Norm, the Redeemer

It sometimes seems as if all our discourse is mediated through humor. Comedians write multiple news shows, your survivalist uncle today shares political memes with all family members as he used to only with his fishing buddies, and it often feels like every viral political tweet must express either some form of comedy or outright vitriol, with no middle ground. Our time does not seem to favor the sincere, the simple, or the earnest, traits we have exported to children and cute animals. All of this can change, however, if we but heed the words of prophet. His name is Norm MacDonald.

Comedy is, at essence, a subversion of expectation. This explains why human beings are particularly good at it. Even the most intelligent animals, the chimp laughing uproariously at sleight of hand, have only a sense of physical continuity. An object is in hand, and ought to stay there barring some visible intervention, and then, presto, it’s gone.

Consider this instead:

Q: Why did the Elephant fall off the swing?
A: It was shot in the face.

This joke is a human artifact with complex inner workings. It relies on the juxtaposition of elephant to swing, a mismatch demanding release which the dénouement refuses to provide, instead denying the elephant’s significance altogether. A chimpanzee, or a friend who refuses to open his mind to the beauty of the anti-joke, may reply with a straight face that anything falls off a swing if it’s shot. This fact is what subverts our expectations, and thus we laugh, or at least recognize, regrettably, that we are meant to laugh.

It is only because we have minds meant to perceive the nature of elephant and swing that we have senses of humor. Therefore, it’s according to our understanding that our senses of humor mature, grow more refined, and expand. Just as many adults prefer beer to Kool-Aid, adults (can) prefer Doonesbury to the Family Circus. The strange power of comedy is that the more educated, insightful, and confident we are, the more we see into the workings of the world, the more effect a good joke has on us. The structure of our minds forms the majority of the actual set-up for a good bit of humor. The comedian or joke-teller or humorist builds slightly upon the entire body of our experience and then shakes us with a punch-line, a judo-like reversal of our own momentum. The best way to render a punch-line ineffective is, therefore, to cling to ignorance. If we somehow had no knowledge of what a Donald Trump is, half the attempted comedy in the world right now would simply fail to reach us.

Few, however, would willfully choose ignorance to escape the jokes. Why should they? Comedy is like political power, in that there are many who in theory would like to give it up but practically wish rather to wrest it from their enemies and use it for good. The easiest way to do this is realizing that last week’s jokes, having passed from the present, are now simply the uppermost stratum of set-up. We can build on those jokes by subverting them.

This method, now so common even among non-comedians as to be practically subconscious, is dangerous to meaning itself. Comedy works best as a flying buttress, hanging off the side of sincere meaning and supporting its weight. A structure built entirely out of flying buttresses is no structure at all. Punchlines work as well as turtles when they go all the way down.

If we wish to imagine a theoretical sincere, non-humorous definition of “Donald Trump”, we must now not only undo today’s joke but yesterday’s meme and last week’s neologism. If we want to tell a new joke about him, we become like an artist who must paint roses but has only ever seen paintings of roses. How is the artist meant to “show the real in the light of the ideal” (in the words of Sir Roger Scruton) when the real has been denied him? As we collectively continue to build joke upon joke, comedy grows ever more debased, no longer an art but a mere pursuit of sentiment. Many traditions on teach that those hungers which only grow hungrier when they are fed are dangerous. The hunger for humor is no different. We do not become addicted to things of actual substance. Those forced to pursue the joke-within-the-joke, like those seeking an ever-greater high, must stray ever-outward from reality, that is, the underlying non-humorous set-up. A certain linguistic construct is funny, which becomes the context for its subversion, which in turn may only be kept funny in context of this other thing, and then only if the sentimentality of the set-up is enhanced and the hyperbole of the next punch-line is ramped up.

In philosophical terms, to build joke upon joke constitutes an abandonment of post-Socratic complexity. We desire malleability, to discover infinite potential in the inert set-up presented to our senses, but in this we deny the limiting actuality inherent to all things by their nature; no being with a defined form contains the infinite. We are therefore intellectually forced into Parmenidean stasis (nothing is funny—so does it exist?) or the Heraclitean flux (everything is funny—so is anything funny?).

