50 top Jewish websites: The Jewish internet is growing up, a mixed blessing

There’s more information than ever available on the World Wide Web, and sites are becoming more professional and less haphazard.

But something has been lost in the process, as well: the exuberance of early days, when many popular home pages were seat-of-the-pants creations by individual Jews with something to say.

Sites are better, but more commercial, and they’re becoming more similar; like stores in shopping malls, it’s getting harder to find the distinctive qualities that set one site apart from another.

After five years of spectacular growth, there is a shake out taking place as many site creators realize they won’t reap the fat profits they once anticipated. Some venerated pioneers have shut down, such as the late, lamented Jewish Communication Network (JCN). Others have gone corporate, like the pioneering Virtual Jerusalem. And Jewish Family and Life, one of the earliest and best Jewish Web-Zines, has spawned a multimedia empire aimed at Jewish outreach.

Jewish organizations, after a shaky start, are learning how to use the Internet to get their message out and, in some cases, to affect national policy.

Here’s a rundown of the good, the bad and the ugly in Jewish cyberspace. Jewish Portals: Portals are sites that try to impose a measure of order on the Web’s inherent anarchy by indexing sites and offering search engines. The best-known general-interest portal is Yahoo!, which has served as the model for a handful of Jewish portals.

Maven (http://www.maven.co.il), one of the first, and still pretty good.

A clean interface, a huge database of Jewish-related sites and quick, effective searching. Sign up for periodic e-mail updates of new Jewish sites. But needs some housecleaning; lots of dead links can be frustrating.

Jewish.Com (http://www.jewish.com), an outgrowth of America Online’s Jewish Community Online, takes a different approach. More feature-oriented than Maven; don’t come here for a complete index of the Jewish Web. But an excellent search engine and nice organization, and includes some of the features of the AOL Jewish community.

Mish-Mash: Linking Judaism Worldwide (http://mishmash.virtualave.net/):

Less a systematic effort to index the Jewish Web than one guy’s collection of the things that interest him. It claims 15,000 links, but hosted on a free Web service; tons of ads, which make it SLOW.

Nu?! The JAFI Portal (http://www.jewishsites.org). Run by the Jewish Agency, it’s very pretty, nicely organized, but the links are…let’s just say less than comprehensive. Good Israel coverage. HaReshima: The Jewish Internet Portal. (http://www.hareshima.com) has an unusual, uncluttered design and a nice “best of the list” feature. A great starting place for general Jewish Web surfing.

GENERAL-INTEREST SITES

Some sites specialize, some few try to offer a little something for everybody. Here are a few of the best of the Jewish general-interest sites:

Virtual Jerusalem (http://www.virtualjerusalem.com), one of the oldest and most complete Jewish mega-sites. The Jerusalem-based site has a strong focus on Israel. Includes the much-esteemed Kotel Kam, which lets you keep an eye on the Western Wall. Good stuff on food, families and holidays, as well. And a fee-based matchmaking service for the unattached.

Chabad Online (http://www.-chabadonline.com) has a strong Chasidic cast (well, DUH) and some of the slickest Web design around. The best holiday coverage of any Jewish site, and it also plugs you into Chabad activities around the world. Plenty of wisdom from the late Rebbe, naturally.

JewishFamily.Com (http://www.jewishfamily.com). A Web ‘zine with outstanding features on Jewish family life. But it’s also an easy way to check out all the other specialty Internet publications honchoed by Jewish media mogul Yossi Abramowitz. From Jewish social action to sports, and they’re all well done. Ahavet Israel (http://www.ahavat-israel.com/) has a strong Orthodox and right-wing flare. A big collection of Jewish music-everything from “Hinei Ma Tov” to that religious classic, “If I Were a Rich Man”– and rudimentary children’s games. And there’s a big collection of the kind of jokes you might hear if you hung around Brooklyn for a while.

Zipple (http://www.zipple.com): a slick Jewish portal and Web ‘zine aimed mostly at Jews in their twenties and thirties. Lots of information for singles and a free matchmaking section. Entertainment, media, food, families and finance, and chat rooms galore. But oh, that purple background is too much for anybody over 40.

