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The missing son

At the yeshiva I attended, girls learned Talmud by reading off a xeroxed page. 

Some people wouldn't think twice about that because they didn't like studying it in the first place. 

Me, I found the language a little difficult. But once I got to the gist of the issue, I enjoyed it quite a lot. It's very absorbing. What should we do? What is that based on? Where exactly did you get that source? You can't beat the ancient rabbis for their sharpness of mind. If you look at what they're saying objectively, it is fascinating to watch the reasoning unfold. Especially if you cross-reference the statements with other texts to better understand the context.

The only thing that bothered me was the xerox thing. Why couldn't I read from the text itself? Answer: the yeshiva was ultra-Orthodox and we weren't supposed to. The xerox was a workaround, or so I was told.

It bothered me. It did. What is the difference? Why do I have to be treated like a "second-class citizen?"

Because boys are commanded to learn, so they can teach the traditions. Women are not. 

I was not exposed to the lengthy debate over this as a kid. There was no "Rabbi Google" for me. Had there been I would have found discussions like this, which explain pretty well the concerns the Rabbis had about teaching women Torah in the first place, especially the Talmud. Concerns that the modern Orthodox community has addressed and largely overcome. 

No, I couldn't really ask about any bothersome question much. Because to ask more than once, after you'd been shushed, was disrespectful. Unless you were just too stupid to understand, in which case you could be forgiven.

As I get older I see more and more that my daughter was right about something she said a long time ago. I was being critical of religion. She responded, "Mom, the problem is not with religion itself. It's the people who mess things up."

Religion is the same as any large social institution. The people who dare to question are at risk of being silenced by those who hide behind the rules. Of course there are good religious people and they can tolerate lots of questions. But there are also fairly bad ones who try to shut you up to keep their power intact.

And yet - it's not only about a few bad apples who ruin the bunch. The problem is the very structure of large social institutions, their inherent resistance to change, that squelches good and important questions. In the movie "Contagion" we see the caricature of a blogger who purports to tell "the real truth" but who stirs up the suspicion and scorn of the government. (True, he was a scoundrel, but the suspicion has to do with the fact that he questions the official version of the facts.) 

Routinely, wherever you look, employees who question the status quo risk being tossed for their "disgruntled" attitude, for "stirring up trouble." As do social critics. As does anyone who dares to refuse to play along automatically. Despite living in a free country, the very fact of belonging to a group makes it difficult to challenge the way it functions.

At the Passover table we read from the prayerbook about the "Four Sons" (of course not the Four Daughters, who presumably are serving the food), each of whom absorbs the tradition in a different way and each of whom gets a specially tailored response. There is the Wise Son, the Wicked Son, the Simple Son, and the Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask. Three of the four are fine. The Wicked Son is bad because he rejects the tradition outright.

Looking at the prayerbook I wonder which of the Sons represents me. The answer is - none of them. There is a missing Son, the Son I was, the The Questioning Son (Daughter). But the Questioning Son is not in my prayerbook because questioning is "scoffing," and should only be addressed if there is a chance at winning the questioner over to tradition. Rabbi David Gottlieb exemplifies this approach:

"We are all confronted with people who scoff at the Torah. We often have to decide if and how to respond. The book of Proverbs teaches us that our primary responsibility is to improve the critic by our response."

Today on Yom Kippur I was somber. Of course I worried about G-d's judgment. But there was something else too. I realized that I am a questioner. That I will always be a questioner. That being this way puts me outside the community of faith I was raised in. That this makes me feel bad. But that I will never, ever give up my right to think, to wonder, to ask. And that even though there are those who understand that I mean well, there will also be those who say "Hakhei Es Shinav" and call me The Wicked Son.

I am not the Wicked Son. I am the Questioning Daughter. And I am not planning to leave the table anytime soon.

As Judgment Day closes and we clear the spiritual decks, I want to take a minute and thank all the people who have supported me in asking the tough questions. Good luck to all of you on your journeys, and may you accomplish great things this year.

Losing Our Religion: The Deeper Reason We Mourn Steve Jobs


(Note: This article first published as Losing Our Religion on Technorati.)

Last night I came home and heard the news. “Steve Jobs died.”


“What?” I stood right in front of the screen, the huge screen.


“He died.”


“Oh my G-d.”


We watched the coverage. Over and over they played the same thing, pronouncements of grief, a statement from the President, snippets from his speech about death and its meaning.


I stood there and I cried. I was embarrassed that I cried. I don’t even know Steve Jobs. Over an iPod? An iPad? A MacBook Air? I don’t cry that much in synagogue.