This inflationary humor, this laugh escalation, slowly works at the web of relationship between all things called “meaning” and dilutes it, always redefining nodes into branches, reference and meta-reference forming a vast edifice of jokes slowly drowning ever-more-slender islands of sincerity.

Laugh escalation is nearly unavoidable in the age of social media, since if we have the option to tweet the straightforward idea disagreeing with our interlocutor or to couch our reply in snark, meme, or clapback, the choice is barely a choice. Straightforward notions feel almost naked, only able to form tribe around shared intellect or direct sincere experience. Set-up not only gets fewer shares, but also does not seem to sufficiently subvert the opponent’s position, to adequately demarcate between us and them. Then the other individual or tribe jokes about our joke, and we are off to the races.

This is why the comedy news shows struggle to be funny—their jokes were first-level work (perhaps second, counting Letterman) when John Stewart made them a decade ago, and every news item in the twenty-four-hour cycle has already been ransacked for comedy on Twitter or even, lord help us, Facebook long before the cameras have a chance to roll.

It is not their fault, for, as noted earlier, the only other option is not to joke, and so not to promulgate, and so not to be. We are consigned, in the age of humor, to either the death of set-up or the eternal rootless becoming, the never-ending quest to mediate communication through novelty.

Reactionaries who don’t play the game are not heard and so are powerless to stop it, while those who would try to stop the game from the inside are consumed by it, as we see by the most popular figures in conservative media today, whose principles are so intertwined with their memes that to dispose of either is to dispose of both. No one is a better example than Ben Shapiro, who in his effort to speak to the young audiences that have been educated in this game since childhood has found even his “serious” points couched in the language of the owner, the liberal-destroyer, the savage comeback, whose Breitbart roots show through in his joy when the President shares his memes. We are winning the game, he seems to think, and he is, in the sense that Ahab was winning against the whale.

Of course, this loss of seriousness has turned in upon itself with the advent of the new puritanism, as it must. If to be funny is to be real, then “that’s not funny” is how to remove the enemy from power. What is special about Louis C.K. or Kevin Hart that they deserve a pass? We have all followed them into the chuckle house, making them our trailbreakers and wise-men, and they cannot complain that we now take humor very, very seriously. Whereas the original puritans and their spiritual successors were merely trying to guard the border between the serious and the unserious very seriously, the new wet blanket guards the border between social life and death.

If the reasonable adults are not part of the culture at all, and the kids live somewhere on the spectrum between the corrupted and the purity police, from whence shall our salvation come?

Verily, from Norm.

Many have written about Norm Macdonald. They call him an iconoclast, a gambler, a genius, and secretly the funniest man alive. Norm traffics in a unique form of anti-humor that subverts the tropes of 21st-century Am

erican comedy itself. Where his colleagues zig, Norm zags. Most comedians listen to pop or rock or hip-hop; Norm listens to outlaw country. When comics work hard to dunk on each other in the most shocking way possible, Norm calls Bob Saget a cauliflower. The comedy news shows strive to squeeze “clapter” from the headlines, while Norm shoots the breeze with a grab bag of (pseudo-)celebrities. They seem to search endlessly for the next punchline. Even though Norm does stand-up, he has, for years, searched for the perfect joke whose set-up just is its punchline. As a comedian subverting not jokes but comedy itself, Macdonald can teach us how to fix comedy from the inside.

Why does Norm search for this mythical form of humor, the set-up-as-punchline? I think he is tired of our comedic status quo. I think he sees the way other place themselves above the ever-expanding setup, seeking to manipulate it, and desires to place himself within the set-up, in order to understand it. The point is not to extract a shock of joy from experience, to impose one’s will upon what one sees in order to build upon it. If this was the goal, a regular punchline would suffice. Norm yearns to make art.

