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May 6, 2016  RSS feed

Text: T T T

What’s old is new, or, Why is tikkun olam so inconvenient?

Emilie Socash

“Mom, you are not going to believe what I got for Hanukkah! It’s a camera, but when you take a picture, the film comes right out of the bottom!”

I was reminded of this conversation from a couple years back when I presented Hila (now age 10) with a hand-me-down electric typewriter last week. Just as with the Instamax camera (or, as we know it, Polaroid), she scrutinized its basic functionality. She tried to load a stack of paper in (Nope, hon, just one sheet at a time) and asked about changing the font (Sorry, you get 12-point Times). But after these initial handshakes, she was off and running and quickly produced a single-spaced full-page summary of her day.

“Sorry about some of the typos: I figured out how to backspace but not delete.”

I feel this push-pull between “what is old is new again” and embracing the beauty of modern technologies constantly in my personal and professional life. I’m not certain that they have to be mutually exclusive, but I do think they are often at odds.


The rebirth of print, particularly in magazine publishing. Tablet Magazine, which began as an online-only stunning e-publication just launched its own print version, with content not found online. But this isn’t your mother’s magazine: only two editions in, it’s stunning in its larger-than-most format, artistry, and novella-length pieces. Readers are reconsidering the value of a meatier piece over the snack-size information on the web that’s often difficult to verify.

The maker movement. My regular readers know that my husband and I are both makers (me, a seamstress, and him, a jeweler). In my universe alone, I have people who are raising their own chickens, composting (complete with worms), building their own computers, hand-making Jewish toys, creating intricate wood-worked pieces from reclaimed and natural woods, and much more. Regular people are finding joy in working with their hands, even though there are easier ways to “source” these items.

The transcendence beyond tolerance. I regularly listen to the TED Radio Hour podcast, an NPR production that weaves together several TED Talks and digs deeper with the speakers and related research. The April 22 episode, “Beyond Tolerance,” dug into what we’re really talking about when we promote “tolerance,” challenging the listener to consider that to tolerate someone is to merely put up with their existence. Shouldn’t we expect more from the world… and ourselves? Don’t we, in fact, need the diversity of our world?

But with these cyclical themes, also comes the less-desirable visits from the past. We’re seeing racial tensions that, at times, feel like we haven’t advanced much since 1963. Women are still under tremendous scrutiny and in some instances at a disadvantage in the arenas of health, work, family, and beauty. Parents and neighbors (and even pet owners) are embracing public shaming, these modern iterations of the “scarlet letter” taking us back to a hateful place.

But here’s the rub: for as many times as I admire an episode of self-sustainability, or a recapture of old world abilities, I see 10 more ways (or products or schemes) that will make life easier. There’s a whole “hacker” movement, and it’s no longer relegated to the computer world. Everyone is hacking everything from Ikea to diet to morning routines.

I’m a sucker for reading up on these life hacks, and I think that this is just the new lingo for what in the ’50s and ’60s would have appeared in Popular Mechanics in a column on Home Tricks or even a separate edition (remember “Home Kinks?”). Be honest: have you been sucked into watching a video entitled “14 NEW Hacks Using a Binder Clip?” I sure have.

Last fall, when stumbling through a black hole of life hack videos, a “related link” came up that caught my eye: “Pre-Crastination: The Opposite of Procrastination.” This in-depth piece by Scientific American (from June, 2015) describes the act of “completing tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done.” The authors went on to explore what they have coined the economics of effort, trying to determine what mental machinations are at play in this behavior. Two theories emerged:

First, from the depths of evolution, we might be more likely to address and use resources while they are available.

Alternatively, it might be that pre-crastination allows us to relieve working memory. With our modern harried lives, every memory-tasked neuron is required.

Neither felt right to the scientist and so they developed a third, and simpler, possibility.

Completing the task is rewarding in and of itself. A little Pirkei Avot, anyone? (Regarding tikkun olam, or repairing the world, it is said that “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but nor are you free to desist from it.”)

How do we make sense of the convenience of the modern world in our duties toward tikkun olam, while trying to embrace the old traditions that made it meaningful?

It’s certainly a lot easier to “text to give” when a commercial comes up than to show up at the local food pantry and help organize inventory. It’s much more convenient to “Like” a friend’s GoFundMe page than to bring them a dinner. I have some of my charitable gifts applied to my credit card monthly so I don’t have to take any action. I’m embarrassed to say that I do this so that I don’t have to have any contact with the organization (but if it’s any saving grace, it’s not one of our Jewish organizations).

How do we make what was old new again when it comes to tikkun olam? Does tikkun olam have to be inconvenient, interfering with the flow of our lives? Where are the holy sparks of the inconvenient work of making our world the best place it can be?

Liked it? Loathed it? Want to react? I would welcome your feedback and can be reached at

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