JEWISH MUSIC

Jewish Music Online (http://www.jewishmusic.com). What Amazon.com is to books, this site is to Jewish music. Everything from music of the Jews of Uganda to traditional cantorial selections to a “Reggae Passover” CD. Easy online ordering, and–best of all–lots of sound clips.

Ladino Music (http://www.geocities.com/Paris/6256/ladino.htm). Listen to dozens of songs, click on links to order direct from Amazon.com or the site author, if you like what you hear. But one warning: the site is SLOW to load.

Blues for Israel (http://www.blues.co.il/). Offbeat, fascinating site blending support for the peace process with the Chicago blues. “Isn’t it time people stopped fighting and learned to play 12-bar shuffles instead?” the home page asks. Articles on the blues, poetry and blues songs about peace (not a big selection, actually). Also information on where to hear live blues music in Israel.

Klezmer Shack (http://www.klezmershack.com) offers an astonishing amount of information about the music and its practitioners, laid out for easy access. A good search engine, links to bands and other Klezmer Web sites, reviews with sound clips and classified ads.

The Budowitz home page (http://www.budowitz.com), devoted to a band that plays ultra-traditional Klezmer, has a wealth of information about the genre and fascinating descriptions of original instruments. Alas, no sound clips.

TOP JEWISH LEARNING SITES

Torah.org, formerly Project Genesis, goes for depth, offering serious Jewish learning in the form of online courses and individual seminars on special topics. Classes are available for all levels of learners, right down to rank beginners. Sign up for the free stuff at their attractive, easy-to-use Web site.

Professor Elizer Segal (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/index.html), at the University of Calgary, is a one-man Jewish learning center. Come here to get basic and easily digestible instruction on Judaism from an Orthodox perspective. Well done, if quirky. But the home page music is downright irritating.

Bar-Ilan “Virtual Jewish University” (http://www.bar-ilan.edu) is a high-end Jewish learning site operated by Israel’s biggest college. Fascinating online courses, interaction with professors, discussion sections, multimedia galore, and the credits you earn may be transferable. But not cheap; fees for most courses are in the $300 plus range.

Click on Judaism (http://www.clickonjudaism.org). Once a brain-dead site for Jewish Gen-Xers, it’s now a pretty decent collection of essays on Judaism and contemporary issues–including the religious meaning of Joe Lieberman’s nomination, praying for our favorite sports teams, and “Judaism and the Afterlife.” It’s a product of the Reform movement, so the Judaism here reflects its strong social-justice emphasis.

JTS: Learn@jts (http://learn.jtsa.edu/) comes from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Conservative rabbis learn to do their thing. But this site is aimed primarily at ordinary Jews interested in expanding their Jewish horizons. Lots of useful learning resources, including quizzes, quotes, and access to a wide range of courses, some for credit, most with modest fees.

QUIRKY JEWISH SITES

The Fleaglemans (http://gurlpages.com/cookie4/fleagleman.html) are a riot and a half. Polly and Esther–get it?–are composite characters intended to remind you of your Aunt Sadie. A “Goyim’s Guide to Yiddish,” kashrut, recipes, bizarre links., personal ads…just a strange, fascinating hodge podge. Try it, you’ll like it.

J-Clown (http://www.egroups.com/community/J-CLOWN/) is an e-mail discussion list for “Jewish clowns and other comic family/kid show entertainers.” Wacky stuff.

Jewish Vegetarian Homeschoolers (http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Hills/1259/). There’s a Web site for every interest, as this one proves. The name says it all. Naturally, lots of information about Judaism and the vegan lifestyle.

House of Jews (http://web.wt.net/~cbenton/hoj.htm), offered by a self-described “Texas Jewboy,” offers up measured doses of Jewish learning overlaid with splashes of quirky humor. The first section, “The Texas Talmud,” includes text and commentary for 18 passages “guaranteed to help any Jewish cowboy (or cowgirl) lead a good and righteous life.” Git along, little boychik.

Boulder Yiddish Vinkl (http://rintintin.colorado.edu/~biasca/vinkl.html) offers an amazing collection of links to other Yiddish sites around the world. Operated by the University of Colorado Yiddish club.

