When ambiguity is the word that comes to mind, as well as to the heart, and if one is writing in English, it is unavoidable to quote Dickens’ famous opening of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …”. The context of the novel is irrelevant when one chooses the phrase as a metaphor. Covid19 time has a lot to do with this kind of juxtapositions, even if one cannot easily see the best side of times, neither the wisdom nor the belief. Yet, it can be so: ambiguous, simultaneous, contradictory and, ultimately, a learning curve which will tend to escalate sharply as that of the virus tends to flatten.
Paul Johnson has argued that the study of Jewish history allows to see the history of humankind from a very particular, unique point of view: that of a minority living within society but at its edges, one that pursuits the notion of freedom while it has existed most of the time under the will of others, one that is obsessed with justice while it has been the constant target of injustice by the name of antisemitism. As Covid19 enters its eighth month as a relentless plague for all humanity, we Jews are going through one of our two most important months of our calendar: Tishrei, with its High Holidays, Sukkot, and the end of the cycle of reading the Torah. Celebrating Iom Kipur this year 5781 became a challenge to every and each community and congregation all over the world, and the way each of them dealt with it can become, in a time of incredulity and foolishness (as seen in crowds all over the world), a source of belief and wisdom. In the end, we know we will prevail.
I’d like to share with the readers of TOI, who mostly belong to the English speaking world, a glimpse into our congregation at NCI in Montevideo, Uruguay, at the southern tip of Brazil and by mighty Argentina. The Jewish population of Uruguay is under 15000 souls and as many claim, dwindling. Yet, it is also very traditionalist, Zionist, and self-conscious. In Iom Kipur, any Jew will attend one kind of service or other, a lecture, or whatever is offered to make the day relevant. So, the challenge this year was huge. More so, considering that our congregation, the NCI, is the only non-orthodox congregation in the country, affiliated with the Masorti Movement.
As Iom Kipur came to an end, this is how it played out: since our synagogue can house up to 650 people comfortably sitting, we allowed for up to 220 people, and no one standing. The services lasted no longer than 90 minutes, and the synagogue was emptied and disinfected during breaks. Masks were mandatory, all the time. Social distancing was two meters, strict. The Torah was read as usual, handled only by the rabbi and the cantor (who had alcohol at hand), and the blessings were anonymous, recited from the seats. Was this the best or worst of times? May be the best for those attending, but the worst for those absent; or perhaps the worst for those attending, muffled by their masks, missing the usual crowd. Whatever the feeling, there was another side to the story: streaming.
Our congregation entered, through YouTube and Facebook Live, not only the houses of our members and usual attendance, but hundreds of houses not only in Montevideo but all around the world. Davening at NCI suddenly became a pleasant surprise for many. Families came together through this experience: as a real Minian was taking your place at the synagogue, you could also pray, say Kadish, Amen, and enjoy the beautiful music that comes with this unique day. Avinu Malkenu became a virtual, huge choir of people unseen but indeed felt all around the world. The final trumpeteering of the Shofar multiplied all across the city, the world. In this sense, it was the best of times, a time of belief and wisdom.
Uruguay is a small country. Our government and our society have managed, so far, to keep the pandemic controlled, the economy damaged but not destroyed, education back to a certain kind of normalcy, and except large gatherings, almost everything is working under these new standards. It is not so in our neighbouring countries, as it is not in the U.S.A. or Israel. So, we were blessed to be able to explore other options. We all did, regardless of denominations.
Orthodoxy has had a much harder time dealing with the risk of gathering for prayers. But, we’ve all been very creative: praying outdoors, doing Izkor at a public park, or sounding the Shofar during Tashlij by the river. Judaism hasn’t survived by being rigid, quite the contrary. In our generation, this is the first time we’ve encountered the challenge. We’re working at it by accepting ambiguity, duality, and different status at different times and places, multiplying our potential resources to be in touch with everyone.
Nobody knows how Iom Kipur next year will be. Nobody knows if streaming is here to stay, if religious services will become a commodity rather than an experience, if attendance to shul will be normal again once we’ve conquered Covid19. But, our small contribution to Jewish life at this small congregation in this small country of South America might very well be an experimental glimpse into the future. It’s on us to build upon it, to make it better. In times of foolishness and incredulity, in the worst of times, it’s upon us to make the best of Time, a time of wisdom and belief.