Visual media and the Jews: Will the picture be mightier than the pen?

We are the People of the Book, but is the book obsolete?
Not that the Torah’s teachings are obsolete, maybe just the ink, pages and parchment used to transmit them.
I started thinking about this recently as my wife was watching a morning news panel that featured David Hogg, one of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who has become a gun control activist since the shootings there. She was impressed with him and started looking for his Facebook page – unsuccessfully.
That’s when I piped up: “His generation doesn’t do Facebook.”
Not true, as it turns out, but it’s moving that way.
Adweek published the results of a 2016 survey by the customer acquisition platform Fluent, which showed 41 percent of Millenials surveyed use Facebook every day.
Sounds pretty good, until you break that number down. According to the Fluent results, the biggest percentage of Millenials making daily use of Facebook (48 percent) are in the 30-34 age range. After that, the rate begins to drop off – 38 percent in the 18-24 range, 36 percent in the 24-29 range.
I kept putting 2 and 2 together, thinking about that commercial I just saw about audiobooks and how successful people read more. Only the spokesman said, “listening is the new reading.”
Umm … no, it isn’t.
But that’s just my inner dinosaur roaring. No matter how I feel, times are changing. Images and sounds are slowly encroaching upon words and imagination.
It wasn’t so long ago (well, yeah, it was) when I, a recent college graduate, took a trip to Europe. I recall visiting a small rural church in Austria. Our guide pointed to all the colorful biblical scenes painted on the ceilings of the structure.
They weren’t there for decoration, he said; that’s how priests once taught the Bible to their illiterate flocks.
Could mankind be moving in that direction again? Could we be witnessing the de-literation of society? And if so, what does that mean for Jews?
If people are less inclined to pick up a book, written in English, how likely are they to pick up a prayer book in Hebrew, or decipher a portion from the Torah itself (Hebrew without vowels)?
These are legitimate questions. Don’t worry about Mark Zuckerberg; he’ll be fine. (Facebook owns Instagram.) But the Jewish world must adapt.
To find some answers, I talked to Rabbi Dan Medwin, digital media manager for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. His job – to develop apps, e-books and “visual t’filah” for the Reform movement – might just hold the key.
Visual t’filah – literally, visual prayer – is a way to enhance prayer by helping worshipers find newer, deeper meaning by utilizing projectors and screens, to display liturgy for the community with art and other visual imagery.
In other words, instead of reading the Shema in your prayer book, it could appear as a slide on a screen with a pastoral picture as backdrop.
Big screens have been a staple of mega churches for years; now they’re in synagogues. (Temple Shalom does a PowerPoint service once a month.)
Dinosaurs can rest easy, Medwin said. The book is not going away.
“As Jews, we are very reluctant to give up old technologies,” he said. “We still read from a parchment scroll.”
But visual media are gaining ground, he continued, and that’s a good thing, not just because Jews are consuming more data through visual media, but because they’re creating the media themselves.
Medwin teaches an eighth grade Sunday school class where he splits his students into groups of four, assigns each group a prayer and asks them to convey that prayer visually.
“I use those pieces of imagery as the background for those prayers, so the entire service contains elements they created on the big screen. They’re excited to see their work, and the work of their friends, on the big screen. They are able to interpret the service in new ways and participate in the creation of it.”
Visually oriented people, Medwin included, seek images in the worship space to help them connect with the service. In the old days, it may have been synagogue art, like stained glass windows. Now it’s a more hi-tech imagery.
The challenge of visual t’filah, Medwin said, is putting words on a screen in a way that feels “prayerful.”
“It’s so easy to be cheesy when working with visual t’filah…but to do it in a mature way, that’s really challenging.”
In fact, Medwin made a prediction:
“I can see someday, in the same way a cantor is a Jewish clergy specializing in music, that there’s a role for Jewish clergy specializing in visual media.”
Mind blowing.
Though the book is not going away, it could recede in importance, Medwin said, envisioning a time, when his kids are grown, that books are only read in services on special occasions.
“As Jews, text will always be important to us,” he said, “but the container may differ over time.”

(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)


  1. Thank you to Lee Chottiner for making our own Jewish history come alive to us, in this post, as we are living it !!.

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