This explains the quaint feeling you still get watching Norm’s old Weekend Update clips. The goal was not to work the news, to find its problems, to resolve its contradictions, but simply to peer at the contradictions as they are. He wishes to consider the reality before him, to move it hither and tither in the light, and to see its inner beauty, its internal contradictions, its truth unfolding before him. He knows that to make a joke is an act of moral heft. He wants not to add but enter, to partake. The true comedian doesn’t need to do dunny. It is the world that is funny, and he merely reflects it, and in the reflection makes it beautiful. And hilarious.

Norm makes our other comedians look like teenage metal heads in search of the fastest guitar shredder of all time. They are junkies looking for an arbitrary fix, never aware that there are limits, that there is a highest boundary on how fast (or how loud, Nigel) one can play. Beyond that point, there is no growth, no greater speed, and the journey is over. Norm is like a flamenco fan. In abandoning the quest for speed or volume and pursuing beauty instead, he finds not only a well of near-limitless depth but also some of the fastest fingers around.

“Norm is not funny,” my friend Hollee insists. In a way, she’s right. He’s not funny in the sense that Paco de Lucía didn’t rock. His goal is not a temporary subversion of expectations while working within the stale boundaries of his medium. Norm wants to transform the conventions themselves into freedom, to stop running from the old as if we fear it but to transform and elevate the set-up on its own terms. When he tells his famous moth joke on Conan, he does not worry that it’s an old joke in the joke books, which is meant to be the kiss of death for comedians, a sign of deficient creativity. He doesn’t change the punch-line. He makes it hilarious, on his own, by dwelling within the set-up, by turning it into a dark somehow-Russian tale of sorrow, by allowing the old joke to write itself upon the medium of his sensibility. The joke is not his product; the joke is his form. The humor inheres in his delivery, his limitations, his self.

If we wish to joke like Norm, we must not give in to the pressure to escalate comedy. We must practice looking at the seemingly-unfunny and allowing its humor to shine. If we seek to converse like Norm, we must not seek to add to the humor of our guest, but to let their humor shine free naturally, through charming active listening and engagement. If we want to comment on the news like Norm, we must be unbound by it, to find what’s truly funny in it according to its nature, rather than desperately needing to make something out of the headlines.

He can be our guide, our leader out of the darkness and back to meaning. He can show us how to escape our childish escalations and rediscover set-up, the funniest thing of all.

On Humanist Holocaust Humor

How could anyone be opposed to a visitor center encouraging humanitarian values at Auschwitz?

It reminds me of a movie I saw recently.

Against better judgement, unable to hold out against my own curiosity, I watched a documentary called “The Last Laugh” about holocaust humor. The film pleasantly surprised me both with the quality of their interviewees (Gilbert Gottfried and Mel Brooks as themselves; a survivor representative of the ADL; a writer for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiam). The central question of the Documentary – when, if ever, is it appropriate to tell jokes about the holocaust? – was dissected from multiple angles; everyone had their say, from the irreverent non-Jews to an infinitely dignified woman who lectures a fellow survivor that she has to enjoy life. The film is thoughtful and surprisingly unafraid to present the holocaust in its full horror. There are tears, as well as wisecracks and laughter.

However, there is one point that bothers me, and it’s Sarah Silverman’s fault. She’s in the middle of defending Joan Rivers’s holocaust joke when she says that making a joke is Joan’s way of keeping the holocaust relevant and part of the conversation, and there are actual genocides taking place right now, so why don’t we complain about those before we start policing humor?

I think this is perceived as a good point in general. We’re all just hypocrites about this stuff anyway, and speech obviously matters less than the actual millions of deaths in Rwanda or Syria for which we are collectively responsible, etc.

Set aside, for a moment, the assertion of power in telling someone what they’re allowed to care about, the casual assumption that comedians decide what is still culturally relevant, etc., and focus on the most important thing: the holocaust is now merely a genocide and a human tragedy. In this, Silverman is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong.

The lesson of the holocaust (such as it is) was never not to murder, that murder en masse is bad, or to prevent murder to any extent possible. These are some of our oldest and most treasured rules. They include the subset of murders based on race or fascist politics. “Never again” does not, despite how many Jews read it, mean there should never be another genocide, as noble and correct as that goal is.

If a member of your family becomes a murderer, there is more to learn than “murder is bad and should happen nowhere.” And when it comes to the holocaust and probing documentaries on the limits of comedy, the call is coming from inside the house.

The holocaust is special because it came from within the same sort of culture that produces documentaries about comedians. The holocaust is different because it sprang not from tribal conflict deep in Africa where warlords have skirmished since time immemorial, but from Berlin, an advanced, industrialized, humanitarian Democracy soaked in Wagner, Goethe, and Hegel. The gas chambers were not places of pagan sacrifice. They gas chambers were built by hands that wrote theses and commanded by mouths that smirked at subtle irony. They were designed by minds fraught with literary criticism and continental philosophy. The blueprints were sketched on the same paper as the first PhDs.

It was the society on earth most aware of text, narrative, meta-narrative, aesthetics, medicine, and engineering that attempted to obliterate the Jewish people with all the craft and techne available to man. In short, it was a culture in the spirit of high humanism, kind to animals and open to art, that committed these atrocities.

We should remember that it was not fear alone for life, family, or property that first convinced Germany to acquiesce to Hitler’s plans. It was, in fact, a story that moved them, that spoke to those fears and raised them into an inferno. It was a narrative, conveyed by charismatic storytellers to one of the most intellectually subtle and culturally enriched populations on earth. It worked. Stories are powerful.

“Never again” means that none of these things, no art, culture of any brow, or story, saved six million Jews. It is unclear why they would be likely to save them in the future. It can happen here, if there are no safeguards, if we do not respect the victims, if we forget their story. Not among the dour warriors of the poorest countries on earth, but among the laughing theater-goers of the wealthiest. Never again, in New York or California. Never again at the Wiener Staatsoper. Never again on our own streets.

So when comedians are questioned about how far they go to get a laugh, they’d be well-advised not to return the question with claims about backwaters or war-torn hellscapes.

When Rwandan warlords produce, in their societies, comics as wry as Sarah Silverman, then we’ll talk.


Sephardim & Ashkenazim

With apologies to Lenny Bruce.

Non-Jews might not know this, but there are quite a lot of different types of Jews — of all races, countries, political beliefs. Even religiously, there is a huge divide between two large camps in particular: The “Ashkenazi” Jews of general European descent, and the “Sephardi” Jews, who originated from the golden age of Jewry in pre-inquisition Spain.

What’s the difference between these groups?

Let me explain it in terms a non-Jew might understand.

The first thing to know is that Spain, insanely, is Ashkenazi because it’s part of Europe, even though “Sephardi” literally means Spanish. The middle east, on the other hand, which has had its own continuous Jewish communities for millennia, is very Sephardi. The rest of Europe is Ashkenazi, except for the Netherlands, which by some accident is honorarily Sephardi, and the small parts of Germany owned by Mercedes-Benz. You see, BMW is Ashkenazi. Audi is very Ashkenazi. But Mercedes is Sephardi.

How about socks? Socks are Ashkenazi. Sandals are Sephardi. Sandals with socks are more Ashkenazi than socks alone. Cargo shorts are also Ashkenazi. Basketball shorts are Sephardi. Bike shorts are goyish (non-Jewish). Suspenders are Ashkenazi. Belts are Sephardi.

Is this beginning to make sense?

Contact lenses are non-Jewish; glasses are Ashkenazi; sunglasses are Sephardi.

Eyebrows are unbearably Ashkenazi but foreheads have a Sephardi feeling to them.

Black is Ashkenazi. Blue is Sephardi.

How about the way they think? OK, try this: Mystical questions about the nature of G-d are Ashkenazi. The answers to those questions are Sephardi. But general philosophical inquiries are Sephardi, while the answers are Ashkenazi. The notion of geniuses is very Jewish, generally, but respect for geniuses, less-so. Everyone thinking they’re a genius is very Jewish. If the person who thinks they’re a genius drives a cab, that’s Sephardi. If they drive a wagon, that’s Ashkenazi.

If they write short stories or slam poetry, that’s Ashkenazi. If they pen novels, that’s Sephardi. Flash fiction is suspiciously goyish.

Confused yet? Disagree? Very Jewish.

Arguments are just plain Jewish, see, but physical violence is goyish. If it comes down to it, Ashkenazim will shove, whereas Sephardim go for outright blows. Everyone throws things, but throwing a chair is Sephardi, and someone over the age of sixty throwing a chair is very Sephardi. This is somehow true even though chairs are quite Ashkenazi, whereas benches are neutrally Jewish unless they have pillows on them, in which case they are indelibly Sephardi. Pews are, it goes without saying, goyish.

Sephardi kids are prone to afternoons on the town, whereas Ashkenazim are more prone to nights on the town. Obedience is goyish.

If a Jew wakes up to eggs over-easy for breakfast, he’s doing it the goyish way. Ashkenazim would have eggs boiled in water. Sephardim would have eggs boiled in stew. Salt is Ashkenazi. Tomatoes are Sephardi. Rice is very Sephardi. Peanut butter is very Ashkenazi but Sephardim get it on a technicality. Gelatinous marrow-based “delicacies” are, regrettably, Ashkenazi. Neither group eats off of their fine china if no guests are invited: Ashkenazim will use plastic dinnerware; Sephardim will use paper.

If she wears a wig, that’s very Ashkenazi. If she wears an urban turban she’s doin’ it Sephardi.

If you see a Jew spit, that’s Sephardi. If you see him sweat, that’s Ashkenazi. If they shake hands, that’s Ashkenazi. If they bump fists, it is hilariously Ashkenazi. Avuncular shoulder slaps are Sephardi (Uncles, as a concept, are Sephardi, but Aunts are Ashkenazi). Hugging is Sephardi and encouraged, but watch out: If two men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, they instantly become Ashkenazim for life.

Fingers are clearly Ashkenazi, though knuckles are Sephardi. Beards have a faintly Sephardi aura about them, but then, hair is generally Sephardi. Fingernails are quite Ashkenazi.

Stores are Ashkenazi things; stalls are Sephardi. Haggling is Sephardi. Sales tactics are Ashkenazi. A meeting starting on time is Sephardi. A meeting ending on time is Ashkenazi.

Piers are Ashkenazi; wharves, Sephardi. Boats are Sephardi. Ships are Ashkenazi.

Cleavers are Ashkenazi; fruit knives are Sephardi; combat knives are goyish, unless they’re from the IDF, and even then…

Home repair is Sephardi, as are plumbers, electricians, roofers, handymen. Appliance repair is ever-so-slightly Ashkenazi. Tech support is Ashkenazi but Sephardim are better at it; computer programming is decisively Sephardi but Ashkenazim have a knack for it.

As far as domesticated animals go, goats are Sephardi. Sheep are Ashkenazi. We all pass on hogs. If we have to go for insects, bees are more Sephardi whereas flies are profoundly Ashkenazi. Cats are Ashkenazi and dogs are Sephardi. Birds are Sephardi, fish are Ashkenazi. Guinea pigs are cute but not Jewish. Bad memories.

All comic books are Jewish, but DC leans Ashkenazi and Marvel leans Sephardi.

Led Zeppelin — classic Ashkenazi mascots. AC/DC represent the Sephardim. Deep Purple is just plain goyish. Frank Zappa is weird Ashkenazi. Bob Dylan is profoundly Ashkenazi. Bob Marley should be Sephardi but the Ashkenazim stole him. Johnny Cash is proper Sephardi. Black Metal is goyish as landed nobility, and opera once attended a pogrom, but show tunes are Ashkenazi and Top 40 music generally is Sephardi.

Google is Sephardi. Apple is Ashkenazi. Microsoft is goyish.

