Thursday, September 14, 2017


While perusing the website of the monthly technology magazine, Wired, the other day, I came across a video by James Vlahos, currently one of their own staff writers but formerly a contributing author at the New York Times, GQ, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and National Geographic Adventure. It was an interesting experience, watching that video—which is just slightly over seven and a half minutes long—but also a slightly disorienting one. Part of me was intrigued. Another part of me was envious. And still another part of me was at least slightly appalled. And so, figuring that anything that triggers such a strange set of such conflicting emotions in me will likely be worth presenting to my readers in this space, I decided to write this final time before Rosh Hashanah and to present Vlahos’ work to you.

The video is about his creation of Dadbot, which was his name for the chatbot he created while he father was dying so that he could continue to converse, sort of, with his father after the latter died. To see the video and hear its creator describe his project, click here.

To appreciate this accomplishment, you have to understand the concept of a chatbot. But even if the term will possibly be unfamiliar to most, the concept is all too well known to all of us who have telephones and endlessly receive sales calls on them. Some are just recordings. (I hang up immediately.) Some are actual people. (I wait for the speaker to catch his or her breath, then I politely ask them never, ever, to call me back. And then I hang up.)  But the most sophisticated robo-callers are chatbots—computer programs that are programmed to respond to you as though they were human beings listening to what you have to say and responding appropriately and even colloquially. Occasionally, I’ve been taken in. I suppose we all have. Just the other day, for example, I picked up the phone and a woman’s voice said that she was Jennifer and that she had an important message for me. She paused. I asked, I thought cleverly, if she was a person or a machine. And then, when I stopped speaking, she responded entirely reasonably, “Of course, I’m a person.” Something about her intonation made me suspect that she was a chatbot, however, so I asked her if she could further prove her humanness by reminding me what state Tallahassee is the capital of. She responded by repeating that her name was Jennifer and that she was calling with an important message for me, and with that our brief relationship, such as it was, ended with me hanging up the phone. I’m sure Jenn will eventually give me another try, though, possibly after reviewing her state capitals.

The earliest chatbots were developed in the 1960s, and they have become increasingly more sophisticated since then with every passing decade. But all chatbots, from the least to the most sophisticated, have at least one thing in common: they are essentially elaborate parlor tricks designed to make you feel that you are speaking to a human being, not instances of machines being endowed with the digital brainpower actually to engage in what any of us would normally call a “real” conversation, the kind in which one party speaks and the other party understands what was just said and then responds intelligently but in a non-predetermined way. Almost all chatbots use language-triggers to develop dialogue, for example by listening for the word “father” in the human speaker’s remarks and then responding, “So interesting…but please tell me more about both your parents.” But none actually thinks. Or, to use the term the way we normally use it daily discourse, speaks. Not really!

James Vlahos’ father, John James Vlahos, died just this last February. They were very close, and there are very touching moments on the video where James has to pause because he is simply too choked by emotion to continue. But whereas most of us somehow make our peace with the dead being beyond meaningful communication, Vlahos decided to respond to that thought by creating a chatbot featuring his father’s voice.

Before their father died, Vlahos and his siblings undertook an oral history project in the course of which they recorded a dozen hours of their father’s reminiscences regarding his childhood, his family, his career, his marriage, his children, and his life. They also took voluminous notes, which effort yielded about two hundred pages of extra material. Plus, of course, Vlahos and his siblings knew their father for decades and could easily imagine him responding to specific questions with specific expressions that he like to use and said all the time.  But none of that would have mattered much if Vlahos hadn’t been able to bring his technological training to bear—and specifically his ability to use an artificial intelligence computer program called PullString. (For more about PullString, click here.)  And so, using that specific program to bring together thousands of sentences his father actually uttered and to match them to appropriate word-triggers, he created Dadbot, a chatbot capable of playing the role of his father in an ongoing dialogue left unimpeded by the detail that one of the dialogists was gone from the world. Plus, Vlahos had a large store of stories and favorite songs recorded by his father over the years in various contexts, and those too he was able insert into the program where appropriate.

