Life in the Coronavirus Age

It’s the coronavirus all day, every day. You give us 22 minutes, we give you Covid-19.

We read about it, talk about it, think about it, worry about it. It’s changed our newspapers (virus news now comes first in the New York Times, before the International section, and Sunday Sports has been replaced by At Home); our TV watching habits (either too much Netflix or too much cable news); our social media behaviors (forwarding funny virus memes anyone?); and our sleeping routines (getting up later; the only benefit so far).

It’s changed relationships. When I retired, many women friends whose husbands had already retired warned me that “we took each other for richer or poorer, but not for lunch.” Guess what? And it even changed the NYC subway system, which for 116 years — through two world wars, the 1918 flu pandemic, and 9/11 — ran round the clock. No more.

And at least for this piece, it also changed my usual one-theme column to a hodge-podge musing about life and the coronavirus.

1. Leadership. We’ve seen leaders in all forms; the good, the bad, and the ugly. The job of major political leaders in this type of crisis is to convey empathy and install hope; to capture and channel the nation’s sense of uncertainty, loss, pain, fear, and grief. It’s to make the important and tough decisions; sometimes even the impossible ones. It’s not to micromanage, pontificate endlessly at briefings, or be our nanny, explaining when to wear masks and how to wash hands. And it’s certainly not to engage in contradictions, falsehoods, self-aggrandizement, insults, and attacks. So — and I’m talking about politicians I like (Governors Cuomo and Murphy) and those I don’t (President Trump and Mayor de Blasio) — cut it out, and leave the details, and the podia, to the medical, public health, and economic experts, who can tell us what we need to know and do.

Leaders also need to serve as role models and obey the rules ordinary folk follow. So no, Prime Minister Netanyahu, don’t invite your son to your seder when adult children all over Israel are having a seder alone. And no, Vice President Pence, don’t violate the Mayo Clinic’s masking rules, even though you’re being tested all the time (while the nation waits for their tests) and want to look people in the eye (which, if you wore a mask, you’d realize you could still do).

Thankfully, some leaders, like the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, continue to demonstrate strong, thoughtful, and courageous leadership. Indeed, such leadership extends beyond my Modern Orthodox community. For example, the more right-wing Agudah of Illinois (together with the Chicago Rabbinical Conference) wisely told their followers that notwithstanding decisions made by governmental bodies allowing religious gatherings of up to 10 people, their communal edicts forbidding all minyanim remain in effect until it’s safe to do otherwise. It’s not easy being frummer than the government, but true leaders, while they too may have uncertainties and doubts, aren’t afraid to lead.

2. Balancing acts. Unlike leaders who make decisions for communities large and small, followers have to decide how to live their lives within those rules. And different people make different decisions. Some will rigidly foreswear seeing anyone who is not a member of their immediate household, while others will enjoy a backyard socially distanced mask-wearing family dinner. (Yes, the masks come off for eating.) Some adults who live alone will pair up as partners for social distancing (not romantic) purposes; others will not. Some will wear masks; others not. (My age cohort does it more than younger people. I wish more of them did it as well.) Some, with good intentions, will mistakenly attend public funerals; others will not. (In this last example, not is the correct approach, and leaders need to be clear and unyielding about that.) And remember, all will, from time to time, slip up. All. So, and I’ll quote Sgt. Phil Esterhaus again, let’s be careful out there.

3. Some things don’t change. I’ve attended a few Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services and noticed that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or virtual davening, some people always come late and some always leave early.

4. Gender. Some gender separation walls are falling. My beit midrash program, which had welcomed only men, opened its doors — or rather its Zoom log in — to women as well. And I attended one of my rabbi’s women’s gemarah shiurim (sitting offscreen). What will happen when we’re back in physical spaces is anyone’s guess. But I can hope.

Yet as in paragraph 3, some things don’t change. One rabbi, in his weekly message to congregants, notes that his shul’s custom, adopted during this crisis, is that “even when davening alone, we (sic) wear jackets and ties even if we (ditto) are not receiving a kibud” (honor at a prayer service). Good thing we’re no longer members of that shul, because jackets and ties don’t really suit Sharon.

5. Virtual programming. Both private and public programming continue unabated. Sharon and I decided to mark our daughter Daniele’s completion of the last daf yomi cycle by giving her a beautiful framed Israeli papercut of the text of the Hadran recited at a siyum. The plan was to do it in May; that way our Israeli relatives, who were coming here to attend various smachot, would bring the papercut. Since all plans are on hold, we decided to do a virtual presentation at a Zoom gathering of our immediate family plus her decades-long Talmud teacher (Rabbi Saul Zucker). The gathering was lovely, and clean-up was a breeze.

In the public realm, the Holocaust Commemoration Committee of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Teaneck really knows how to prepare and run a virtual event, though not everyone does. When it had to cancel its annual Yom Hashoah program, which was scheduled for April, it didn’t want to let the occasion pass unrecognized in Teaneck for even one year. Members therefore organized a completely different and superb last-minute call-in program that was thoughtful, meaningful, informative, and brief. (Disclosure. My wife, a very active member of this committee, was not involved in organizing the replacement program.)
* * * *
How quickly mindsets change. Three months ago, who could have imagined a world with no Broadway theater, museums, movies, or concerts; no restaurants, malls, barbershops, or hairdressing salons; no MLB, NBA, March Madness, or gyms; no shuls, schools, proms, or graduations; no beaches, barbeques, or family celebrations; no academic conferences or business meetings; no shared Shabbat meals, Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, or eating bagels at a brit or sweetbreads and ribs at a wedding smorgasbord? And no grandchildren hugs?

And now we not only imagine it, we live it. When we watch movie characters greet each other with a social kiss or — gasp! — a friendly hug, we either look at it nostalgically remembering the good old days, or momentarily cringe inwardly at this violation of our new normal. How quickly we adapt. Or not.

Some of our new habits are likely to continue even after the crisis ends. The great unknown is which ones. My hope is that it will only be those that bring us more closely together, are truly inclusive, and deepen interpersonal relationships. As for others, I hope we quickly readapt, and our mindsets speedily revert to what they had been for my first 73 years. And I pray we’ll soon have the opportunity to put these hopes to the test.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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