The Rebirth of Near-Dead Devices, and a Few Words with Josh Gondelman

I’m not writing this blog post on the wall of a cave or with a fountain pen or on a typewriter. It’s not being printed on a Gutenberg or Koenig printing press. And you’re not reading this in the afternoon edition of your town newspaper or on a first generation billboard style website.
That must mean, like products, communication devices have a lifecycle. Modifying the product lifecycle (launch – growth – maturity –decline), let’s agree the communication devices version looks like this: use by early adopters – widespread use – use by old people who refuse to embrace new technology – use as an artifact in a museum.
Now let’s put a couple of historical items through the model.
The Shofar. Somebody grabbed the horn off a (hopefully already dead) ram, thought to blow into it, which caused some people to pay attention, and it quickly evolved to announcing holidays. Over the years they started to use it to signify the start of a war, maybe call a town meeting, and it became an instrument in orchestras. Then it hit the decline, and of course today they are pretty much relegated to museums and a feature spot in the Rosh Hashana service.
The Typewriter. Invented, got popular, got really popular, started to decline, was used by people that thought the computer was a passing fad, now they are in museums and used by writers that think they are too cool for computers.
There are also more modern communication vehicles, like fax machines, beepers, and an AOL email address, that we all know are tomorrow’s featured exhibits.
But what I find most interesting in my made up lifecycle, is one phase of the only used by old stubborn people stage. At some point during this stage the communication device becomes retro-cool, nostalgic, and spurs “projects”.
For example, the handwritten letter. Most people don’t hand write letters anymore. Who has the time? Or the patience? Or the penmanship? There are plenty of blog posts and articles that talk about handwritten letters. They wax nostalgic about it as a lost art form, like this excerpt from a New York Times op-ed piece last February, “A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do.” Powerful? Over the top? Right on? I don’t know.
But beyond the nostalgia comes the projects. And I’ve found a couple.
One was called According to the website, “the project allowed people to email a letter, which was then handwritten by volunteers — complete with customizable options like a doodle, flower petal or lipstick kiss if desired — and mailed to the recipient, completely free of charge.” Completed during a month last summer, the project sent over 10,000 letters to more than 70 different countries. But, I don’t know if there is a Jewish connection, so let’s move on to the next one.
The other project I came across is from a New York Jewish comic.
He decided to fill up some of his free time while on the road writing letters or postcards to anyone in the world who emailed him and asked for one. His name is Josh Gondelman, his tumblr page is, and he was nice enough to tell me more about his project.

ME: First off, I need a Jewish angle for this post. Josh, what’s the Jewish angle of your project?
JOSH: To me, the most beautiful element of Judaism is the idea of community. I started the project right after Passover [this year], and it’s really wonderful to think about holding ourselves to the standard of: “Let all who are without food join our seder.” I’m paraphrasing, but I like the idea of doing something for someone for the specific purpose of building community. That’s one of the great responsibilities of being human, I think, to create that atmosphere of warmth and sharing.
Judaism does a very nice job of foregrounding that as a priority. It’s more about tradition and togetherness than dogma. I like the idea of tzedakah and person on person contact bringing people comfort and making a tangible difference. I think that’s kind of what this project is turning into. Not that I’m doing a great act of charity (I’m definitely, definitely not), but that people can be there for each other. I think that’s a very Jewish idea. Like whitefish salad at a funeral.
ME: Well said, now can you say something eloquent and compelling about the power of the hand-written word?
JOSH: I’ll do my best! I think that because most practical communication takes place electronically, handwritten correspondence is the domain of emotional truth rather than transmission of facts. There’s no reason to write a letter unless you want to create a concrete representation of a feeling or an idea. It takes too much time and money and energy and planning to use the mail for concerns like: “Where should we eat dinner on Friday?” There’s a luxury and a romantic ideal to writing a letter that other mediums don’t capture quite as well, at least for people of a generation who grew up in part or in whole before e-mail and cell phones.
ME: I’ve been trying to think of anything left in this decade that is still hand-written. So far my entire list consists of the Torah and the two personal checks I write out per year, which may expose my lack of a romantic ideal. Is your hand-writing project more like the Torah or a personal check?
JOSH: It’s somewhere between personal check and doctor’s prescription pad. I don’t want to sully the beautiful calligraphy of the Torah by comparing it to my own scrawl, which I would categorize as the chicken scratch of a rooster who studied creative writing at Brandeis. The only other thing I write by hand is material for standup. I don’t type that, for whatever reason.
ME: Speaking of your standup, have you done any shows in Minneapolis?
JOSH: I love performing in Minneapolis! There are so many great comedians to work with and venues to perform at! I’m coming back to the area in September to perform at the House of Comedy (in the Mall of America).
ME: Cool. Later this summer let us know the dates and we’ll pass them on to the TC Jewfolk community, maybe give away a few tickets.

(Photo: sure2talk)