Is it meaningful or silly, the Dadbot? His father isn’t really there, of course. Or is he? We “are” lots of things in this world, but surely one of those things is what we say, how we speak, the words we choose to express our thoughts, our mannerisms of language and self-expression. Why is what Vlahos did any less “real” than preserving photographs of our late parents or grandparents? Those pictures aren’t our actual grandparents either! But they preserve the way they looked, not entirely unlike the way the Dadbot preserves the way James Vlahos’s father sounded. And although I suppose you could say the same thing about any recording made pre-posthumously by anyone at all—that it preserves the way that person sounded—this is really so much more than just a cleverly edited recording that it seems to bear evaluation on its own terms. I suppose I’m envious more than anything else because I wish my Dad lived on in my phone the way his father lives on in his. After all, saying that his father lives on in his phone isn’t quite as crazy as saying that his father actually lives in his phone! That, of course, really would be impossible.

I have a few recordings of my father’s voice, but I never listen to them. I’m not even sure why not. I would certainly recognize his voice anywhere. I would love to have a final (or, even better, a not final) conversation with him, and surely hearing his voice would trigger all sorts of associations that are probably lying dormant within me just waiting for the appropriate stimulus to elicit them from my memory banks. I do not have any recordings of my mother’s voice, which I regret. (The obvious paradox of me wishing I had recordings that I don’t have and not using listening to the ones I do have will for the moment have to remain unresolved.) I hear my father’s voice all the time, of course. Just I hear it inside my head, where his ghost plants them, not in my ear courtesy of a Dadbot. Is that a profound difference? It is! (Or is it?)

And so we come to our High Holiday season, which we celebrate with our families living and long gone as we all crowd into the sanctuary to participate in the services that, more than anything, awaken in us a sense that the distinction between time past and time future dissolves in the flow of associative memories that our prayers—and particularly the most ancient ones—call up easily in every Jewish breast. Maybe that’s the reason I find the whole concept of a Dadbot so resonant—not because I don’t wish I had one (which I sort of do), but because, in the end, I don’t need one, just as none of us really does…and particularly not at this time of the year when our parents are with us either in body or in spirit, when their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are palpably present even in their physical absence, when we pause to notice how comfortable we have grown over the years feeling the air overhead heavy with the spirits of all our ancestors as we gather in our sanctuary on these High Holidays, and particular (of course) during Yizkor. So who needs our parents to live in our phones?

We sometimes lose track of the fact that when technology mimics life, it doesn’t need also to replace it. I remember when my daughter Lucy, then a little girl, was amazed to learn that it’s possible to play solitaire without a computer. I suppose it’s possible my great-grandchildren, please God, will find it surprising that it’s possible to read a book without having to plug your book-reading-device in first. Or that it’s possible to determine if it’s raining outside without using any data at all. Or that you can achieve same-day delivery of purchases—and for free—by taking yourself physically to an actual store and buying something there in person.  Or that you can commune with your late parents without a phone, without any expertise in PullString, and without any actual digital programming skill at all simply by coming to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, opening a Machzor, and allowing its ancient words to make fall the scales from your eyes and to allow you to see the world of the living and the dead as it truly is.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Billy Joel and the Yellow Star

A few weeks ago, Billy Joel surprised his audience at Madison Square Garden by returning to the stage at the end of a concert wearing a yellow star specifically tailored to resemble the ones the Nazis forced Jews in occupied Europe to wear. Clearly, the point was to make a statement—a stark, wordless one, but one that would (and did) get the attention not only of his audience at the Garden but of the wide world beyond the arena’s walls as well—about the rising tide of white supremacism, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitic and racial intolerance in our American republic.  As wordless protests go, it couldn’t have been more well-timed: the nation was still reeling from the sight of white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and undisguised neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville while carrying semi-automatic weapons, waving Confederate and Nazi flags, and chanting overtly anti-Semitic slogans when Billy Joel donned his star at the Garden not even two weeks later.

