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Friday, December 19, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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A question for seder: what role for screens?

By New York Times

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LAST UPDATED: 01:07 p.m. HST, Apr 14, 2014



For many Jewish families, this Passover night will indeed be different from all others.

As they gather around the dinner table on Monday for the Seder, some families will forgo passing around wine-stained copies of the Haggadah, the book used to guide the evening and one of the most ubiquitous volumes in Jewish homes. Instead, they will be tapping on their Kindles, tablets or cellphones, downloading in unison whatever version of the ceremony they plan to follow.

It is a remaking of the Seder for the e-reader age. Despite the fact that traditional Jewish law considers the devices forbidden on Passover - strictly observant Jews refrain from using any sort of electronic device on holidays, as they do on the Sabbath - dozens of versions of the Haggadah are now available in digital formats, where enhancements to the text include pop-out windows and videos meant to bring alive the story of the Exodus.

But for the many Jews who do not follow such strictures, downloading the familiar Passover service may make their annual ritual more interesting.

"We want to keep the kids paying attention, instead of dryly rushing through something with people all looking at how-many-pages-until-we-eat while the kids are trying to start tossing parsley at each other," said David Salama, 36, an anesthesiologist in Huntington Woods, Mich., who downloaded four Passover-related apps on his phone in recent weeks.

In addition to using an e-Haggadah at the Seder he and his father will lead, Salama plans to encourage his 8-year-old son to play a game on his iPod Touch about the 10 plagues. "This is supposed to be something where everyone is sitting down to enjoy each other and contributing and learning something, so why not allow these devices to help with that?" he said.

As with so many aspects of Judaism, this digitization of Passover is not without controversy.

"There is a place for using apps and all kinds of technology to prepare for the holiday, but I would prefer to do that beforehand so that when you're actually at the Seder you're actually speaking to one another," said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which ordains rabbis in the Conservative movement.

In the most traditional circles, of course, there will be no e-Haggadot at the table. Even among less religious families, replacing a book that has been used for centuries with a phone or tablet can seem a taboo.

The use of the electronic Haggadot comes just as Conservative rabbis are embroiled in a debate over whether to make e-readers permissible on the Sabbath. Nevins wrote a paper last year saying that such devices violated the spirit of the Sabbath and the holidays, traditionally viewed as a sanctuary from the workaday world.

Nevins said that he understood the appeal: His own daughter is in India this year, and the family has joked about setting an iPad at the Passover table so that she can participate in the family Seder via Skype. But such devices will be left aside. "I would prefer the interactivity happen between the people in the room," he said. "Saying 'Look at this cartoon' or 'Look at this app' really takes the attention away from the moment."

Even among makers of digital Passover content, there is some ambivalence. David Kraemer, the chief librarian and a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, helped create the Haggadah App in 2012, one of the first on the market and still widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive. Kraemer himself adheres to the strictures against the use of electronics, but welcomes his guests to use devices to follow along. Last year, one non-Jewish guest used his app to learn how to sing the traditional Four Questions in Hebrew and used the transliteration on his iPad to recite it at the Seder table.

"If it enhances the richness of this experience, maybe that's a good thing," Kraemer said.

For those who are eager to employ a YouTube clip, there is an endless array of choices, including dozens of renditions of "Let us Go," a parody of the popular anthem from Disney's "Frozen" and a take on the story of the Four Sons in the Haggadah. There are quirky marketing campaigns - the Ultimate Digital Haggadah promises to take users "from abject servitude to app-solute freedom." For the historically inclined, the Haggadah App features illuminated manuscripts and expansive commentaries on the traditional text, along with a Seder-themed iPad coloring book for children. The Bronfman Haggadah includes interviews with Edgar M. Bronfman, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who died last year, and animated versions of the paintings by his wife, Jan Aronson.

(Aronson, who calls herself a Jewish atheist, has no religious objection to an electronic device at the Seder, but don't let her catch anyone at the table checking Facebook. "What I could not bear is someone offering anything less than total focus on the task at hand - that's just rude," she said.)

"There's just an explosion of this stuff," said Sarah Lefton, the founding director of G-dcast, which creates Jewish content for children. Since it created a cartoon on the Four Sons at the request of a financial backer three years ago, the Passover videos and apps have become one of the most popular features on the site. "The demographic coming to us are overwhelmingly 40-something women, which equals parents - they want the Passover story in a way they can make it enjoyable for their kids," Lefton said. "Anything that is not a boring printed Haggadah is a delightful proposition."

All this is a delight to Rabbi Elie Spitz, who leads Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, Calif., and is working on a paper for the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly law committee arguing that e-readers should be permitted on the Sabbath. Though he will lead out of a traditional paperbound Haggadah this year, he said he could imagine that tablets would be commonplace at the Seder within the next decade.

"We already see people using iPads for wedding ceremonies and prayer books; this is inevitable," Spitz said. "The codes of Jewish law take up an entire wall of bookshelves, but I can have the entire thing in the palm of my hand on my phone. This is a real revolution of access."

Last week Seth Kroll, a 30-year-old filmmaker, sent a reminder to the dozen or so friends coming to his Seder in Newton, Mass., reminding them to download the Haggadah from JewishBoston.com that he planned to use.

"This is all something that we're all familiar with, so it makes the Seder more comfortable, like a normal thing we'd do," Kroll said. Far from being bothered, he said he would take it as a sign of respect if someone posted an insight from his table on social media. "If we go to an event, or are listening to someone say something interesting or funny, we're going to want to share it. People put religion in a separate category of life experience, but there's no reason it has to be."

All the more sharing, he said, is likely to come after the fourth glass of wine.






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