It might seem odd that 10Q, a project bent on promoting deep personal reflection and penetrating spiritual insight, would engage Joel Stein, a somewhat nihilistic humor columnist, as one of its endorsers.
“I find it hard to believe that anyone in our present society needs to spend any more time thinking about themselves,” said Stein, who writes for Time magazine, about the 10-day online journal exercise that is taking place this year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, asking participants to answer “life’s big questions.”
“All I do is write about myself — maybe that’s why I’m less interested,” Stein said.
The 10Q project was conceived and organized through Reboot, a countercultural network of artists and innovators, and is, in its essence, an online version of cheshbon ha-nefesh, the ritual “accounting of the soul,” that Jews undergo each year during the 10 days of repentance. This iteration, however, is organized around 10 major questions, the answers to which are submitted electronically, then are secured in an online vault for one year, to be returned to participants on the eve of the following High Holy Days. It is also, the organizers say, designed for a universal audience (Reboot strangely employs the term “ecumenical”). To that end, Reboot has been promoting the project through bicoastal events and, yes, even celebrity Tweets, promising to deepen High Holy Days reflection beyond 140 characters, the Twitter limit.
Stein was part of an L.A. contingent that gathered to promote 10Q on Sept. 22 at M Bar in Hollywood. A live show, themed With Regrets, featured performances by actors, writers and other artists, and paralleled a sister show scheduled to take place in New York City the day before Rosh Hashanah. This year, “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof promulgated his big regret for 10Q posterity: “I wish I had been more charitable in action, not just donation,” Lindelof wrote, according to a press release. “While it’s always been important to me to donate money to noble charities, this past year I feel that I used those donations as an excuse to not actually DO anything.” Lindelof added that he hopes to use the coming year to engage in more action-based charity.
Though the project is focused on reflection, not action, some say that mental recognition is a necessary precursor for change. “There’s that old adage that the unexamined life is not worth living,” Emily Ziff, a 33-year-old television and film producer, said. “Any opportunity to look at the things you believe, the experiences you’re having — that’s only going to enrich what comes next. I think it’s a way of charting a course for the next year.”
Half of what 10Q ponders is focused on past-year reflection (“Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?”), and the other half encourages forward thinking about the year to come (“Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?”). Questions are methodically broad-based and secular-minded, focusing on self-improvement, fears and significant life events. One, however, asks participants about a spiritual experience, though the word “spiritual” is broadly defined to accommodate artistic, cultural or natural leanings.
“I wouldn’t describe 10Q as a spiritual experience,” Ziff said. “I’d describe it as an existential exercise in stopping and evaluating where you are in your life. It’s really focused on matters of existence above all.”
Though it makes some participants more comfortable not to think of 10Q as religiously based, it is clearly Jewishly inspired. Founders Nicola Behrman, a screenwriter and playwright, and Ben Greenman, a contributing editor at The New Yorker, conceived the project at a Reboot retreat in May 2008. “We really ran with the idea of wanting to create time to capture experience, where people could reflect on their lives,” the L.A.-based Behrman, 33, said during a phone interview. With the support of Reboot acting executive director Amelia Klein, the project was launched the next fall, because the Days of Awe seemed like “the perfect container.”
“A lot of people are yearning and searching, but the answer isn’t for them in organized religion,” Behrman, who grew up Orthodox in London but is no longer observant, said. “I love the concept of taking a Jewish ideal and riffing off of it and taking something from it that anyone in the world can enjoy. For me, that’s the meaning of tikkun olam; we’ve created something rooted in the very beautiful Jewish tradition but that didn’t exclude anyone from being able to have the experience.”
In its first year, 1,000 people participated in 10Q, mostly by the invitation of the founders. Last year, the project’s third, counted 12,000 participants. The project caught national attention through advertisements on the Times Square Jumbotron and giant video screens projected on the Las Vegas strip. According to Reboot, the 10Q Web site received 80,000 visitors in 2010, some of which can be attributed to celebrity endorsements, including from “Glee’s” Jane Lynch, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and “Harry Potter” star Tom Felton, who Tweeted about 10Q to his nearly 1 million followers.
According to a series of questions asked of 10Q-ers at sign-up, participants come from around the world and various religious backgrounds, or none at all. One year, it was reported to the organizers that a group of death row inmates had participated in 10Q.
Being forced to carve out time to explore one’s inner life can be cathartic, but so can the process of rereading your answers one year later. “It’s just a huge rush,” Behrman said. “You literally feel like you’re visiting with your last year’s self. It’s the closest thing we have to a back-to-the-future experience.”
Sometimes epiphanies occur: “I realized, reading my answers, that there were things I was hoping to achieve, that by the time I got my answers back, I’d achieved them. But I never felt particularly wonderful about having achieved them, because they happened so gradually.”
For others, confronting their answers can be a brutal reminder that there is work remaining undone. “It reminds me of how repetitive emotionally I am,” confessed Christopher Noxon, a writer who has participated in Reboot. “I’m just playing the same freakin’ tune over and over again. I have my hang-ups and my quest and my anxieties – and every year they feel fresh and new, and yet, it’s the same old stuff in new language and new characters. The exercise is great, because it’s a message in a bottle.”
“I think what struck me this year was the extent to which we really do create our own reality,” Ziff said. “So much of what I had hoped or predicted for this coming year has really come to pass. My life at this moment does not feel arbitrary in relationship to what I had to say a year ago; where you put your attention and energy is a lot of what your life ends up being.”
Some, however, have said they find the process narcissistic. And, like many in the breed of trending start-ups that claim to reinvent or reclaim Judaism for the young and hip, the irreverent tone can feel self-satisfied, even snobbish.
“I think it’s quite satisfying to feel like you’re involved in a kind of Jewishly guided narcissism,” Stephan Altman, a film and television composer, said sardonically. Noxon agreed: “Yes it feels chin-strokey, yes it feels navel-gazey, but hopefully it doesn’t stay there,” he said. “Hopefully, after you spend some time examining the precious contents of your navel, you can move on to what you’re gonna do next and how you’re gonna live a better life.”
After all, the reflection can motivate a better High Holy Days experience. “It’s like homework, and when you go into synagogue, it’s like going to class; when you’ve done your background reading, you can have a richer experience of the class,” Altman said. Even though the project does not advertise itself as Jewish, Altman said he tries to hear the questions filtered through the prism of his rabbi.
“I like the way, in America, Jews are strong enough to have a service like this, which is very sacred to them but also awesome enough that you want non-Jewish people to participate,” the British born Altman said. “American Jews are confident enough to say, ‘Gentiles, you should do this!’ ”
Surely one of 10Q’s gifts is to offer everyone access to Jewish traditions. In capturing the evolution of souls over time, it is the embodiment of the central message of the High Holy Days: that change is not only inevitable, but possible.
Michaela Watkins, an actress who has been 10Q-ing for three years, said it has transformed her life. “There are so many people who do so much of this kind of thing, going to therapy, talking for an hour. And some people call that navel gazing. I say it’s the only way we can evolve. I say that’s the map forward.”
To participate in 10Q, go to doyou10q.com.