The response to Joel’s gesture was mixed. In the non-Jewish media, it was generally lauded as a dramatic non-verbal statement about a serious national issue by a personality who found himself in the right place at the right time to make it. TMZ, the celebrity news website, referenced it as “a bold statement about the times we live in.” Billboard referred to it as “a powerful political statement.” MSN, The Microsoft Network, said Joel’s gesture was “a strong statement against the growing Neo-Nazi and White Nationalism movement.” People Magazine called it a “strong statement” against intolerance.

The response in the Jewish media was far more equivocal. 

Andrew Silow-Carroll, writing on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, focused almost exclusively on his fear that Joel’s gesture, no doubt heartfelt and sincere, might accidentally trigger an unfortunate trend: “I don’t think anybody wants the yellow star to become this year’s AIDS ribbon or Livestrong bracelet,” he wrote. “The wearing of the yellow star seems the kind of gesture that can be made once, or sparingly, lest you diminish its shock value or begin to insult the experiences and memory of the people who are purporting to identify with an honor.”  But that dismissive response qualifies as restrained and measured when compared to the response of Stephen Pollard in the Jewish Chronicle, the U.K.-based newspaper of which he is editor, who labelled Joel’s gesture “crass, infantile, ignorant, stupid, and offensive.” And that was just the headline. Later on in the piece, he explains his position in slightly more detail: “[You] do not express your pride in being Jewish, or your revulsion against hate, by donning the Nazi yellow star as a fashion statement of that supposed pride. All you do is insult those survivors who lived through the Shoah, and who did not wear their yellow stars to draw media attention to themselves but because they were forced to do so by the Third Reich.” Nor was Pollard at all impressed when Nev Schulman, an actor and the producer of the popular MTV television show Catfish, showed up at the MTV Movie Awards wearing his own yellow star, a gesture that prompted Pollard to label him a “half-wit” and which only seemed to confirm Silow-Carroll’s fear that the yellow star could yet become a widespread symbol of opposition to intolerance. 

Other Jewish responses varied.  A piece in the Forward earlier this week by the anonymous blogger who writes as Jewish Chick described herself as “flabbergasted, outraged, and frankly puzzled,” by Joel’s and Schulman’s gestures. “For myself,” she wrote, “and [for] many others, [the gesture of donning a yellow star] represents a slap in the face for [sic] those who perished during and [those who] survived the Holocaust, no matter what the intent.” On the other hand, Aryeh Kaltmann, a Chabad rabbi writing on the Algemeiner website, labelled Joel’s gesture as “an inspiring surprise” and explained himself as follows: “By boldly wearing the startling image of the star that the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust, Joel was decrying anti-Semitism in particular—and, by implication, racism and other forms of hate.”

I think Rabbi Kaltmann got it right. Yes, it was shocking to see Billy Joel (who has hardly worn his Jewishness on his sleeve in the course of his many years of fame) appearing on stage willingly wearing something that symbolizes the barbarism of Nazi intolerance and anti-Semitism. But isn’t that the point of dramatic gestures in the first place, that they trigger emotions in the people who see them that might otherwise have lain dormant?

I’ve read in many places that there is no apparent historicity to the story I heard a thousand times as a child about how Denmark’s King Christian X chose to express his solidarity with his Jewish subjects after Denmark was invaded by the Germans by donning a yellow star himself. When I was a boy, that story stirred me mightily…and the reason I responded to it so viscerally, now that I think back carefully, is precisely because it was so unexpected, so dramatic, and so intense a gesture for someone outside the Jewish community to make in public on behalf of those on the inside. King Christian wasn’t a Jew, obviously, but he—in the story, at least—was expressing his solidarity with the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism personally and publicly. So why should it not be equally moving to contemplate a pop star—and particularly one whose Jewishness has been so low-key over the years that I myself was slightly surprised the learn that he even was Jewish—by such a person standing up to oppose neo-Nazi anti-Semitism…and particularly when he personally had nothing at all to gain by making such a public statement? That the story about King Christian isn’t true (click here for the details) hardly matters and, indeed, the fact that the story was apparently just a fantasy speaks volumes about how meaningful a gesture it would surely have been had he really made it.

