagogue, or an independent bookstore. They’re still doing that. And there was this time, in the early pandemic, when it seemed like this was it, this was the future. You can tune in to any shul you want in the world, sitting at home on a Saturday morning, or Yom Kippur, or whatever. And you can stream that, watch that. And it is incredibly convenient. It’s like the old joke of the two Jews on the desert island. Now you can find the shul that you like, and the shul you don’t like online, and stream one and have the other one blacked out on the other screen, just to spite it. And it’s it was, it’s super easy, it’s so much easier than schlepping yourself to school and putting on nicer clothes and sitting on, hard pews or hard chairs for two hours and having some sort of dry honey cake afterwards.

But for most people, that is and was insufficient. And so going forward, did people say okay, this was predicted to be the future of Judaism, more virtual more online, it’s going to be easily streamed? For most congregations, the future is now going to be more in person. Maybe they’ll have a streaming element for those who are elderly, or those who are unable to come in or those who are sick. But in the sermon of my rabbi, at Rosh Hashanah, it was, we have to relearn how to be together in person, because that’s the strength of it. Otherwise, the community sort of withers and dies off online. That’s what people come for is that presence. And so is it tilting against history and a losing cause to say this actually matters? Or, you know, doesn’t make a difference? Is that going to stop other people from opening up virtual shuls? No, and nor should it? Like, if that’s an option for people great, but…

Brown: It’s not great. It was terrible. Virtual services were terrible. Virtual bar mitzvahs, virtual brises.

Sax: Virtual shivas.

Brown: Virtual shivas were the worst. It’s tragic, people who were denied that.

Sax: Five, six years ago, people working for a Silicon Valley company were like, we should do a virtual shiva app, because sitting shiva is a really inconvenient to do.

Brown: It’s supposed to be inconvenient. It’s supposed to be too long, so that you don’t leave the mourner when they’re still… The mourners should be like, get the hell out of my house. It’s enough already. That’s the whole point.

Jesse Brown and David Sax. (Photographed exclusively for The Canadian Jewish News by Daniel Ehrenworth)

Sax: Your son is having a bar mitzvah in two years. He’s working. He’s studying, he’s learning. He’s putting in the effort to physically go and read from that text, that piece of, you know, goat skin that’s been stretched and dyed. Or maybe they do a vegan one at your shul. And hand copied out by a scribe. And it’s not the words that he’s reading. It’s the act of that physicality.

Remember, once every couple Saturdays growing up, going to bar mitzvahs as a kid, there’d be one kid who just phoned it in. He’d read from a sheet of paper, transliterated, he or she couldn’t bother to do it. Or they’d just read something in English. And you’re like, No, no, cross out cross out the check. You want to be Jewish, you want to become a Jewish woman or man, you have to show up and do the actual thing.

This notion that the future is inevitably going to be this easier, more streamlined thing may make sense in certain areas of my life, for ordering a taxi or recording audio in high definition, and being able to send it around to people. We don’t have to rush physical tapes of this conversation to The CJN. I’m not standing up for that. But for certain things, like what we’re talking about, embodied physical Judaism, is it going against progress to say this is what matters? Is it going against some inevitability to say actually, we really do have to make a concerted choice here about what our future is going to be? And how much this matter?

Brown: It was never my point of view that we need to digitize Judaism and take all these wonderful technologies. There was there was a novelty aspect. Forget Israel, the real hajj was, oh, let’s Zoom into the New York synagogue for the holidays. That’s going to the real heart of things. And the choir is nice. In the limited capacity to which I actually go to synagogue, the whole point is, it’s got to be physical, it’s got to be community. If your sense of Judaism has to do with words, if your sense of Judaism has to do with literature, if it has to do with law, if it has to do with it with spirituality, if it has to do with a sense of humour, these are all things that really don’t have much by way of physical embodiment. What has led to a certain to resilience of this culture is that we until recently, have not had much of a relationship to any particular geographic place. Soil is a very important thing in a lot of cultures. It’s never really…

Sax: Really important. They really don’t love us on their soil.

Brown: Some of the post-nationalistic aspects of human existence that have become a part of the digital age, we were the first around that. We were the first to have a community across the world before you even could use any kind of electronic communication. What united us to diaspora Jews all around the world was that we maintained aset of ideas.

