The augmented reality mobile game "Pokemon Go" by Nintendo is shown on a smartphone screen in this photo illustration taken in Palm Springs, Calif., on July 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Sam Mircovich/Illustration *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POKEMON-CHURCH, originally transmitted on July 11, 2016.

Is 'Pokemon Go' good for the Jews?

(RNS) I had thought that the last time I would ever hear about Pokemon was when my younger son turned 9 years old.

I was wrong.

As anyone who has been paying attention knows, Pokemon is back -- in the form of "Pokemon Go." In the old Pokemon, players collected sweet, little characters. "Pokemon Go" steps it up one notch. It encourages users to "leave" Pokemon characters in the various places that they visit, so that other players can find them and collect them.

By the way, that younger son, 15 years later, is busy looking for Pokemon all over Washington, D.C. As Bob Dylan sang: "May you stay forever young."

"Pokemon Go" has become such a cultural phenomenon that Florida highways (and perhaps elsewhere) have had to "upgrade" their no-texting alerts. There are now signs proclaiming that it is both unsafe and illegal to search for Pokemon while driving.

Seriously -- thanks for the heads-up on that.

In a summer punctuated by terror and mass death, the "Pokemon Go" phenomenon is actually a sweet societal diversion.

And, yes -- Pokemon have been showing up in Jewish places.

Except -- not everyone is pleased with the places that Pokemon have appeared. For example, Auschwitz has asked to be a Pokemon-free zone. So has the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery.

Pokemon have showed up at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest site. (Snark alert: Virtual critters can be at the Wall, but men and women can't pray there together?) I'm sure some of my colleagues are devoting the remainder of their summers to figuring out how to leave Pokemon around their synagogues so that kids will find them.

And so, thank you, "Pokemon Go." You have reminded us about a subject that we would rather avoid.

It's called the holy.

Here is the paradox. America is, arguably, the most "religious" country in the industrialized world, at least, when it comes to church attendance. (Synagogue attendance is an entirely different matter.)

But, even with our nation's heralded religiosity, when it comes to the subject of the holy, we are more than a little tongue-tied. Our culture doesn't like to discuss the holy, for fear that talk of the holy will migrate into being "holier than thou."

We seem to lack holy days (contrast this to Israel, where many cities descend into sacred silence on the Jewish Sabbath). And we certainly have lost sense of the sanctity of place, wherein certain spaces are filled with the magical, the sublime, the transcendent -- the holy.

There are places that are so serious, so powerful, so exalted, so touched by eternity that they simply cannot give entry passes to the trivial and the time-bound.

Paradoxically, the conversation about places where "Pokemon Go" should not go is actually a conversation about the places where God should go.

Like all fads, the "Pokemon Go" fad will fade. But I would like to imagine a new way of understanding the "Pokemon Go" phenomenon.

Instead of searching for invented creatures, let us imagine that there are images of God, and acts of altruism, scattered all over the world.

There is no app that will help you find them.

The only thing that will do that -- is your own soul.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and writes the Martini Judaism column for RNS)


  1. I think Pokemon Go is dangerous for all. Why let yourself be physically led to places by a stranger? How can you be sure the person doing this is not one of a pair of thieves leading you to a secluded location where you can be robbed or worse?

  2. Unfortunately, this description of the way the game operates is incorrect. Players are in no way responsible for the Pokemon that other players can find and catch. The only ones that a player “leaves” anywhere are those they have captured and trained, which they can place in a gym at pre-designated landmarks. Other players may then choose to battle these Pokemon with their own, with the goal being to boot the opposing player’s Pokemon and placing their own at the gym to defend against the next would-be attacker.

    The ways in which you may have heard players being led anywhere to catch Pokemon by other players are indirect. The best example would be at similar, pre-designated landmarks called “Pokestops” in the game. These locations, even more ubiquitous than gyms, are places where players can go to restock on items needed to catch and battle Pokemon. While Pokemon can spawn virtually anywhere people can normally be found, often they are somewhat more common to find near to these Pokestops. There are also items that a player can use to cause additional Pokemon to appear in direct proximity to the Pokestop of their choice for 30 minutes at a time. These “lures” are the items that you may have heard about, with savvy businesses using them to encourage customers to visit whIle they catch more Pokemon. However, it should be noted that the location of Pokestops and gyms have been fixed and defined since the launch of the game and are cannot be added at the whim of any business or person. The origin of the location of these sites is actually based on certain points of interest submitted by players of the game developer’s (Niantic) previous successful augmented reality (AR) game, Ingress. Among a variety of landmarks and locations of interest, houses of worship for a variety of religions have been noted since the launch as being common locations for Pokestops and gyms.

    Despite prevailing dialogue about the game, it is not truly possible to leave a “trail of breadcrumbs” leading players to some sort of danger or trap. The nearest thing to doing so would be more aptly described as choosing a suitable location where people may otherwise visit at any time, purchasing items in the game, then activating them and waiting 30 minutes at a time for a ‘mark’ to wander to that location amongst what is likely a variety of other equally attractive locations to play. The dialogue surrounding the game’s popularity can make it tempting to take up pitchforks against the ‘menace’ it poses, but the reality is that you would be equally successful to ban candy in order to keep it out of the hands of a paedophile that would use it to lure children into a van.

    As a sidenote, the handheld games that brought Pokemon to prominence when your son was 9 have featured equally popular sequels ever since, and in the next year the latest installments “Pokemon Sun & Moon”, which I believe are considered to become part of “Generation 5” of the Pokemon series of games, are expected to get a boost from the popularity Pokemon Go has found. Pokemon’s popularity has simply hit another high note in a very long and storied history one may some day compare to ‘Barbie’ dolls and other such time-honored and notable icons of entertainment.

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