On the Internet: Facebook is Sephardi. Twitter is Ashkenazi. If you meme about Harambe you’re doing the Ashkenazi; if you play Pokemon Go you are doing the Sephardi. This dude was circumcised in an Ashkenazi synagogue: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, whereas this guy has a profound Sephardi heritage: ಠ_ಠ.  This guy attends a restricted country club: :).

An Ashkenazi might argue that there are no differences between Jews at all, whereas a Sephardi might quibble on the details and say my distinctions are not stark enough. Either way, it’s one big family, and we all love to laugh. I hope.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Douglas Adams Wasn’t An Atheist

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.”

“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.”
“No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”

-Various, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
by Douglas Adams, 1979

Somehow, despite my adolescent devotion to his books, I never found out Douglas Adams was an outspoken atheist until much later. Not that it changed much; I still think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels are some of the most brilliant books ever written. More: I can’t get away from the notion that his novels are a great guide for relating to G-d.

If you never read those books, shame on you. If you only saw the movie, our entire planet deserves to be destroyed. Which is basically what THHGTTG is about. Earth is destroyed for traffic reasons, but all-around-normal guy Arthur Dent is rescued at the last moment by a friend who happened to be an alien all along, and who happens to be a researcher for the titular galactic encyclopedia. Arthur then ends up bending all the rules of space, time, and propriety on his rollicking adventures.

If all of that sounds like high-concept science fiction, it’s not. It is side-splittingly funny. It is Wodehouse in space, or Monty Python on spaceships. Hitchhiker’s is actually a satire. Not of society per se (though there is plenty of that as well), but, like the best satires, of the universe itself. If the book has one message, it is that the universe is insane, that the apparent sensibility of the world is an inch-thick veneer and all is just papered-over anarchy.

Even the source of much of the magical mischief in Adams’s universe works on this principle. The Heart of Gold (which drives much of the plot) is the most coveted spaceship in the galaxy because it runs on the infinite improbability drive, which can accomplish anything as long as you know precisely how improbable it is that it should ever happen. Arthur Dent’s adventures are basically a series of impossibly improbable events, a story emergent from chaos, and the actual galactic Hitchhiker’s Guide (from the selections of the encyclopedia sprinkled throughout the books) is a smirking chaperon that might let its charges get devoured by aliens on a lark.

All of this seems to have very little to do with G-d. Indeed, some might say it’s a claim in the opposite direction. But I think that springs from our confusion.

We are, indeed, so confused. The Internet, for all its boons, has allowed for a lot of communication without much nuance. It is very hard to convey precise tone in written form, as even professional writers will tell you. So we throw a lot of words at people every day hoping that something sticks in the way we imagined, and we try to divine the meaning clutched in the cold fingers of the words our friends, acquaintances, enemies, and perfect strangers put in front of us.

Somehow, in the confusion, a lot of our jokes get taken seriously.

Somewhere in this mess, a lot of humor passes us by.

And we begin to lose grasp on what precedes what.

It is, after all, only a firm grasp on reality that makes things funny. It is the surprise of contradiction, the subversion of expectation, that the soul so enjoys. Humor is a flying buttress of the mind; it hangs off the orderly construct of the intellect and supports it from the outside. It is absurdity commenting on order. But in chaos there is no expectation, no surprise, and no humor.

If the absurd and the chaotic become our default headspace, become the ground for all thought, then there is no humor. When Mitch Hedberg says, “Who would make their plants hard to reach? That seems so very mean,” it’s funny because it’s a riff on some aspects of reality (infomercials and their language) that are so dull they no longer parse at all. When comedians note how ridiculous politics is, the implication of every single bit is, “The world could make so much sense, but it doesn’t!” Many Americans don’t “get” British humor because they have no grasp of formal conversation and boring sentences in the first place. They do not know the rules, and feel no joy from their breaking.

I learned the wrong lesson from Hitchhiker’s. What I was supposed to learn (as an unconscious corollary, no doubt — obviously the main goal of the book is entertainment) was that the world is mad because there is no ordering force to the universe. What I learned is that the world is mad even though there is an ordering force to the universe.