Sax: I don’t disagree with you. But divorce those ideas from the analog physical rituals and spaces, divorce the ideas from the gatherings and the necessity and the commandments of getting together and doing the minyan… I have lived in other parts of the world. I’ve traveled. And it’s always amazing. Not that I see a Jewish reference somewhere, or see a mezuzah. The incredible thing is going to have a Shabbat dinner in Thailand with a bunch of Chabadniks. Or in Budapest with families that I’ve met there. Or when I was living in Argentina and going to shul there. It wasn’t the text, it wasn’t the ideas, it was the people. It was the people who were linked with those ideas. And those ideas and the people are inseparable in many way. But is it just the textual idea or the ideology or the cultural identity divorced from the thing that makes it?

Let’s pick a less religious example, a cultural example. Food.

I’ve written a book about Jewish delis. CJN readers may be familiar. You can now order, on Uber Eats or DoorDash or whatever, Jewish deli or kosher food from any purveyor. You want a Dr. Laffa laffa? Oh, we can get a Dr. Laffa laffa. You want a Panzer’s corned beef sandwich? We can have it here, it’ll be delivered. We’ll eat it, we’ll nosh, we’ll fress, we’ll joke. We can even make it at home. You eat it by yourself, but how is that experience different from inviting your friend over for Shabbat dinner or going to Harbord Bakery and getting in that line, waiting in that line, feeling the smells, being with the community, actually having that in-person experience. So let me tell you a story. Mid-pandemic…

[To Brown] I see your mouth is opening, you want to say something but wait you’re gonna like this story.

I fled to my mother-in-law’s cottage for the first three months to get space or whatever. And you know it’s up in Collingwood, there’s nowhere to get challah and if there is something called challah it’s an egg bread. So I got to baking challah. You know, we fight for yeast in the supermarkets and find flour. I’m pretty good. Second helpings. Great challah, very easy to do. Not the most beautiful braid, but it’s good, right?

We come back to Toronto a couple months later, go back downtown to the house. And my wife said, You going to make a challah? I’m like, No, no, I’m going to Harbord.

At the bakery there’s a big line. Everyone’s in masks. Everyone’s you know, standing five feet apart. And I’m throwing all that extra stuff in the basket. All those delicious Israeli jams they have, and like the tub of chopped liver that’s so good there. Fabulous chopped liver, if you’re looking for it. Right, I got my challah, I make sure I got a couple, of one for my mom, one for the cleaning lady comes on Fridays that absolutely loves her challah.

And there’s a woman in front of me, an older woman. And there’s a commotion at the cash when I’m about to pay. What do you mean, you don’t have poppyseed Danish? —We don’t have it today. I drove all the way down here. I drove all the way down here for that Danish.

And for the course of five minutes she goes on berating the staff, just livid, the fact that she drove all the way down from I’m not sure but somewhere on Bathurst north of Harbord to get this poppyseed Danish. And finally she leaves in a huff. I walk up to the cash, you can tell they’re just worn out by this. And this Friday crowd, there’s like 20 people behind me like deep-breathing in their N95 masks. And I’m just like, Do you have any poppyseed Danish?

Brown: I’m really glad that you prevented me from cutting in there, because that was worth the ride.

Sax: Now that story, to me, was everything out of my Toronto, Jewish life. I was so glad that woman had that kvetchfest about that fakakta Danish. Because that, to me, was that lived experience. And if I were to take that child from Mali, and bring them here and say, you want to know what my life is like, as a Jew in Toronto, come and stand in this place. Smell the smells, feel this bread. See these people, and listen to this woman lose her frickin’ mind over a pastry that she was so heartbroken not to get that she decided to hold up this entire line of people who are like already freaking out about being inside in unventilated space for this time.

There’s a point here and the point is, had I just clicked on the Harbord Bakery website in order to challah, I would have gotten the challah that would have been the challah, the challah would have been delicious. But the sense of identity, the culture, those ideas, all those things that were built up from that moment of being in there would not have been that. That was the point.

This piece also appeared in the Winter 2022/23 magazine from The Canadian Jewish News: