January 17, 2019

Chanukah: The Twitter holiday?

Chanukah is both the most powerful and most precarious of Jewish holidays. For one thing, the simple act of lighting Chanukah candles and making them visible to the outside world symbolizes the greatest lesson in Judaism — the call for the Jewish people to be a light unto the world.

But that same candle also represents the potential superficiality of the holiday. Chanukah is not one of those Jewish holidays that requires formal meals or synagogue services. We go to parties, light candles, eat a few doughnuts, exchange gifts, maybe sing a few songs.

In other words, on the surface, Chanukah can easily be the Twitter holiday — lots of noise and flash, not much depth and substance.

When I read about the meltdown last week of my favorite magazine, The New Republic, I realized it can be the same thing with journalism. On the surface, there’s plenty of noise and flash and Twitter feeds, but beneath the surface, who’s willing to think deeply?

For 100 years, The New Republic went deep. Through thoughtful and daring commentary and journalism, it helped us make sense of a messy and complicated world. It took the dry sophistication of academia and made it lively. This was a liberal magazine that dared to challenge liberalism. When you picked up an issue of The New Republic, you knew you were in for a rich, unpredictable, intellectual and cultural treat.

But now that its new Silicon Valley owner wants to turn the magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company” that offers more “snackable content,” many of us are sitting shivah for a journalistic institution that offered us the long, slow meal of considered thought.

Chanukah reminds us of this duality. We can go deep and internalize the great lessons of the holiday, or we can stay on the surface and settle for glowing candles and snackable latkes.

The societal force of gravity, of course, is with snackable content. How could it not be? How can we nibble throughout the day on instant digital messages and then find the patience to go through long, thoughtful essays in a magazine that honors complexity?

This phenomenon is pervasive. Wherever we turn, we are assaulted by flashy, easy-to-digest content. When I met recently with my son’s teachers at Shalhevet High School, the subject kept coming up. The teachers see part of their role as countering the digital assault on our kids’ attention spans. In a nation of snorkelers, they want to create scuba divers.

There’s probably no more vital mission for Judaism today: teaching the new generation to think deeply.

The holiday of Chanukah shows us a starting place — our homes. The home is the sanctuary where we can control our environment; where we can slow down, learn and engage; where we have the space to ponder big questions and discover and nurture meaning.

It is within this refuge of sanity that the holiday of Chanukah begins, when we take turns lighting the candles. 

The flame of the Chanukah candle may be flashy and visible to the outside world, but in our homes, it offers an invitation to go deep, to internalize and study what it really means to be a light unto the world.

It’s like my favorite magazine. The cover may glow as brightly as a candle, but that cover is an invitation to turn the pages and feast on its content. No matter how flashy the outside, the inside rarely disappoints. Sadly, in the era of snackable content, all too often we are served up only the flash.

Chanukah presents us with both flash and content. If we go with the modern flow, we’ll settle for just parties, latkes and candles. But if we go to a deeper place in the sanctuary of our homes, we can refine in ourselves that ultimate Jewish ideal of being human candles shining in the world.

One thing is for sure: In a capitalist world, there are few forces to encourage us to go deep. It’s not profitable. It’s more lucrative when we nibble on the surface of things, when we tweet and text and make impulse buys. Captains of industry know that the more we think, the less we’ll buy.

These captains of industry can take over deep magazines and hollow them out, but they can’t take over Jewish holidays and our homes and hollow them out. Only we can do that.

Happy Chanukah.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.