The back history of the Jewish badge goes back a long way. In 1215, for example, the Fourth Lateran Council headed by Pope Innocent III decreed that henceforth Jews in all Christian lands under papal control would be obliged to adopt some specific article of dress that could vary from land to land but that in every place would set them apart from their Christian neighbors. In 1222, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (who is otherwise remembered for inventing the chapter divisions in the Hebrew Bible that are used today in all Christian editions and most Jewish ones) decreed that English Jews were required to wear a white band across their clothing minimally “two fingers broad and four fingers long.”  In 1227, the Christian Synod of Narbonne in France decreed that Jews in France wear an oval badge; just the next year, James I ordered the Jews of Aragon to wear a similar badge. In 1294, the Jews of Erfurt in Germany were similarly required to wear the Jewish badge, the first mention of such a thing in any German city. You get the idea…one way or the other, the practice spread across Europe, constantly being cancelled and then re-introduced over the course of almost the entire medieval period. And then, of course, after centuries of disuse, the Nazis re-introduced the idea in many of the countries they conquered in the early 1940s as well as in Germany itself.

There is something particularly vicious about the use of the star. The Jews of Germany (or France or anywhere) were not physically distinct from the people among whom they lived. And the sense of fitting in, of being one of the masses, of being able to circulate easily in society without arousing the ire of whatever anti-Semites they might encounter in the course of one’s day’s affairs—that sense of being indistinguishable from the rest of the populace was a key element in the feeling many Jews developed that they were safe and secure in their host nations and in the cities they had come to think of as their hometowns. As a result, pronouncements by those medieval monarchs who considered the fact that their Jewish subjects were not easily recognizable to be a problem in need of addressing took on a particularly ominous ring. Nor did that ominousness dissipate with the passing of centuries, and least of all in Nazi-occupied Europe, where the yellow badge was not just a mark of Jewishness, but more specifically a mark of Jewishness overlaid with a deep sense of creeping ill ease, of jeopardy, of menace.

For these last weeks since Charlottesville, the challenge for us all has been to steer a clear course between over-reaction and under-reaction, between seeing neo-Nazis behind every tree and falling into the trap of not seeing them at all because we so fervently wish for them not to exist. I’ve had to negotiate those straits myself, both when speaking from the bimah and when writing my weekly letter to you all, and even now I find myself unsure about how things truly stand. Surely, there is no incipient political movement gaining ground that is anything like the rising Nazi party in the waning days of the Weimar Republic. There was almost universal bipartisan agreement that the President’s initial comments about Charlottesville were equivocal and unworthy. There were, at the end of the day, about 250 people chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us” in the streets of Charlottesville, not 250,000. Our nation has always harbored extremists and haters who abuse their First Amendment rights to defame others, yet the civil rights of citizens remain the cornerstone of our democracy nonetheless. The sense of decency and fairmindedness that is the hallmark of true American patriotism remains in place.  I myself am neither worried nor scared; my sense of my place in our nation is just as it has been for decades and is, I believe, as unshakeable as it is unshaken.

But we also remember the Jews of Germany who made the cataclysmic error of underestimating the haters. They too felt secure, safe, and possessed of inalienable civil rights! Of course, the fact that they were wrong doesn’t mean that we too are! But it means that when a public figure like Billy Joel comes on stage at one of the nation’s premiere concert venues and, in front of scores of thousands of fans, says with a single gesture that he is identifying these days with the Jews of 1940’s Germany—when a man such as he makes a wordless statement such as that, in my opinion at least, we should applaud his candor, his willingness to speak out, and, yes, his bravery. His was a valiant gesture at just the right moment and Billy Joel should be lauded both in Jewish and in non-Jewish circles for having made it.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Being Who We Are and Aren't