“After all,” I tell Mr. Adams, “that’s why it’s funny.”

“It’s funny because it’s a book, you dolt,” he’d probably say. “In reality it’s not funny at all. Haven’t you ever heard that all comedians are depressed?”

Yes. If you were Arthur Dent, you would probably be an emotional wreck. But when we read Hitchhiker’s, we have access to someone Arthur Dent doesn’t know.

We have access to Douglas Adams, the winking narrator, the one who tells the story and grins from above at the beautiful workings of his mad universe. We know the author, who has constructed the tale to make us laugh, and in doing so, has acknowledged the reality of the order and sense we all know, deep inside, to be right.

We read the book not from within, but from without, and even meaninglessness becomes magical.

So ride happy into that starry sky, Mr. Adams. In my eyes, you pulled off the greatest absurdity of all. You gave me something you swore you didn’t have: Faith.

So long, and thank you for the tisch.



Originally posted on Hevria.

My Plan For (Jewish) World Domination

With my tried and proven business sense, all I need to take over the world is a product to sell. People don’t enjoy being taken over, you see. You have to distract them with shiny, sparkly things, and their distraction slowly grants you power. Of course, I’m a religious Jew, so the plan, at the same time, should help bring about the messianic age. People will be so happy about the Messiah, they won’t even notice if I’m filthy rich on the side[i]. Not to mention utterly omnipotent.

So, without further ado, here’s the plan. It’s incremental, it’s brilliant, and I get to open up a pizzeria as a hobby.

Phase 1: The Killer App

Even though my Stanford application was rejected, I know that any tech company that wants to run the world must start small; only G-d creates Hobbesian leviathans from thin air. And like certain world-dominating businesses that rhyme with bugle, my company will initially offer only one service. Not search; that is for the non-Jews. We will start with a Brochos App.

Brochos (does not rhyme with ‘nachos’) means “blessings,” and we Jews say lots of ‘em every day. In fact, we ideally say 100. During prayers, before performing commandments, after using the restroom, before and after food…We give thanks to G-d a lot. The problem is that [cue the whistful downtempo piano music, grayscale scene of Manhattan sidewalks] in today’s fast-paced world, it is more difficult than ever to remember to take the time to say the right bracha. We forget Modeh Ani when we wake up and we forget Shma when we go to sleep. We make the Shehakol before a cup of water, than say the Borei Nefashos after, and then we forget whether we said either, and now we want to drink a second cup, and we are, as they say in Yiddish, ‘farscrewed.’ [cue Technicolor and the big band] Enter the Brochos App! With the power of scheduled task and cutting-edge voice recognition technology, never miss a prayer again:

  • Your alarm clock will keep telling you to say Modeh Ani until it hears you say it. Same thing with Shma in the morning.
  • Random music from your collection will play at full volume after a certain time of night (in combination with low light levels) until it hears you say
  • Your phone will hear you make the initial blessing on food, and will then remind you to say the after blessing. When it hears you say the after blessing, the reminder will disappear.

Your Jewish life revolutionized!

But Tzvi, I can hear you wandering through the computer screen, won’t this make, like, absolutely no money ever? How right you are. The point initially is not to earn money. The point is to get people using our services. Then we move on to

Phase 2: Expansions

The continuous updates to the initial app will expand its usefulness much farther afield than anyone would initially guess. The truth is, that if there are going to be effective reminders for things like Lulav and morning Shma, there must be a comprehensive Jewish calendar backend with GPS-based time functionality. Of course, none of this will help if the person doesn’t know the Jewish law relevant to the act at hand. Thus, we will begin to implement halacha pop-ups.

We will also begin to take advantage of all of the phone’s sensors in revolutionary ways, not just the microphone. The compass and accelerometer will tell the user not just the direction in which to pray but will direct lulav shaking according to four different minhagim[ii]. The app will help you step forward and backward for Shemoneh Esrei in a legally acceptable way and can even help the newly religious with their prayer shockel[iii].

The camera will calculate all sorts of halachic measures: how much cake one must eat to say an after-blessing, how tall a building must be to build a fence around its roof, are my tzitzis wide enough?

