From the moment in 1994 when my parents first installed a cable Internet connection for our home PC, the six-year-old me was hooked. I spent hours bickering with my younger brother over tightly-rationed time on our dial-up connection, as if our lives depended on checking our email. Towards the end of elementary school, my school assignments became tougher, necessitating online research—and with it the discovery of the hours of fun that could be had with the aid of a web browser. Just at the time of the Facebook explosion came my first laptop—a present from my parents that enabled 18-year-old me to begin forming social connections in college even before I walked on campus. I set up my profile, read everything I could find about the University of Chicago, researched my roommate, and exchanged maybe a hundred emails with her before we ever met.
Once I arrived on campus, the Internet became my social secretary. There were listservs for every activity (one even alerted members to campus events with free food). My friends and I used email to plan parties, birthday celebrations, even trips downtown. To my surprise, the web even helped connect me to Judaism. At the time I wasn’t interested in any Jewish campus organizations; I wanted to do my own thing. So, over email, a few friends and I decided to host our own Passover seder, and by gradually adding new people to our chain of emails, we managed to get more than 20 guests to show up for the seder (which was so successful, we repeated it the next two years and started hosting occasional Shabbat dinners).
When I graduated, technology facilitated the trappings of my being a real adult. Online I found the perfect job (at Reform Judaism magazine), the perfect apartment (in Astoria, a Queens neighborhood), and the perfect living room curtains (a multicolored bird and vine pattern).
With all the ways technology had naturally interwoven in my life, it wasn’t until a year ago, at age 23, that I ever questioned my dependence upon it. It hit me suddenly, as I planned brunch with my roommate via email while sitting next to her. I was reminded of a photograph my mother had taken of my three siblings and me, on the family couch, each of us typing on our own laptops. At the time, it had been funny—but suddenly the memory became uncomfortable. And adding to the awareness was my reaction upon receiving word of my acceptance for a URJ-Kesher Taglit-Birthright Israel trip; I worried, How am I going to survive without the Internet for 10 days?
The issue was not about the moral value of the Internet, whether it is good or bad. It is here to stay. You might as well debate the value of tables, or doors, or running water.
Instead, I started to ask myself: Was I overusing technology? It had been part of my way of living for so long—had it taken over my life?
I decided to use Birthright as an experiment to see if I could go a week and a half without being plugged in.
I made it through Birthright with only two Internet “lapses.” And by the time I came home, I realized that if I didn’t use the Internet all the time, my world would not shatter. Maybe, I thought, it’s time to try weaning myself off a bit.
Meanwhile, Birthright gave me the courage to transition from vegetarianism to veganism. I’d always been a strong animal lover and had considered taking this additional step for several years—but how could I possibly give up cheese or croissants? It turned out that on Birthright I had to stay off dairy, a contributing factor to my motion sickness on the bus. Cutting it out of my diet, I found, wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined. And so, about a week after my return, I announced over lunch at work that I was a vegan.
Now I had to figure out what my new lifestyle really meant. Technology was there to help me. I spent the equivalent of a few weeks online, researching which ethnic dishes contained egg or yogurt so I could avoid them at restaurants, what essential nutrients I would be missing and need to supplement, which snacks were and were not vegan-friendly. I found answers on Post Punk Kitchen (my new go-to for baking), PETA (arguably politically problematic, but able to answer almost every question I had about commercial food and cosmetics), and a number of Internet forums that addressed questions I never even fathomed. My most pressing query, “How can one bake without eggs?” was the subject of many fascinating vegan blogs and message boards (answer: it depends on what food you want to create, personal taste, and countless other factors). And then came my quest to bake the perfect vegan chocolate chip cookie, with just the right amount of gooeyness—a search that is still ongoing, many Internet days and cookies later.
In reading the posts of so many other vegans, I realized how much I longed for real-life encounters with people who shared my trials and tribulations as a vegan. I’d started to feel that when dining out I’d become a nuisance to my friends. So I searched meetup.com for meatless events and eventually worked up the courage to attend a real-life vegan/vegetarian group dinner. To my surprise, I found not only a new community, but also several new, like-minded friends. And knowing that there is a group of people who understand where I’m coming from has only made me more confident in exploring my veganism in the company of my omnivorous friends—who actually have been more than happy to accommodate my needs.
Post Birthright, my diet changed, but my appetite for technology only grew.
Another post-Birthright resolution, prompted by my purchase of a challah cover in a Safed weaving shop, was to return to an earlier hobby—knitting. Back home in New York, I bought yarn at a local store and then logged on to ravelry.com, which features free patterns and also gave me access to a network of knitters with whom I now share project ideas and advice. Thanks to the lovely folks at Ravelry, I am already starting on next year’s round of hand-knit Chanukah gifts.
To expand my fiber arts repertoire, I signed up for a weekly sewing class, which, naturally, I found online. Next, I researched sewing machines by crowdsourcing questions about the best models on Facebook. When I noticed a gorgeous bicycle-print dress on anthropologie.com, I managed to locate a similar fabric in New York’s fashion district. The result is a colorful skirt I’m proud to wear.
In the meantime, Hannah, my elderly cat, was making it abundantly clear she was still upset with me for having abandoned her while I jetted off to Israel. For a solution I turned to my Internet guru—Google. After reading a number of cat blogs and forums, I rather reluctantly cancelled my weekend plans and gave Hannah a healthy dose of feline TLC. Sure enough, shalom bayit (peace in the home) was restored.
Months later, when I unexpectedly took in an ailing stray kitten, the web became my source of medical advice. A local veterinarian I found on yelp.com prescribed the right medication for Penelope, and I constructed a temporary sick bay thanks to suggestions culled from online sources. The cats now seem to like each other, despite their age gap, and both are quite enthusiastic about my knitting.
Post Birthright, thanks to my new interests, I now have more meaningful online interactions, which have led to stronger in-person relationships. Facebook allows me to swap crafting tips and photographs of finished projects with friends (or even friends of friends) who live far away—something I simply would not do if letter-writing were the only option. Without my iPhone (yes, I now carry the Internet in my purse), one of my fellow Birthright alumni would not currently be crushing me at the Scrabble-like game Words with Friends—an effective, if humbling, way to stay in touch in between reunions (which, by the way, are organized through Facebook and Twitter).
The Internet, I now realize, helps me to do the things I love to do and to be the person I want to be.
These days, whenever I start to wonder if I’m spending too much time online, I can’t help asking, Is there a blog about that?
Alison Kahler is assistant to the editors at Reform Judaism magazine.