What is Jewishness exactly? We talk about it regularly as though it were a heritable genetic trait of some sort, one that—for some reason—is solely passed down from mothers to their children. Indeed, even when people argue the point and try to make a case for patrilineality as a valid determinant of Jewishness, they are merely arguing along the same lines and insisting that “it,” whatever “it” actually is, can be passed along by men to their offspring as well. Of course, the fact that conversion is permitted seriously undermines the genetic argument: if we’re talking about something akin to DNA that you either do or don’t have, how can any behavioral or attitudinal factor override not having it? But, it turns out, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any a genetic component to membership in the House of Israel…and therein hangs an interesting tale.

I read a remarkable story in the Washington Post last July about an Irish-American woman from Chicago, one Alice Plebuch, who took one of the various “just-for-fun” DNA tests available on the market because she wished to learn more about her father, who had died many years earlier, and about her father’s family. (You can read the article by clicking here. You can also visit the websites of three of the larger companies that offer this kind of service to the public by clicking here, here, and here.) The results, however, were not at all what she expected: about half her DNA results confirmed what she already knew about her descent from people who hailed from various regions within the British Isles, including Ireland, but the other half pointed to a combination of Eastern European Jewish and Middle Eastern ancestry. One of her parents was apparently not as Irish as she thought…but which one? That was what she now felt herself obliged to find out.

There were, of course, lots of possible explanations for the unexpected test results. One set of her grandparents could have been Jews from Eastern Europe who so totally shed their previous identity upon arriving in Ireland that just a generation later there was no trace at all of it, and no recollection on the part of anyone at all that they had ever been anything other than “just” Irish. Alternately, one of her grandmothers could possibly have had an extra-marital affair and then simply allowed her husband to presume that he was the father of the child she subsequently bore. That, however, would have led to a quarter of her DNA being labelled as Jewish, not half. Could both her grandmothers have had affairs with Jewish men? Imagining such a thing about one of her grandmothers was hard enough, but about both felt wholly impossible. There had to be other some other plausible explanation!

Plebuch talked her brother into being tested, plus one cousin on her mother’s side of the family and another on her father’s side. Her test and her brother’s yielded the expected result indicating that their mother and father had to have been the same people. But the tests involving the cousins yielded one interesting piece of data and another that was truly confounding. The interesting information came from a comparison of the two cousins’ results and made it clear that the Jewish component in Alice Plebuch’s DNA came from her father’s side of the family. That was what she suspected anyway, but a far more amazing piece of information than that came from a comparison of her own DNA with that of one of her cousins, the son of her father’s sister, which effort yielded the categorical result that they had no blood relationship at all! In other words, reading her own DNA results against her cousin’s yielded the conclusion that her father and his sister were unrelated by blood.

I won’t describe the rest of the story in detail—although I really do recommend that Washington Post article as riveting reading—but the short version is that, after a lot of very detailed sleuthing, Alice Plebuch was able to conclude categorically that her father and another baby were switched at birth, or shortly after birth, at Fordham Hospital in the Bronx where they were both born on the same day of February in 1913. And she somehow managed to identify that other baby and to find his still-living daughter too, whom she felt honor-bound to inform that her father was an Irish Catholic at birth who was simply raised as a Jew by the Jewish people he came to know as his father and mother, neither of whom had any idea that they had brought home the wrong baby.

