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Ben Greenman and the Sabbath Challenge to Unplug

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Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker and author of the new book What He's Poised to Do, was the most recent person to take our Sabbath Manifesto "Unplug Challenge," cutting off his cell phone and computer for 24 hours last weekend:

"I have been traveling around the country talking trash about technology. The reason is my new book, What He's Poised to Do, a set of short stories that are, in part, about letters and letter-writing, and the way that now-antiquated forms of communication better serve us than all that has come since. In Minneapolis I was on public radio in the morning and at the Loft Literary Center in the evening, and in both conversations I ended up asserting that email and Twitter and status updates have made us too promiscuous with communication, and too unaffected by any individual communique. 'We have plenty of people we're in touch with,' I said, 'but how many are really meaningful? Isn't it better to go back to a world where we only write to the important ones?' People nodded as if to agree.

"When I flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco the next morning, there was Wi-Fi on the plane, and most of my flight was spent hunched over my iPhone, sending messages to the people I had seen in Minneapolis and the ones I would see in San Francisco. Most messages said 'I'm on a plane.' I could argue that I knew the Unplug Challenge was coming, and that I was gorging on the Internet before I had to shut it down, but the fact is that I'm as hooked as everyone else.

"When I boarded the plane in San Francisco to return to New York, I was ready. The sun set mid-flight; I went offline. Initially, it was great. I read some Raymond Chandler, listened to Rank and File (I permitted myself iPhone-as-iPod use), took a nap. When I landed, I couldn't call my wife and tell her I was in the cab, so it was a surprise to everyone when I came through the door -- and there were happy smiles instead of complaints that I was ten minutes later than I said I'd be.

"I slept late on Saturday and then went for a long walk. I was emboldened, and didn't even take the iPhone along to use as an iPod. This turned out to be a mistake. I went by a man who was consoling a friend about a recent job loss and a woman who was helping someone plan a dinner. Neither of these conversations involved face-to-face interaction: both took place on phones. I went to the coffee shop. Near the door, there was a man wearing an earpiece and balancing a laptop across his knees, and he was loudly berating his girlfriend on the telephone. 'Of course you don't understand,' he said. 'Because you never do. Let me email it to you and then you'll see why you were wrong.' In this case, as in the others, I was physically closer to the talker than the listener. In this case, as in the others, the talker didn't even notice me. In this case, as in the others, I felt acutely the need to get out of range of what I was hearing. If the plugged-in world -- the incessant emailing, the eyes on the screen -- renders much communication meaningless, it also protects me from having to process too much of the real world, which is also meaningless, but is more assaultive. I went home without coffee and found that I had no desire to talk on the telephone or send email or surf the Web. Unfortunately, I also had no desire to interact with my wife or my children. My run-in with the berater had done me in; I was unprepared for the rest of the world and it showed.

"I watched a little TV. I napped. I read some more Chandler. Eventually I played with the kids. After sundown, I went back online, wrote this piece, and let my wife read it. 'What's the takeaway?' she said. 'That technology has made you so fragile that you have to plug your ears or else you can't bear it?' Or at least that's what I think she said. By that time, my headphones were back in. I nodded as if to agree."

The Sabbath Manifesto "Unplug Challenge," is sponsored by Reboot, a non-profit organization that aims to reinvent the cultures, traditions and rituals of Jewish life for a broad audience. Greenman is a member of the Reboot network.

This month, we are highlighting an unplugging testimonial from someone who called himself AKH, who commented on our website several months ago:

"LOVE what you're doing! I have had Shabbat envy since meeting a strict Shabbas observer over 10 years ago. I'm not Jewish and have no desire to convert but love the concept of Shabbat. I see how it so fuels my friends who strictly observe it weekly.

"The National Day of Unplugging this Friday into Saturday has given me the gift of a perfect excuse to have a Shabbat-lite experience! For me to observe Shabbat to any degree without a good basis in secular (green maybe?) practicality would cause my friends and family to think I'd lost my mind.

"As an aside, for the past 10+ years, I've refrained from eating meat on Fridays, not because of anything to do with Jesus dying on a Friday or even as a nod to old skool Catholicism but just for old time's sake, and so that I am assured of one meatless day each week. And no one flinches when I say, "I don't eat meat on Friday." Likewise, it would be similarly efficient to say, "I observe one Unplugged Day each week" or "I'm off the grid for one 24 period each week," and in the process I finally have the opportunity to claim my personal Shabbat observance!!!

"Thank you, Sabbath Manifesto!!!"