According to contemporary rabbinical commentary, the Jewish New Year festival of Rosh Hashanah provides us with an opportunity to recharge and reconnect to our families, our communities and ourselves (yep, I had a brief squiz of Granny’s AJN Rosh Hashanah lift-out). Even for secular Jews who don’t necessarily subscribe to a spiritual channel, the lead-up to the High Holy Days is still a period of introspection; a time to contemplate the mistakes we’ve made and the ways we can better serve the people we care about. If we’re lucky, in between all of this introspection and connection, we might even have time to bake an instaworthy cake and pop out to the local park to listen to the shofar (even though we’re not completely sure that public horn blowing will do a whole lot of good for Australian j.comm ‘optics’ during lockdown). Personally, I don’t have the capacity to engage in any of these activities right now. I’m too busy sifting through thousands of Rosh Hashanah memes and videos sent to me by Jewish boomers in WhatsApp groups I never consented to being added to.
“What does meme mean?” I can hear my 66-year-old father asking. (Literally. He’s mumbling in the background of a Facetime call I’m on with my mother while I write this). Well Dad, in the context of Jewish festivals or holy days, a meme is a simple picture – often with accompanying text (comic sans font) – that is forwarded enthusiastically by people who happen to have a smartphone or email account. More often than not, these people are between 57-75 years of age. On Passover, the picture will likely include an image of Matza and a ‘joke’ about constipation. On Rosh Hashanah you’ll probably spot a cartoon rendition of apple, honey and a polite wish that the recipient have a sweet new year. On Shabbat, a meme usually … actually that’s a whole different story. Shabbat memes have become so obscure these days, they need a whole think piece of their own.
Just when millennials thought their devices had peaked in overstimulation and overwhelm – constant pings, flashes and vibrations demanding we TAP, TOUCH, SCROLL, READ and RESPOND – suddenly our WhatsApp traffic has become even more congested with bajillion megabyte videos displaying animated clip art, set to a soundtrack of 90s Hebrew classics. It’s no wonder I haven’t had time to set goals for a future of meaning and purpose – I haven’t made it to the end of Aunty Debbie’s slideshow yet. When I do carve out some space for meditation, I doubt I’ll be asking myself the all-important question of how I can resuscitate my faith … all I really want to know right now is: where are these niche memes, videos and stickers coming from? Who is making them and are they doing so ironically? Am I being trolled by an Israeli retiree who got lost in a coding tutorial rabbit hole during quarantine?
“Are you ok darling?” I’ve forgotten that I’m still facetiming with my mother. She can tell that I haven’t exhaled once during the last five minutes of furious keyboard pounding (a pitfall of multitasking). “I think she is triggering!” Dad chimes in the background of the call.
I do wonder why I find generic festival memes so off putting. Am I just a product of my generation; a self-absorbed, entitled ingrate who values original content over good intentions? Or am I a snob with an inflated sense of disdain for kitsch Judaica? In order to determine whether I am alone in my frustration and angst, I send out inquiries to some millennial/Gen Y cousins and friends. “I don’t even open the videos,” admits one 27-year-old. “I’ve been ghosting that group for years,” replies another. “Rosh Hashanah memes shouldn’t be a thing!”
So much for connecting.
“Did you see the Rosh Hashanah picture I just sent the family group?” It’s Mum on Facetime again. Clearly, I’m not the only one multitasking. “Yes Mum, I’ve seen that one already.” It’s then I realise that the key to my enlightenment is staring me right in the face. Literally. Mum’s moved towards the camera for an unintentional close-up. I proceed to ask my mother, from a place of curiosity, not judgment (ok a little bit of judgement) to take me through her process of forwarding that meme to us. Mum makes her pondering face. “I suppose I just want people to know that I’m thinking of them. Back in the day I used to send cards, but people don’t really do that anymore.”
I think I get it now … when a boomer sends a Rosh Hashanah meme, it’s like a card … but without the part where you write a personal message. So, in essence, it’s like, cutting the front cover off a card and just sending that bit on its own … nope, I still don’t get it.
If you’re a boomer and you’re still (reluctantly) reading this, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Shouldn’t we ‘young folk’ just be grateful that we have so many people between the age of 57-75 who care about us enough to forward an image that an acquaintance from their Zumba group sent them (who got it from their distant cousin in Johannesburg who got it from their bridge club nemesis?) Yes, we should appreciate the fact that we have a strong network of elders who wish us well. Is it ok then, to still find this meme exchange annoying? Also, yes. In the words of every Gen Y & millennial’s therapist, “Two different truths can exist at the same time.” Classic DBT right? (For the boomers who refuse to engage in therapy, preferring the ‘get over and get on with it approach’ – google Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. Highly recommend.)
Mum exhales. I exhale. It’s nice to know she cares about me. And all the people in her contacts. I make a promise to be more present during our next IRL catch-up. Maybe we can make some Rosh Hashanah cards together like we did when I was a kid. I’ll even switch my phone off, I promise myself. Or at least, I’ll put it on silent. And suddenly, I have a New Year’s resolution.