I Havenít Owned A TV Since 2001

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When I go back to the US for a visit, I am overwhelmed by the ubiquitousness of television in public spaces. I hear it blaring everywhere – in the airport lounge, while waiting for an oil change, in the doctor’s waiting room, at the highway rest stop.

It jangles my nerves.

I haven’t owned a TV for a long time. The last physical TV we had was mostly used to watch movies that we rented from Blockbuster for Family Movie Night. It was attached to a VCR and it was a long time ago.

For years, I knew very little about TV shows that were current. I’d vaguely hear about popular shows like The West Wing, 24, Game of Thrones and Grey’s Anatomy, but never saw a single episode of any of them.

And then came This Is Us. It got so much buzz that even I was curious.

By this time, I had been living without a TV for more than 15 years and in Israel for more than seven. I only knew two families who had an actual TV. Apart from a few threads on Facebook, most people I know never speak about television.

Ah, but VPN technology and sites like Hulu allow ex-pat Americans like me to watch network television in Israel, even without a TV. So I found a way to watch This Is Us halfway around the world and I haven’t missed an episode yet.

And then there’s EllenTube. I’ve never seen a full episode of The Ellen Show, but, because of Facebook, I have seen dozens of clips of celebrity interviews and a hundred sentimental stories of people whose lives she changes with a significant cash gift.

Her tag line “Be Kind To One Another” is actually a very Jewish concept.

From the Talmud, we learn that kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, which means that all Jewish people are responsible for each other. Helping to take care of one another, particularly where there is great need, is a very Jewish value.

And in Ethics of the Fathers, it says, “On three things the world stands: on Torah, on service [of God], and on acts of human kindness.

Without being Jewish herself, by promoting kindness to others, Ellen DeGeneres reflects an important Jewish value.

But there is one feature on her show that gnaws at me.

It’s called 12 Days of Giveaways.

For those who haven’t seen it, the premise is that, for 12 days in December, Ellen and a celebrity guest give thousands of dollars of gifts to each member of the studio audience. The gifts include things like robotic vacuum cleaners, three-night four-day resort stays, kitchen appliances, smart phones, gift cards and, of course, 65-inch TVs. That’s over five feet of TV screen, intended for use in private homes.

The hype is huge.There are dancing reindeer, elves and Santas. Lively Christmas music plays. Each gift is hidden behind a giant panel wrapped like a gift box. When it’s revealed, the audience members go wild.
Every time.

As the camera pans the studio audience, you see (mostly women under 50) jumping up and down, bursting into tears, covering their mouths in astonishment, clapping, hugging one another and screaming with joy. Once the audience starts to react, Ellen literally has to shout to be heard over their enthusiastic cacophony.

The 12 Days of Giveaways clips are six to eight minutes long. And as they play out, I am struck by the same contradictory set of thoughts.

On the one hand, even though Christmas is not my holiday and I lean toward minimalism and have absolutely no use or desire for almost any of the items she gives away each day (okay, Walmart gift cards aside), I recognize that there’s something powerful about Ellen using her fame and success as a force for good. She makes people happy. Even if some of the jumping up and down with glee is a bit staged, I am not oblivious the fact that she is making a lot of people very happy by giving them free (and expensive) stuff.

On the other hand, another side of me reels with discomfort at this enormous display of naked consumerism. There’s something vaguely distasteful about people getting so overwhelmed and excited about piles and piles of just so much stuff.

Imagine if we could generate even a fraction of this kind of enthusiasm for Jewish goals and experiences. Would we clap as much for Shabbat challah as for a set of Samsonite suitcases? Could we feel as overwhelmingly delighted by learning Torah as we do about receiving a Soda Stream system? Is it possible to imagine hugging a friend because we get to celebrate Chanukah in a few days as hard as we would if we were given a free ticket to Cancun?

Ellen’s 12 Days of Giveaways has a dark side. By exploiting an unhealthy emphasis on the ever-expanding consumption of material goods, it plays to people’s crass craving for things over enduring values and experiences.

Go ahead and call me a buzzkill for pointing that out. I don't mind.

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