FUNNY JEWISH SITES

Harry Leichter’s home page (http://www.haruth.com/jhumorlink.htm). Oy, what a site: enough Jewish groaners to keep you laughing for weeks. You want bad jokes about mothers-in-law? Rabbi-and-priest jokes? It’s all here. Great variety, a vast jumble. Put together by a retired guy with way too much time on his hands. Lori’s Mish-Mash (http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/6174/h–jewish.html) offers a similar assortment. Lots of nerdy computer jokes with a Jewish twist.

The Official Jewish American Princess Home Page (http://www.geocities-.com/SouthBeach/Boardwalk/1933/) has thousands of jokes, only a few of which have to do with the name of the site. Annoying background music mars the site, but this is a rich mine of humor.

Rec.jewish.humor is a bunch of zanies who share Jewish jokes via a Usenet discussion group. The moderators filter out smut and other junk, but quality is hit-or-miss. Learn how to participate at this Web site: (http://members.tripod.com/~rechumorjewish/).

Jewish Men in Togas (http://www.jewishmenintogas.com/). Ugh…sorta tasteless, sometimes incredibly juvenile. But if it hits you in the right mood, it’s a riot. Lots of Jewish jokes, offbeat features like the one in which Jews send in pics of themselves in…you guessed it, togas. Cute feature on “If Elian Gonzales was Jewish.” ‘Nuf said.

KOSHER ONLINE

The Orthodox Union (http://www.ou.org). Lots of basic information, including excellent learning materials geared to all levels. But the kashrut resources are what sets this page apart. Naturally, lots of info on certification, as well as consumer alerts.

Kosherline (http://www.kosherline.com) offers a good worldwide directory of kosher businesses, especially restaurants. Mostly in this country, a few overseas.

Kosher Supermarket (http://www.koshersupermarket.com/). No kosher grocery nearby? Then check out this site for online shopping. Well designed, a good selection and easy delivery options.

The American-Asian Kashrus Service (http://www.kashrus.org). This U.K.-based service dealing with kosher issues in Asia is the place to go if you dig kosher Oriental food. Recipes for Chinese, Laotian, Burmese and Malaysian dishes are just a start. But a quirky site; sometimes, links don’t load.

Ruth’s Kitchen (http://emr.cs.uiuc.edu/~reingold/ruthskitchen/cooking.html) offers recipes for food like your Bubbe used to make. It’s a beautifully designed personal home page listing dozens of interesting recipes. It’s the place to go for Calzoni Pugliesi and other delicacies.

FAMOUS JEWS

The Al Jolson home page (http://www.jolson.org/) tells you all about the guy who started life as Asa Yoelson, the son of a Washington rabbi. A complete discography, descriptions of his movies, pictures and trivia. Also songs in Real Audio format.

The Three Stooges (http://three-stooges.net/). Fans, almost all male, love these Jewish clowns; mothers universally hate them. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Jewish vaudevillians who infected generations of kids with eye-pokes and “Nyuk, nyuk nyuks.” Plus message boards and a chat area.

The George Gershwin page (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/penumbra1/). At the other end of the Jewish cultural spectrum. Filled with music and terrific pictures, and an outstanding biography of the composer. Wherever you go on this site, you’re serenaded by tasteful Gershwin renditions–a real piano, not beepy computer music.

Jewhoo (http://www.jewhoo.com): the format mimics the Yahoo Web portal, but the content is devoted to famous Jews. Jewish celebs by category, or use the search engine. Also features, like the Official Jewish Mothers Hall of Fame, with interviews of celebrities’ moms.

The Sholom Alecheim home page (http://www.sholom-aleichem.org/) is run by family of the Yiddish author your grandparents probably loved back in the old country. A good overview of his life and works, and some poignant stories from his family about the great writer.

SITES FOR THE UNATTACHED AND HOPEFUL

There are dozens of them, many slick, commercial services that charge stiff membership fees and offer cookie-cutter personal ads (“Loves music, zestful living, walks on the beach and Yiddishkeit, looking for a handsome but spiritual partner….” Here’s a modest selection.

Jdate (http://www.jdate.com) is slick and attractive, and claims to have more than 146,000 members, so you should be able to find Mr. Or Ms. Right.

