Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The God Of OMG! (Jewish Week)

Jewish Week
by Joshua Hammerman

Just before the December vacation, I challenged my class of seventh graders to keep count of how often the expression “OMG!” appears in text messages, Facebook postings, tweets, e-mails or other communications that they send and receive. When they returned in January, I was amazed — but not surprised — and what they reported: nearly 250 OMG!s were recorded among the dozen or so who participated. That’s over 20 OMG!s per person, or about two a day over the span of the vacation.

I told the kids that they are one devout group, and each OMG! is a prayer.

For those Neanderthals still living in the 20th century, OMG is texting shorthand for “Oh my God!” Just as with telegrams a century before, texts and tweets require users to economize on what they write, so an entire dictionary of shorthand expressions has evolved, including acronyms like OMG. Rules of proper usage have also sprung up; for instance, it is not proper “netiquette” to use capitals unless you wish to convey that you are shouting. OMG is not always shouted, but it often is.

Of the thousand or so abbreviations now found in web dictionaries, OMG is probably the most widely known, along with BFF (best friends forever), LOL (laugh out loud) and, a favorite among rabbis, IMHO (in my humble opinion). OMG also has derivations, including OMGYG2BK, “Oh my God, you got to be kidding.” There are also, BTW (by the way), a number of acronyms designed to confound parents looking over their kids’ shoulders at what they are texting. If you see P911 on your teen’s screen, know that he has just alerted a friend that you have come into the room.

So this new age of instant text communications has developed its own language. But rather than bemoan the loss of good ol’ fashioned English, we need to reach out to the kids where they are and recognize that God-talk comes in all shapes and sizes. Take a look at the Kaddish, written primarily in Aramaic, using expressions for God not seen in the Bible. For centuries, rabbis have tried to reach the average Jew on the street through the use of the vernacular, be it Aramaic, Greek, Ladino, Yiddish or English. Each language’s expression for God lends insight to the values of the Jews living at that time. Ladino, for instance, the language of Jews from Spain, uses the expression “El Dio,” for God, eschewing the Spanish ‘Dios” because it ends in an “s.” Ladino-speaking Jews, undoubtedly influenced by the strict monotheistic inclinations of philosophers like Maimonides, did not want anyone to assume that God can be expressed in the plural. In Yiddish, the German “Gott” is often used, but what might sound harsh in German sounds more like a cry in Yiddish. “Oy Gotenyue!” is an untranslatable cry out to God from the depths of despair, part of the repertoire of every poet and cantor of the old country. “Oy Gotenyue” is most definitely a prayer.

So why not OMG?

OMG is an expression of fearful and fascinating mystery. Unlike old-school words like “Lord,” OMG is not a noun but an exclamation, a statement of radical awareness of life’s wonders. I subscribe to “OMGfacts” on Twitter, providing me with a steady stream of seemingly pointless but amazing trivia all day long. Did you know it takes about 20 seconds for a red blood cell to circle the whole body? That vultures can fly for six hours without flapping their wings? The point of it all is to be amazed, to connect with the rhythms of the universe in deeper ways, and to sum it up with a loud “OMG,” again and again.

Whoever says we have a problem with God language isn’t speaking the right language. There is no such problem with OMG, though there may well be one with the now passé term “God.” That word has been laid to rest, the victim of countless sleepy responsive readings in rote-infested congregations. While Buber said that “God cannot be expressed, only addressed,” OMG rarely addresses the Eternal One directly, but testifies emphatically to the daily miracles of life, ascribing those miracles, ultimately, to God — or, more precisely, to “G.” OMG is spontaneous prayer at its best.

I wanted to show my students how the theology of OMG can be found in our set prayers as well. So I took the liberty of translating the entire Friday evening service into the language of OMG (without using other Internet acronyms). What you see below are some examples from the first crude effort at such a translation —I’m sure the first of many. And it may have come out more Valley Girl than OMG. I felt like the third-century BCE scribes of Alexandria who first translated the Bible into Greek, making it accessible to the entire Mediterranean world, including many Jews. My OMG translation may not rank up there with the Septuagint, but I tried it out on the kids last week and they loved it:

The Shema: OMG! God is ONE! That means everyone (and everything) is connected!

Lecha Dodi: OMG! Shabbat is as beautiful as a wedding! And the bride’s entering the room right now!

Ma’ariv Aravim: OMG! The orderly cycles of nature: day and night, winter to spring — it’s all sooooo AWESOME!

Mi Chamocha: OMG! We got out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea! That was a CLOSE one! I’m so happy!

Hashkiveynu: OMG! PLEEZE God, protect my loved ones! I care about them! And Israel too!

Now that I’ve completed this project, maybe I’ll turn next to the High Holy Days Machzor, or perhaps the Bible itself!

IMHO, it can be done.

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