It sounds like the plot of a made-for-television movie—and not even that believable a one at that. And there surely are a lot of obvious questions to ask about how such a thing could ever occur in real life and who, if anyone, should be held accountable after all this time. But the question that the story raises that matters to me personally has to do with the nature of identity. The Irish Catholic baby brought home by a Jewish family turned into Philip Benson and was raised as a Jewish boy in a Jewish home, then grew up to become what any of us would call a Jewish man. Was he “really” Jim Collins, as the Jewish baby brought home by Irish Catholic parents and raised in their faith was known to the world? Was Jim Collins, the man Alice Plebuch knew as her father, “really” Philip Benson? Were both their lives essentially lies lived out against backgrounds that neither recognized as false but which were, historically and genetically, wholly untrue? Were they both essentially phantoms, men who were neither who they were or who they weren’t? It’s hard even to say what those questions mean, let alone to answer them cogently. Since there’s no reason to think that, had Alice’s grandparents brought the correct baby home from the hospital, that he would eventually have ended up marrying Alice’s mother, Alice Plebuch’s very existence seems predicated on a mix-up that any normal person, other than her husband and her children and all her friends, would easily label a tragedy. Does that make her existence tragic? It’s sounds vaguely right to say that, but I’m not sure I could look her in the eye while I was saying it.

We all believe, or I think we do, that there are character traits that inhere in the shared genetic heritage of any recognizable group. Such talk often veers into tastelessness bordering on prejudice when we “assign” qualities, and usually negative ones, to people based on their race or ethnicity.  But does that mean that there are no shared traits that the members of groups with a common genetic heritage all share? (And, if that is the case, then why should those shared traits be uniformly positive? Surely negative traits can also be shared!) But what is the precise boundary between identity and shared heritage, between the autonomy of the individual and the shared genetic heritage that inheres in that individual’s DNA? Surely, both concepts impinge upon each other. But in what specific way and to what precise extent—that is a far thornier riddle to solve.

From a Jewish perspective, the issue is even more complicated. The man the world knew as Jim Collins was born to a Jewish mother and so was, according to all Jewish authorities, a Jewish baby. The Talmud has a name for a child who is spirited away from his parents at birth, or shortly after birth, and raised without reference to his “actual” heritage: this is the famous tinok she-nishba of talmudic lore. Nor is this treated as a merely theoretical issue: the Talmud goes into considerable detail with respect to the specific laws that apply to such a Jewish individual raised in total ignorance of his or her Jewishness. Most of those discussions revolve around intricacies of halakhic obligation when a particular infraction is repeated over and over in the course of years or even decades by a Jewish individual who, unaware of his or her Jewishness, has no inkling that some specific deed is forbidden to him or her by the Torah. Such a person is technically a sinner, but our sages understood easily how wrong it would be seriously to attach that label to someone whose sins are completely inadvertent and who lacks even an inkling of his or her real status as a Jewish individual. The debates are interesting. But there is no debate at all about the Jewishness of the tinok she-nishba, just about the specific way the law should apply to such a person.

Was Jim Collins a tinok she-nishba? Labelling him that way would seem to oblige us to consider Philip Benson a non-Jew. When viewed dispassionately, that sounds almost reasonable, particularly since any rabbi could “solve” his predicament easily enough with a trip to the mikveh, a visit to the bet-din, and a few minutes with a mohel. But let’s imagine that the truth about Philip Benson never came out. Would we really consider it a tragedy for a man raised as a Jew from birth, circumcised on the eighth day of his life, provided throughout his childhood and adolescence with a Jewish education, the husband of a Jewish woman and the father of Jewish children—would it truly be a disaster if the truth about his “real” parentage never came out? Part of me thinks it would be. But another part can’t quite embrace that level of ex post facto harshness.

Most of the time, it’s probably wisest just to allow people to be whom they appear to be. Mostly, we already do this. When I walk into the Kotel plaza in Yerushalayim and join a minyan for Minchah, no one asks me if I am really a Jew, much less if I am really a man! I look like a man, so that’s good enough for them. I apparently look like a member of the House of Israel too…and that too is good enough even for the guys who hang out at the wall wearing their giant black hats. (I don’t push it, however, by also self-identifying as a Conservative rabbi.) Ultimately, we are all Jews by self-definition…and that, really, has to be the bottom line. Sometimes, real wisdom lies in stepping away from the fine print and being content just to read what people possessed of normal eyesight can see, and then leaving it at that.

Should I buy one of those DNA test kits and find out where my people really come from? I haven’t decided one way or the other. But if I do…I promise (maybe) to share the results with you in a subsequent letter.