You can get a taste for free, but making full use of JDATE requires a modest subscription fee.

Jewish Singles in Science (http://www.jsn.org/singles/home.html). Geek City. Not as flashy as the other sites, but somehow seems more genuine; participants here write their own personal ads, instead of filling out huge questionnaires. And membership is cheaper than most.

Mit Mazel (http://www.mitmazel.com/), run by Chabad world headquarters, puts a frum spin on online matchmaking. A $50 onetime fee for full access, lots of potential mates to choose from, information about levels of religious observance, but no pictures. And a cute wrinkle; participants who marry are asked to make a contribution “commensurate with their means, starting from $250 per couple.”

GayJews.net (http://www.gayjews.net). A simple, extremely perky home page for gay Jews looking to hook up with each other. Nothing raunchy here, no rank commercialism. And guess what: it’s free.

Bashert Online, a service of the Halacha Hotline, is aimed mostly at widowed and divorced Orthodox Jews. No frills, no talk about sharing fine wine, just the facts, Ma’am. Go to (http://www.w3u.com/continental/cgibin/men.cgi) for ads about available men, (http://www.w3u.com/continental/cgi-bin/women.cgi) for ladies on the loose.

SHOP TILL YOU DROP

Judaism.com (http://www.judaism.com) follows the model of Amazon.com: books and music, arranged for easy browsing and searching, plus “Mitzvawear.” Decent descriptions of the products plus easy online ordering make this site a winner.

All Things Jewish (http://www.allthingsjewish.com/). A kind of Judaica super-store on the Web. Easy online ordering, a good range of merchandise, everything from benchers to Gore-Lieberman kippot. Coming soon: an online gallery of for-sale art.

Art Judaica (http://www.artjudaica.com). A “virtual gallery of fine Judaic art plus unique hand-crafted Hebrew theme ritual objects and symbols for the family.” Even if you are checkbook challenged, the pictures are fabulous, and the site layout is excellent.

Henry Hollander, Bookseller (http://www.hollanderbooks.com). Looking for out-of-print Yiddish books? Books on Jewish mysticism, history, literature? Old Hebrew books? Henry’s your guy. The San Francisco book shop lets you browse titles, although there’s no online ordering.

LOTS OF FUN

Hagafen Cellars (http://www.judaica.com/hagafen/), a Napa Valley kosher winery produced by a family whose “goal has been to create premium Napa Valley wines that fit both our tradition and our spirituality.” Ordering online is a cinch.

Israeli Military Products (http://www.gezernet.co.il/IMP/) Wanna wear an IDF uniform instead of your Dockers and Izods? Check out this site for uniforms, T-shirts and equipment. Featured recently: “Ballistic Protection Vests.” No Uzis, sorry.

SITES FOR ACTIVISTS

More and more Jewish organizations–and individuals, for that matter–are learning how to use the World Wide Web to generate grassroots political activism. Here are some of the folks who do it right.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (http://www.aipac.org), the pro-Israel lobby, is a pioneer in the area of Jewish cyber-activism. Check out their site for info on current Mideast issues and on how you can get involved. They make it easy to contact your representatives on Capitol Hill.

Jsource (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/) was intended originally to provide college students the resources they need to fight the anti-Semites and anti-Zionists on campus. But it’s expanded, and now this stupendous site has information on just about everything: Mideast politics, Jewish history, anti-Semitism, terrorism, right down to the mundane but important “how to write a great college application.”

Jews for Judaism (http://www.jewsforjudaism.org): a quirky, hard-edged site that effectively uses the Internet to disseminate information about the Christian groups that want to win you over for You Know Who. Lots of stuff on how to respond to the proselytizers, but the “knowledge base” search engine is a dud.

Project Nizkor (http://www.nizkor.org). How to answer the Holocaust deniers on the Net. Tons of resources, stridently presented.

Justice for Jonathan Pollard (http://www.jonathanpollard.org/) is a textbook example of how to use the Web for advocacy. Strident and totally one-sided, but effective. Organized by issues (“Pollard’s Remorse”) and year, with special sections–including one attacking Jewish opponents of the commutation effort.