Tuesday, June 28th | 30 Sivan 5782

February 26, 2019 9:55 am

Wildly Popular New York Times ‘Phone Detox’ Column Recycles a Jewish Idea

avatar by Ira Stoll


The New York Times logo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A New York Times columnist writes about how he fought his cellphone addiction by using a program that recommends “a 24-hour-separation” from a smartphone.

The columnist, Kevin Roose, tried it for a full 48 hours, and writes that it was great. The column ran on the front of the Times business section and appears with the online headline, “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone And Unbroke My Brain.”

A phone-free weekend involved some complications. Without Google Maps, I got lost and had to pull over for directions. Without Yelp, I had trouble finding open restaurants.

But mostly, it was great. For two solid days, I basked in 19th-century leisure, feeling my nerves softening and my attention span stretching back out. I read books. I did the crossword puzzle. I lit a fire and looked at the stars. I felt like Thoreau, if Thoreau periodically wondered what was happening on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram story. …

Sadly, there is no way to talk about the benefits of digital disconnection without sounding like a Goop subscriber or a neo-Luddite. Performative wellness is obnoxious, as is reflexive technophobia.

But I cannot stress enough that under the right conditions, spending an entire weekend without a phone in your immediate vicinity is incredible. You have to try it.

Roose seems entirely unaware of it, but there’s an entire large group of people who spend 24 hours, or 25, just to be safe and let the joy linger a bit, away from their smartphones every week, from Friday evening to Saturday night. These people are not Transcendentalists, neo-Luddites, or Goop subscribers, and they are not any more obnoxious than anyone else. They are called observant Jews, and the “phone-free” period is called the Sabbath. Sometimes, in the case of a holiday observed for two days or a two-day holiday that adjoins the Sabbath on the calendar, the phone break lasts for two or three full days.

The idea that Orthodox or observant Conservative Jews might routinely refrain from cellphone use on the Sabbath seems outside of the zone of familiarity for Roose and his editors. It even seems outside the zone of familiarity for Times readers; of the 495 comments on Roose’s column, I didn’t notice a single one that referred to traditional Judaism. It’s possible I missed some. A few Christians did mention down cutting on phone use during Lent.

Roose’s “phone detox” column about 48 hours without his smartphone — “incredible,” “you have to try it” — was “the most popular column I’ve ever written, by a not-small margin,” Roose wrote on Twitter.

The column, which appeared in the print newspaper on, of all days, Saturday, does have an easily missed reference to the “‘digital sabbath’ movement, whose adherents vow to spend one day a week using no technology at all.” But aside from the word sabbath, there’s no acknowledgement that this is an idea that comes from the Hebrew Bible, or, to put it another way, from God’s Torah.

The New York Times has explored this concept in the past from time to time. A 2015 opinion piece by Oliver Sacks extolled “the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” A 2003 (pre-smartphone) article by Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times Magazine advocated “Bring Back The Sabbath.” A 2010 article that appears online in the Fashion and Style section reported on a “National Day of Unplugging” promoted by “a group of Jewish tastemakers.” That article quoted Shulevitz, the author of the book The Sabbath World. It also quoted Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

The self-help author Roose relied on for his column, Catherine Price, uses this concept of a “digital sabbath” in her book How To Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan To Take Back Your Life. She writes in her book, “As we sat down for dinner one Friday night, I lit a candle, we gave our phones a final glance, and then we turned them off — all the way off — for the next twenty-four hours. We avoided our tablets and computers, too. From Friday to Saturday night, we completely disconnected ourselves from our screens.” She describes it as a “restorative” ritual. She writes, “Without our phones to distract us, time seemed to slow down. We went on walks. We read books. We talked more. I felt healthier and more grounded.”

The book was “temporarily out of stock” at Amazon this week, having shot up the sales ranking after the mention in the New York Times column. Price had been promoting it in appearances at Jewish community centers.

Anyway, I guess Roose should get some credit for figuring out for himself — or with the help of a phone detox guru he called for help — what many observant Jews already know. It would have been even nicer if he and the Times had given Judaism some credit for the idea of taking a daylong break from technology. The candle-lighting and the Friday night dinner aspect of it are also pretty nice, and worth trying, too.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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