I took my six-week old daughter to synagogue for the first time last Friday night. My husband and I deliberately sat in the back of the congregation. At first, the baby sat contentedly in her car seat as the beautiful melodies of Kabbalat Shabbat filled the room around us. After L’cha Dodi, the rabbi began to speak. As he did, two things happened. The first was that my daughter opened her mouth and began to cry (I don’t usually like sermons either, so she clearly got that from me). The second was that someone’s phone rang loudly in a jaunty ring that would have seemed right at home in a beachside margarita joint, but less so in a religious service.
As I extricated my child from the car seat and prepared for a swift exit into hallway exile, the usher swooped down on the offending phone user and reminded her that cell phones should be turned off in a religious service. The usher then followed me to the door and held it open for me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, gesturing toward my poorly-mannered baby.
“Babies bother me a lot less than cell phones,” she said with a kind smile.
As I left the sanctuary, I thought about her statement, and her mentality made sense to me. After all, babies don’t have a ‘vibrate’ button (if they do, PLEASE email me ASAP and let me know where I can find it). But more importantly, babies’ cries need to be attended to…and more often than not, contrary to the way we behave, those of a phone do not.
Back in my dating days, I remember one dinner with a guy…let’s call him ‘Jeff,’ since that was his name. It was a first date, and we’d been set up by a friend, in a rare deviation from my JDate recidivism. We went to a Japanese restaurant in the Village, and talked about his recent travels and mine. On the date Richter scale, it was much like the recent New York earthquake – comparatively benign. Until, out of nowhere, this guy I’d just met whipped it out. Right there, at the table.
His BLACKBERRY, people! Get your minds out of the gutter!
Let me get this straight – you’d have been offended if it had been his penis, right? Probably. As I have said once to my six year old, “No penises at the dinner table.” After all, private parts have their proper place, and it’s not at the dinner table. But someone taking out a communicative device and thumbing something to someone else right in front of your face, that doesn’t bother you?
Well, it bothered me. “Whatcha doing?” I asked nonchalantly.
“Just checking on some stuff,” he said, his eyes not deviating from the small screen.
I told him I thought it was time to check on the check. He looked up, startled. The rest of our date, in the cab on the way to our separate stops, was a discussion of why that single gesture had offended me so thoroughly that I didn’t anticipate a second date.
Let me come out of the closet — I don’t have a smartphone or BlackBerry. Arguably, as a journalist, this is an idiotic move, meant only to prove some stupid Luddite point. Well, don’t worry about my connectivity: I have an iPad and can still be in touch with the ever-increasing demands of an ever-expectant world when I wish. The difference is that the iPad is not going to buzz me from my back pocket and make me drool and respond like a Pavlovian experiment.
I don’t have a smartphone or BlackBerry because I know myself. I know that my eyes would gravitate towards that screen and away from the eyes and expectations of the people who are actually present in my life. I know that I would be forever scrolling through for updates and perpetually downloading new time-wasting apps. I know that I would fall prey to the plague that has befallen so many of my friends — that I would become focused on sending the perfect picture of my kid to family and friends rather than actually just looking at and enjoying my kid.
The difference between babies and cell phones is an examination of what it means to be completely and wholly present. This undivided attention is what is called for in religious spaces, and, I’d argue, in our personal lives as well.
In the Torah, God asks Abraham, “Where are you?” He responds, “Hineni,” which is Hebrew for “Here I am.” A baby’s cry is not usually one of pain – it’s a simple statement, “Here I am.” This is me. Care for me. Attend to me. Love me. A phone’s ring, or a BlackBerry’s vibration, is an attempt to approximate that very human voice of simultaneous statement and request. And it’s just not the same.