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Thoughts and thank-yous from “The Jewish Highway”

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How do you put into perspective the demise of The Canadian Jewish News given the illness and death that are wreaking havoc throughout the world? It is folly to create scales of suffering but the loss of a newspaper goes beyond the impact on its dedicated staff.

It leaves a community without a trusted voice, a source of “true news”, when so much of the opposite is proliferating out there. It is particularly a shame when it is happening to the third largest Jewish community outside Israel. Only the U.S. and France have more Jews than Canada.

This column has had the honour to appear on the pages – and later, the website – of The Canadian Jewish News since Feb. 1996. Back then, the World Wide Web was starting to find its way into Canadian homes (usually via a very noisy modem). Known as “The Information Superhighway,” it was both achingly slow and revolutionary in its appeal.

In my first column of “The Jewish Highway,” I wrote, “For a nation scattered to the four corners of the earth, this new technology presents a unique opportunity. I want to take you to many places where you can:

  • track down old friends from your Jewish Youth Movement
  • listen to newscasts from Kol Yisrael
  • debate the Peace Process
  • or debate the best recipe for gefilte fish.”

Back then, surfing the web usually meant plunking yourself in front of a PC (but for me, always a Mac!) and reading pages and pages of text. Streaming video, iPhones, Wi-Fi access, Wikipedia, YouTube, even Google, were still years away. And if you had mentioned Facebook, Instagram or Zoom (which are playing such a crucial role during these difficult days), you would have received a vacant stare.

Jewish content online was always impressive. I remember seeing the first website that could chant the entire Torah. What could ever top that, I thought? It turns out plenty. Never has so much Jewish content been so accessible. Talmud. Commentaries. Outreach. Information about rare Jewish genetic diseases. And let’s not forget that a disproportionate amount of the technology that keeps the Web, our computers and our digital devices going has been developed in Start-up Nation, aka Israel.

At the same time, there certainly are dangers lurking out there, and they embody values antithetical to Judaism – ranging from blasphemies (“The Jews were behind 9/11”) to pornography to homegrown forums for lashon hara (malicious gossip), and the constant temptation to waste our most precious resource, time.

As the exchange of digital information has grown, it has been interesting to note how segments of the Jewish community have dealt with it. Some saw its potential and decided to embrace it early. Others decided to reject it for mostly the same reasons. But in recent years, even those who would prefer to shun it have realized that the Internet – unlike television – cannot just be ignored, and that more sophisticated strategies are required.

Occasionally, I am asked what role this column continued to play when we have sophisticated search engines like Google. In the early days, my challenge was to track down and recommend hard-to-find websites. With the exponential growth of the Internet, this column has subtly changed. Nowadays, thanks to information overload, I feel that journalists play an even more important role in sifting through the vast majority of sites which really are not worth your time in order to uncover the treasures which are.

I have been privileged to do that – and have so many people to thank:

  • Mordechai Ben-Dat, who took a chance on a new column and a new writer. And Yoni Goldstein who brought the column back to a rejuvenated CJN.
  • My patient editors – Jeff Rosen, Carolan Halpern, Joe Serge and Leora Heilbronn – who corrected my errors and excused me for occasionally filing a bit too close to deadline.
  • My family and friends who forgave me when I was guilty of spending a bit too much time hunting down a new site or fiddling with copy.
  • And you, my readers who have kept me on my toes, providing me with ideas, feedback and inspiration. 

This is not the first time that I have bid farewell. Back in 2013, things looked pretty grim, but against all odds, the CJN (and this column) were back. One can invoke imagery of the mythical phoenix or the cat and its nine lives – or a bit closer to home, the Jewish belief in gilgul neshamot. But who knows if reincarnation applies to newspapers?

In the meantime, please do keep safe. Remember to keep apart physically. But at the same time, keep very close virtually and spiritually.

Have a happy and kosher Passover!

Mark

[email protected]

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