Our nation is in mourning over the passing of this man. Commentators like Meghan O'Rourke at The New Yorker offer a laundry list of reasons – he was an innovative genius who represents our own aspirations; he was an innovative genius who improved our lives; he was an innovative genius who was also one of us. Her view is psychoanalytic; our subconscious reaction is to grieve as though we'd suffered a personal amputation:


"Not every celebrity death elicits such an outcry: one wagers that it is only the death of those people in whom we see something of ourselves."


There is truth in that. We are deeply attached to what Steve Jobs represents and to the brand that he built. And it is part of our lives and something very real has been taken.


But that is not why we’re crying so hard.


We’re crying because we lost a spiritual figure. Because Steve Jobs invented not just a brand, but a religious sect, in the larger institution we could call Brand Religion.


We Americans are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. atheist, agnostic, Wiccan. Fighters for social justice – for the environment, against exploitation, even driven by vague drives to root out corruption and greed (“Occupy Wall Street.”)


Whatever we label ourselves – or maybe we prefer the term “No Labels” – we are a deeply spiritual nation even though others may see us as materialistic and shallow. But we haven’t found refuge in religion. Because religious leaders, like leaders in business government, education, healthcare and elsewhere, have abused our trust and our faith. Leaving us a bit rudderless.


So, without thinking, we have turned to brands as the national religion. Because they are unfettered by the limits of true religion. With a brand, you think for yourself, you invent yourself, and you create community around your unique personal preferences.


We are mourning Steve Jobs so painfully – we are crying before our TV screens – because so many of us joined the religious community he created in Apple. It was an outlet for our beliefs, crystallized in a name. And we are scared now that our place of worship is gone.


Mr. Jobs, wherever you are, I join a devastated nation in mourning your passing. But at the same time, I know that you are just a person, and that Apple is just a company. There is only one G-d and we must find our path to the Divine individually.


Maybe that was what you were saying all along.


Steve Jobs, RIP.


Photo credit: FreefotoUK

10 Trends In My Communication Life for FY11

For government professionals, the start of the fiscal year (October 1) signals the start of professional evaluation for the year that came before. As I wrote up my work for the year it seemed like it might be useful to categorize projects in terms of their significance, and then go up a level and analyze some trends they seemed to point to.


I am not sure that all of this represents trending - some of it is just my workstyle, is unique to my professional life, etc. - or whether it's about government communication or communication in general. Either way, in case it has broader applicability, here you go:


1.     Integrating communications solutions across the board: It’s been a year of getting a single message across using new media and traditional media, creative but consistent branding, and synthesized external and internal messaging.


2.     Partnering subject matter experts in the marketing strategy process: Through brainstorming sessions, helped operational offices spanning traveler processing and import inspection adapt marketing strategy to their unique situations. Provided guidance and technological solutions based on their expressed needs.


3.     Toward generalization and away from hyper-specialization: Contributed to a wide variety of projects using diverse skills rather than focusing very narrowly on a specific field of expertise. Emphasis on flexibility and willingness to jump in proactively as needed, rather than wait to be asked.


4.     Increasing the proportion of research, testing and metrics: Shifted away from emphasis on creativity, intuition, anecdotal evidence and personal opinion and towards an emphasis on best practices, benchmarking, and process.


5.     Focus on customized, rapid-response, modular tools: Communication needs this year cropped up quickly and required professional yet quickly customizable tools that can be emailed as PDFs or shared as presentations. Developed and continued to update various products, including factsheet and PowerPoint template, for this purpose.


6.     Enabling easier access to communication materials for internal customers: Programmed publication catalogue to enable field offices to easily access brochures and posters without submitting special request. Developing ad catalogue for similar purpose. Developed graphical representations of key communication messages to introduce new material to diverse audiences quickly.


7.     Technology-enhanced process reengineering: Programmed self-service site for responses to common questions and requests for guidance. This process also cut down on unnecessary calls to staff while enabling more meaningful questions. Used project-management best practices to break down complex processes and identify greater efficiencies.


8.     Engaging non-technologists with technology: Leveraged pain points in the organization to demonstrate how basic applications could increase work efficiency and communication effectiveness. Examples include mobile application development, collaborative file sharing, project tracking, specialized metrics searches, and internal discussion boards.


9.     Maximizing investment in knowledge already produced: Trained new employees in unfamiliar functions; built collaborative document repositories to make older documents easy to access; repackaged printed materials in abbreviated form for specialized audiences.


