Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

Masking, unmasking, double masking


It’s been a year since the pandemic started.

We all know that because we remember that last Purim was odd. Everything was unsettled. We knew that something bad was on its way, but we didn’t know what, and we didn’t know how, and certainly we didn’t know how long.

This Purim, we know. We know that Pesach will be lonely again this year; last year we were sure that it would be next year together, whether or not in Jerusalem. But we were wrong.

I also know it’s been a year because of my orchids.

I have a window with a huge windowsill and a glorious southern exposure. I finally realized that the truth of green or brown thumbs — unless you’re talking about never watering plants and consigning them to a withered brown death or overwatering them to a soggy green doom — is in the light.

I’ve had orchids for years, but I had no idea until this year that they bloom just about once a year, at just about the same time. Their flowers stay open for so long that it’s easy not to notice, but when you’ve little else other than nature to look at, then even potted nature shows some of its secrets.

Last year at this time many of my orchids were beginning to burst into flower, and others had buds, ranging from tiny to bulging fat. They’re doing it again now.

I hope that by next year, when all this is over, I remember to look at them and notice their blooms.

Meanwhile, I’ve been obsessed with masks. We have to keep masking, even if we’re vaccinated, and we should wear double masks when we’re inside, around other people, to keep the virus from leaking out the mask’s sides.

That makes sense. It’s important. Most of us do it. We religiously, zealously cover our noses and mouths.

But now it’s Purim. Mask time.

Purim masks look more like Venetian than covid face coverings, hooked over the tops of our faces; they can be jeweled, embroidered, lovely, and scary, all at once.

But how do you wear masks over both parts of your face? How do you breathe? How do you talk? How do you smile? How do you show you’re smiling?

Purim always is about masking and unmasking. It’s about what we chose to let other people see, who and what we pretend to be. It’s about what we’re hiding. It’s about fun and also about deep truths. It’s about life as a lottery and also about when our masks hide, about being stripped of masks and pretense, about the relationship between Yom Kippur — Yom Hakippurim, the day like Purim.

When I asked Yona Verwer, the director of the Jewish Art Salon, whether any of the artists with whom she works had thought about the image of masking above and below, she showed me this piece by Dorit Jordan Dotan, the co-curator of the Jewish Art Salon Open Studios. It’s about the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem reading the megillah there.

Most years, this would seem unnecessarily dark. But this year, when all the masks — the mask on top, the double-filtered mask on the bottom — bring us back to George Floyd, who died only this summer saying “I can’t breathe,” we have the time to think about masking and unmasking.

When we are ready to unmask fully, when we can breathe freely and smile with our mouths as well as our eyes and laugh and sing in public without worrying about viral loads, we will take the hard-earned wisdom of this grim year into the sunny, barefaced new world..

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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