UrbanSefer: Remixing the Haggadah

[This is the eighth in a nine-part series describing the projects of the 2011-2012 Jewish New Media Innovation Fund Award Recipients.]

It is easy to forget that the Bible was once written in the common, everyday language of the People of Israel. Moses’tongue was something like that of Eminem’s: simple and clear for the everyday Moishe in the street, yet still compelling and powerful – and subtly revealing the wisdom of the ages. But today, the language of the Bible is either a Hebrew we haven’t spoken since Hebrew High School or the language of King James. Both are far, far removed from our everyday lives, even our understanding of everyday life. But does the language of the Bible need to be so foreign to us?

This is the founding insight of UrbanSefer. Well, this theoretical philosophy along with a very practical observation that Seders tend to be boring. Often very boring. Yet there’s no reason for them to not be wickedly enjoyable. Is a Seder, with minor changes around the edges, not just a structured drinking game? (How many times must we raise our glasses of wine and drink during the Seder?). And, keeping in line with the original spirit of the Seder, are we not supposed to recline and relax and celebrate our liberation?

Here at UrbanSefer, we are dedicated to our mission of continuing and expanding our sacred, ancient Jewish tradition – while staying true to their original intentions, bringing them into a language and style that the modern Jew can not understand only in his mind but can absorb as part of his everyday living traditions. We refuse to let the modern world turn our “culture” into merely an appreciation of Woody Allen or a series of jokes about overprotective Jewish mothers. Our best weapon for fighting back is to take the holy and and make it obscenely, ridiculously, offensively awesome.

Yes, awesome. And as awesome as it was when the Torah was written: we must not forget that the Torah itself is offensively awesome. The Torah isn’t just a powerful compilation of laws, stories, and lessons – it is a gripping movie. Like any good R-rated movie, it contains raunchy parts (Remember, say, Lots’ daughters getting him drunk so they can have sex with him. Twice.) Indeed, better than any R-rated movie, it contains the most powerful truths and lessons that guide our lives. I certainly hope no one guides his/her life by Groundhog Day, as much as I myself would like to do that. And yet, since today feels a lot like yesterday and the day before, I think I might be.

To say it differently: Moses was the best marketer of all time. Jesus and Mohammed can give him a good run for his money, too – although Moses, as the grand-daddy of western monotheism, trumps them all. Judaism caught on and has kept a loyal following for centuries, surviving many attempts by the jealous to extinguish our flame, not only because of Hashem’s holy and mighty awesomeness for protecting us and watching over us but also because our founding fathers created an amazing structure that got so many people in the ancient near east excited about this community, and that has kept this community tightly bounded to each other for millennia since.

But the catch is this: the marketing is all in ancient Hebrew. Well, Hebrew and Aramaic. Marketing 101: It’s not especially effective to use 5,000-year-old marketing techniques in the long-dead language of Aramaic if you’re trying to reach a modern, young, American audience. What shall we do? We hate tricky marketing methods so we’re doing it in the straightforward way: we’re just creating an phenomenal product! A good product itself is better than any marketing you could do.

At UrbanSefer, we’re developing a few strategies to create compelling new versions of our original texts, in our own, modern language. The first is, to create a modern Haggadah – one that is raunchy, rowdy, and fun in the spirit of the original Seders millennia ago. But we’re not just “writing” it (writing itself is very state-of-the-art in the mid-20th century) but we’re building an online community. We’re “crowdsourcing” as the cool web 2.0 kids say today: finding people who, like us, want to connect to our traditions but feel distant from the current implementations of our most sacred values. We’re building up a little universe and applying the Internet to it – in other words, we’re using the web as best we can to find funny Jewish people to join our little world.

Our ambitions, however, only begin with the Haggadah. After the Haggadah, we plan to start working on the Old Testament itself. Every generation needs a voice; we will never be the voice of our generation of Jews, unfortunately for us. But we hope to find other like-minded Jews who both value and insist on continuing our traditions yet are confident speaking and living and loving in the modern world, with our modern language (as blunt as it may be) and modern thoughts (as secular as they may be), and bring them together and just have a wickedly fun time with them, online and offline. This is, after all, how Judaism itself was born.

Morgan Friedman is the founder of UrbanSefer.

cross-posted at JewishNewMediaFund.org