After spending months moderating aweekly chat room in America Online's Jewish section, I finally foundEmes, someone I could really talk to.
It happened a few weeks ago, following an hour oflively conversation about Monica Lewinsky: Is she a nice Jewish girlor not? Everyone had an opinion, even those who pretended to beunaware that Monica was Jewish. ("Polish, right?" was the generalfirst response.)
More than 40 people usually show up for thesenightly national gabfests, timed to distract those on the East Coastfrom the first half hour of Jay Leno. I've come to enjoy the hour Ispend there, although it does remind me of the year I spent as a highschool substitute teacher. You have to keep the kids in line.
I keep the topics upbeat but religiously generic.This is not because chat room attendees are agnostics ordisinterested in spiritual affairs. Quite the contrary. They are alldevout, all definite, all completely self-assured. They will defenduntil the rooster crows a point of view, whether about God or kashrutor anything else, including the presence of Israelis in the icedancing competition at Nagano.
I steer the group away from issues of contemporaryreligious politics, but rarely succeed for long. Jew fighting Jew iscatnip; some can't resist.
It was different months ago. When I first beganhosting the chats, the custom of a nightly topic was honored more inthe breech. For a few weeks, my chats were filled with scaryanti-Semites who shouted (all caps is a shout), HEIL HITLER. Boy,were we Jews polite to each other then!
But these days, since I've learned how to use myTough Jewish Broad power to take control of a room (I cry to thenearest AOL official, who then ejects them forcibly), theanti-Semites are gone. And I've learned that, left to themselves,without a common enemy, a room full of Jewish strangers will quicklydeteriorate into bitter intramural battles over "Who is aJew?"
Really. Every single week, I have to break upverbal fist fights between otherwise educated men and women over someminor issue of tradition or a biblical hiccup. The words that we useagainst each other ("You're treif," someone called out) would makeyour kindergarten teacher send the provocateurs to the corner for atimeout.
Not everyone is clambering for a duel, but ifthere's one thing about chats, they're no holds barred. In chatrooms, you know who is with you because the screen name is listed ona roster in the right -hand corner. They are there in more than nameonly: Though I can't see them, I always feel their eyes peeled on me.Chat-room participants are activists by nature, and nuancedlisteners. They are ready to pounce on a factual misstatement ("Yourstatistical pool is too small," said LegalStats the other day, whenwe discussed the topic of Jewish singles), and to take umbrage atsome perceived slight or innuendo.
In a chat room, punctuation is the emotional coinof the realm. We express ourselves with colons, semicolons, commasand parentheses. My guests often hear heavy breathing in the drop ofa comma or a missing ;-) (chat-room code for "smile.") At the sametime, we love to laugh. Chat-room activists love a good joke -- lolmeans "laugh out loud," though my friend Allen thought it meant "lotsof love" and got scared away. A chat room can be as riotous as aBorscht Belt evening with Henny Youngman. You should hear (read) 40people going "lol" "lol" "lol!!!!!!!" -- at a punch line.
Beyond being hall monitor, a chat-room host is aposition of power, the sole power to TYPE IN CAPITAL LETTERS. "THAT'SIT," I'll say, "NO TALK ABOUT THE NEEMAN COMMISSION FOR 10 MINUTES."Using my moniker, Wmnsvoice, I type away frantically, trying to keepthe Lower Cases from killing each other. In the anarchy of the chatroom, CAPITAL LETTERS CARRY SEX APPEAL.
That's how I met Emes. The Lewinsky conversationwas almost over, but the heat was still high; my computer monitor wasfilled with screen names talking excitedly back and forth about whatit might mean to the world that the White House intern was Jewish,and whether assimilation is some how to blame. About 10 minutes tothe hour, I began to speak privately with those who were about toleave. I ask if they have other subjects for future weeks and how thechat went.
Emes, in a surprise move, asked about me. Did Ihave children? I said I was raising a daughter. Emes spoke of sons,the same age. We sympathized about the teen-age years. I said I wasalone. Emes too was alone.
I felt the strange stirrings that people oftentalk about in chat rooms but I have never known. You meet a strangeracross a crowded chat room, and somehow you know.... So this is whymillions come on line, I thought.
I asked Emes where he lived, you know, small talk.I wondered how tall he was.
"My husband just moved out," she said.
Good thing no one could see me laugh. LOL. LOL.LOL!!!!
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. Her Sunday "Conversation" series at the SkirballCultural Center continues on March 8 with essayist Richard Rodriguez.Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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