Jon told me not long ago that he is a “paleotheist” — a fully observant Orthodox Jew.
Now, sitting across from me at a window-side table at Dalva, sipping a dry martini, he tells me that he’s really more of a “periodically” observant Jew, and that the God he truly and sincerely believes in is make-believe.
“Everything changed for me when I went to a talk by an Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi who said that the first thing you do is make believe. You pretend enough so that you do the rituals, and the behavior, and then over time the behavior and the rituals change the way your mind works, until eventually you really do believe, really believe, in what you were once making up. And this … this was an Ultra-Orthodox guy, you know? The people who really believe.”
This, of course, seems backwards to a lot of people, but Jon believes that the act of belonging to this culture – not of wearing it like a costume that you can take off whenever you want, but of making it part of you, like a tattoo or a donated heart – makes him a better person in ways that he would never attain on his own.
We went to Dalva at 3121 16th St. because Jon doesn’t have a favorite watering hole in the Mission. “I don’t actually know San Francisco that well,” he’d said as we’d stood on the street outside his office. “I was never really here when I lived here before.”
“Cities are places where you either make an effort to explore them, or you only end up knowing the places on your way from home to work, and maybe to a friend’s house,” I agreed. For all that Jon has traveled and lived internationally, something about him seems provincial this evening. I’m not sure why. “Well, what kind of bar do you like and how far are you willing to go?”
“Good questions.” He considered. “I would definitely go for a martini now, if that’s an option, and staying close to BART.”
I asked if he’d ever been to Dalva. He said no – he really doesn’t know the Mission – and so we headed over, talking about the relative advantages of living in a big city instead of a mid-sized city, instead of the wilderness.
Dalva is long and wooden and dark and full of character. “It’s perfect!” Jon said as we walked in. The hideaway bar upstairs wasn’t open yet, so we snagged a table by the window – giving us a view of all the weirdness that would happen on 16th Street. He got his martini, loved it, and stuck with martinis all night. I tried a different item from the special cocktail menu each time, and … didn’t like any of them. Which is puzzling, because I’ve always liked the mixology here before. Maybe it was just an off night?
“This intersection is a great place to watch weirdness,” I told him. And it is. During the 90 minutes we spent there, we saw all manner of hipsters, travelers from across the world, and a phalanx of bedraggled men and women, all crossing before us. We saw a man leading a remote-controlled robot that looked like a freezer on wheels. Twice.
Don’t ask. We don’t know.
Jon got his start in the mid-2000s, “writing about tech on the web for people who were obsessed with tech and the web,” as he describes it. He was an evangelist at the time, a believer spreading tech’s good word.
But it also positioned him to see a shift – one that came for all of us – in its infancy. “In the early stages, before Facebook became … you know … and ad revenues plummeted, it was a different kind of environment. It was a functioning media environment. But then, as ad revenues started to go down, I could see the attention economy develop, and desperation set in, everybody was hunting for clicks, and I realized: This is going to make things go viral that I don’t want to spread all over the world. So … that was it. I left before the job got unbearable. Turns out almost none of those jobs lasted much longer, anyway.”
It’s gotten so much harder to tell the truth in the world – and perhaps the truth has gotten more complicated, too. “I really worry,” he says, “that technology, social media, is going to become so personalized, and so capable, that we’re going to enter states of almost total passivity, and just click buttons. But for introverts, like me, there’s actually an advantage to it, because you don’t have to talk to 17 people one-on-one. You can just post something and have 17 people respond. That seems easier, and it is easier, but …”
But after living that life, he has embraced sacrifice, not because he hears a calling from God, but because he needs to call to God, even if it means creating Him out of his own rib.
That takes a lot of practice, but it might save the world.