10.  Saving on training costs through interagency partnerships: Helped organize volunteers from the Federal Communicators Network, at times in partnership with the National Association for Government Communicators to hold three training events spanning social media, executive communication, and internal communication.


If you have any comments or questions, I’d appreciate them.

Why customer service supersedes marketing

Today I went to pick up stuff from the cleaners. The owner came out to greet me. The lady had my shirts before I even walked through the door. And she pulled the tag off because she knows I hate having my name pinned to my shirts.

That is why I don't go to Zips.

I took my kid to school and the principal was there greeting everyone hello. Standing out in the chill. It is not a marketing ploy. It is how they are...they create community.

In the Torah the story is told of Abraham who was fanatical about greeting and caring for guests to his home. Complete strangers. In my family when you have a guest you focus totally on them, you give them food ("I won't go away till you take some"), it is all about being welcoming.

The Torah is full of admonitions to treat strangers well. We are not supposed to be nice only to our friends and family.

At its core customer service is about welcoming strangers as friends. It is not so much what you do for them (the service itself) but rather welcoming them into your tribe.

What builds a brand is the collective experience people have had as they encountered your tribe, both as strangers and return guests.

Marketing can't match this kind of brand-building at all. It can create awareness and excitement, but it can't replace the positive associations built on enduring relationships.

This Rosh HaShana I read the English part of the prayerbook. It said that G-d wants us to serve the Divine by being kind to each other. This is the same thing the Buddhists say - look at whether your behavior is helpful or unhelpful to other living beings.

In the end great brands leave you feeling connected. Connections are built through customer service. And the principles of customer service can be found freely in religious texts.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

The Kindle Fire: Amazon's fundamental brand mistake

It seems everywhere I look there is praise for this new product and how it will challenge Apple's iPad. But something in me is going, "No, No, No." And now I think I know what it is.

The Kindle Fire is a potentially useful product with poor positioning.

Poor positioning means bad brand. Bad brand means bad business.

The first clue is in the name: "Kindle Fire." It should be one name instead of two - "Fire" only. 

That "Fire" should be positioned as doing one thing, occupying ONE place in the mind, keeping one brand promise. 

But the Kindle Fire is supposed to do everything: "web, movies, apps, games, reading and more."

If Amazon were Apple this would be fine, maybe, because Apple's brand promise is to connect you with your media. But Amazon and Apple are not brand competitors. Amazon is misunderstanding its competitive set, because it has so successfully inserted itself into the world of "buy everything at this one site."

No, at its core Amazon's promise is about books. Amazon started out as a way to get any book you wanted to read, at the lowest price possible, knowing that you could trust Amazon to be your intermediary on the scary Web.

So the Kindle was an extension of the original brand promise. It made books even more accessible, as you could get them quickly and take them everywhere. It enhanced the book experience and made it relevant for the age of Twitter, when the relevance of books themselves was being threatened.

In a similar way, Frappuccino was an extension of the Starbucks brand promise. It elevated the experience of drinking a Starbucks coffee because now you could get a great taste either hot or iced.

Both the Kindle and the Frappuccino are examples of a brand increasing its functional benefit. Their success lies in doing one very narrow thing very well. 

In complete contrast, Apple offers a simple brand promise with broad applicability - design to make complicated technology accessible, especially in the area of rich media.

Amazon successfully expanded its brand promise by taking the concept of "online trust" and using it to sell everything.

But Amazon has gotten mixed up. Because it's also expanded the brand promise into cloud computing.

So now Amazon has books + "online trust" + cloud computing.

Instead of keeping those promises separate through strategic brand architecture, it has lost focus and mishmashed them. The Kindle Fire is a prime example.

Young & Rubicam pioneered the science of what makes a brand work in its Brand Asset Valuator. A great brand has relevance, differentiation, stature and awareness. 

The Kindle Fire has awareness and stature (trust) no doubt. But it does not have relevance and differentiation at all.

Instead of copying what Apple already does successfully, the Kindle Fire should focus on what it does differently and why that is important.

Amazon should position the Kindle Fire as providing the ultimate book experience. 

Take books, put them on the Kindle Fire, and add rich media - interviews with the authors, eye-popping charts and graphics, and any other related content that would make the experience of reading a book great. Put it all on 3G, free, for good.

I don't need another tablet. I don't need an easy way to buy things on Amazon. I do need a way to get back to reading books, to savoring the moment and the experience.

Teenage kids who used to hate reading will enjoy a book if it's on the Kindle. 

Forget about connecting us to "everything," and focus on elevating the experience of reading a published work.

Good luck Amazon - go for it!