If all else fails, for a small fee one will submit halachic questions through the app to our team of trained attack Rabbonim, who will stop at nothing to bring your case to a legal and practical conclusion.

Thus, our little app becomes something more and more something you can show off around the Yeshiva water cooler. As more and more people integrate it into their daily life, we’ll bring out the big guns.

Phase 3: Salvation

I call this phase “salvation” because this is when we start making it impossible (to the mind of the consumer) to get a good afterlife without the aid of our smartphone app. How do we accomplish this task, so much more epic than the small brochos app that only three people used for free?

Simple. We use the phone camera to overlay the Gemara. And to preface: Does anyone like to learn Talmud nowadays? No one normal. Do people still learn Talmud? Yes. Why? The afterlife. You have to know the G-dly wisdom if you want a beautiful piece of the Garden of Eden with silver chandeliers, matching sweater vests, and litter everywhere. So you’re stuck learning these books, and they’re in Aramaic, and who knows if you’ll ever be great at it? ENTER THE APP.

Point your phone at the dense page with the little letters. Watch your screen light up like Yidden at a Coloradan Phish concert. Instantaneous translation and commentary of what you’re looking at, with the opinions of all the major Rabbis throughout the centuries! We will either work with Artscroll/Koren or we will make our own, brand new English translation. Every reference to a different page of the Talmud or to the scripture will have a pursuable link with more translation and commentary. No more turning to a different page for meaning; it’s all right there in a cutting edge graphical overlay. And if this still doesn’t help, we will still have the option of calling a Rabbi for a small fee.

No Jew will be able to resist their jealousy of their Talmudic genius friends. And we will slowly expand the Talmud commentary to all Jewish religious works and from English to all languages, including Klingon.

And can you imagine the applications of everything we’ve mentioned so far once everyone wears Google Glass? [iv]

But that’s not all.

Phase 4: Socialism

This is the original term we give to the expansion of our service into the social realm. No longer will your learning and good deeds be your own business, between you and G-d, but rather the business of the entire world! You gave charity today? You take pictures and upload them; we and the crowd will judge them; you will receive holiness points. Same with Talmud. Compete with your friends to see who can learn faster, more, and better. Take tests, earn points.

What do these points get you? Two words: Global Scoreboards. The entire world will see the extent of your observance. People will be able to Judge you at a character level, eliminating the superficiality and falsehood of the regular online experience.

It is impossible to see any downside to this; you benefit through notoriety, we benefit through advertising revenue. Moshiach’s times. Zero-sum games are golus, baby.

Not convinced? Well there’s always

Phase 5: Utopia

In addition to selling something every Jew owns[v] and in addition to increasing the good deeds and Torah learning of Jews immeasurably, we will have solved all major theological issues that prevent the coming of the Messiah.

To wit: Our researchers have found that 95% of a religious Jew’s time isn’t spent perfecting the world, and 94% of it is spent worrying neurotically about whether they are doing the right thing, what their relationship with G-d is, and whether they cleaned up all the chometz. We at The Tzvyndicate™ believe that by quantifying religious observance as outlined above, Jews will no longer be distracted by their insecurities. It will be absolutely clear to anyone on the street whether a person is a Tzaddik, a Rasha, or anything in-between. As G-d intended.

We can then actually go about the practical business of bringing Moshiach, and I can retire to my pizza store safe in the knowledge that the future is secure.

What did Google ever do for the world?

[i] Why do we so discriminate against the rich? Is anyone ever “filthy poor”? Or is that too obvious?

[ii] The fifth minhag, which holds smart phones to be the tools of the devil, will, if selected, cause the phone to self-destruct in a puff of red smoke.

[iii] Also according to a number of customs – the pendulum, the corkscrew, the scrubber, the MBD Hands, etc.

[iv] We will be inventing our own version, of course, called the Tzvectacles™.

[v] A feat only previously achieved by the Spice and Spirit cookbook.


Originally posted on Hevria.