As a regular kind of Jew in the Boston area, I wanted to tell my story a bit, as the “rest” of the world approaches Thanksgiving and Christmas in the pandemic. It’s not exactly shock therapy; it’s not exactly a support group. It’s a story, though, to share. Because this is an unusual year, for sure.
In the Boston area, we’ve all been adjusting to the pandemic and staying distanced to the extent we can—happily, unhappily, worriedly, gratefully, as distanced as we’d like, more distanced than we’d like, less distanced than we’d like; all of those things describe us overall. And while we’ve been doing that as a community, almost the entire lineup of the major Jewish holidays has occurred in this little window of time we affectionately call “staying at home.”
In fact, Purim—a holiday with a great deal of meaning and yet not of the religious level of other holidays on the calendar—occurred right before the lockdown: Tuesday, March 10. By Friday, we were being sent home for remote work. I looked around at the people in my congregation who came out to gather for the event, all of us with the virus on our minds but before it all became very real. I was so moved to be there with people who came out of their homes as they had for 50 or more years of their lives, every year, to listen to this overtly silly and covertly significant holiday reading. But that was just the beginning of it.
The full lineup of Jewish holidays was yet to come. One. At. A. Time. Each. One. To explain, as of this writing, the only ones we’re looking ahead to now are Chanukah—which, please, is not anything like Christmas, despite being close in the calendar. Then we have, well, there’s the Jewish New Year of the Trees coming up in a few months—lovely, but not of the same order. And then Purim—yes, we fit that one in just before the pandemic last year (in Jewish time/pandemic time).
So, the first major holiday-at-home was Passover (Pesach). If I may (with the hope for leniency from all rabbis in my audience and others), Passover is a lot about two things: cleaning your house and stocking up on food. Yes, it is. And so the pandemic Passover was like layering frosting on top of frosting—what’s real? We’re already sanitizing our counters when we bring in the mail, and we’re already told to keep two weeks of food in the house in case there’s a lockdown or a run on things at the grocery stores. I’m already cooking everything at home and not going to restaurants. It’s like Passover times two, in my book. Cleaning my kitchen, trying to prepare. You’re looking for meaning in these actions that are generally symbolic, and you just throw in the spiritual towel at that point. It’s real. It’s not real. Who really cares at that point. It’s a holiday that even has a hand-washing ritual, enhanced for the holiday over the usual Sabbath handwashing. Oh, good! (Sarcasm.) And bless their hearts, we are treated to many, many, many rabbis weighing in on the meaning of—because it’s Passover in the pandemic—the plagues. Yes, yes, and how we got through all those interpretations….
So, what else is at the heart of Passover? Having family over to share our common story. Nope, not this year. And for me, the highpoint of Passover might be going to the synagogue where there are better cookies than at home, kosher for Passover. And being with one’s compatriots in this, where you know you’re not the only one doing these rituals and feel less like you’re a martian. That again—nope. All of these things intended to make one’s home different from all other times happen at a time when, well, I just can’t even explain how the pandemic layered on that holiday.
The next major holiday is Shavuot, seven weeks later. It’s a big one. Not everyone celebrates it like they do Passover, but it’s big. It’s the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. It’s not minor. And we’re home. Again. But at this point, let’s just say, one could be grateful that it wasn’t Passover. Which may, in fact, be the deepest meaning of Shavuot that we have, if you dig in there a little.
Continuing down the batting order, we do have some religious events in the summer. And we all know the next big peak for those who observe at some moderate level is the High Holidays. That says it all, right—High Holidays. (Hot tip to media folks: If you go with that nomenclature, you don’t need to worry about how to pronounce Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) So again, let me give you the layman/laywoman’s take on pandemic holidays here. Rosh Hashanah—a lot of people observe it, and it’s big. At the same time, the major ritual here involves leaving the house and being with people. Yes, that’s true every week and Jews really like getting together for services at synagogues, if they are into that observance. And, of course, there’s a lot that happens once you leave the house and get to synagogue. But honestly, returning to the pandemic stay-at-home theme, just leaving the house and being with people is a big step in the right direction. And that’s obviously not happening. On the upside, I might mention: not having to figure out what you’ll wear this year to High Holiday services and whether it fits. PJs are fine.
Next up to bat is Yom Kippur. Now I’m fasting—that would be not eating—in my own home, trying to remain un-anxious, Zooming services. That’s when I truly said aloud, heck, at least it’s not Passover.
There are more holidays at this time, all with meaning. It is probably worth noting the festival of Sukkot that nearly ends the big holiday season—you know, the one where you are best sitting in a place where the space is not enclosed and you can see the stars. It is both the most fragile of homes—a booth, it’s called, the sukkah of Sukkot—and the safest place to be, both spiritually and physically in a pandemic. Thanks, Judaism—the kind of perfect pandemic holiday. And, yes, again I miss being with people in that lovely space.
So, as a Jew, there may be meaning in here. For sure. At every little step, we’re finding meaning, or not, as we choose. Everything in this time of the pandemic has become both astoundingly literal (there really is a plague, we really are stocking up on food and we really are “staring at these four walls” every day), and also very abstract (what is a relationship when you never see the person or even touch them?).
Why tell this story? I obviously wrote this for those who are not Jewish and are looking at the serious end of a Thanksgiving and Christmas more alone than many may choose or would have in the past. I can only say from my experience so far: yes, it’s a loss. And—you can do it. It will be OK. You turn inward. You reach outward as you can. And you laugh a little.
I was only going to start this story as a funny version of what we’ve been through. And then I found that’s all we have. Let’s take it.
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