Erica Schacter Schwartz

The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

I used to think I was living at the greatest time in history. As an American adolescent in the 80s, I watched the Cold War end, the fall of the Berlin Wall, America’s rise as the foremost beacon of freedom and democracy. As a Jewish American, I took great pride in watching the State of Israel welcome in refugees from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, one “operation” after another gathering impoverished or persecuted Jews back to their homeland. As a New Yorker, I lived in a city that was safe enough for a third grader to take the 86th street crosstown bus to school every day, surrounded by neighborhood gems like Barney Greengrass, Eeyore’s bookstore and Lichtman’s bakery. To be sure it wasn’t all bliss, nothing ever is–we watched the Challenger explode, the AIDS epidemic, the start of the first “intifada”—but still I felt lucky. “You kids are very lucky,” my grandparents always said.

Then came the ’90s. I attended a premier Jewish high school in Manhattan where I could study in a co-ed modern Orthodox environment anything from the Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin, to the book of Numbers and thirteen minor prophets, all while taking rigorous secular classes in Calculus, Physics, Shakespeare and European history. Again, came the refrain from my grandparents, “You kids are very lucky.” We even had a car phone and a VCR.

From there I headed to an Ivy League college, where Jewish life was sustained by a multidenominational Hillel (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform Jews under one roof), where antisemitism on campus was not a concern, and the acronym BDS could only possibly refer to someone’s initials. By my senior year, the energy of the decade was pulsing as we all bought our very own cell phones (aka flip phones) and started learning about something elusive called “The Internet.” No question, I was even luckier now. No more pay phones, and my very own email account at All through a phone jack in my wall. Incredible. So lucky. I told my grandmother we could email. “I’d rather hear your voice and see you,” she said.

I graduated college with a job at the Wall Street Journal. I moved back to my old stomping grounds on the Upper West Side, braving the modern Orthodox singles scene before there was such thing as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and the like. Yes, I was set up with boys I had never seen. We were just beginning to text, but it wasn’t so easy since every number on the keypad contained three possible letters. Or six if you include caps. I might not have always been happy—I was single and trying to figure out who I wanted to be religiously, professionally, socially–but I still felt lucky. I was living in a good time. Our biggest fear was what would happen to all electronically programmed infrastructure when 1999 became 2000. But miraculously it was all ok. I was engaged that May and married that November.

Fast forward to September 10, 2001. My husband and I received the news we were carrying our first child. We were ecstatic. I now felt lucky–and of course grateful too. I was going to be a mother.

At 8:46 the next morning, my mother called me and told me to turn on the news, a plane had mistakenly crashed into the World Trade Center. We spent 17 minutes becomes increasingly unsure if this was a mere aviation blip until 9:03 when the second tower was hit, and we knew this was no accident. “US ATTACKED” ran the headline in the Times the next day, a front page I have saved in my drawer till today. My luck, my generation’s luck, had just taken an unforeseeable and unimaginable turn. We would never look at downtown Manhattan the same way, never fly on a plane the same way, never pass by a firehouse the same way, never think about our safety here on these shores the same way. I wondered what kind of world was in store for my unborn child. Slowly but eventually, our nation, our generation healed and bounced back, but we were never the same. It didn’t feel like such a lucky time anymore.

Fast forward to March 2020. The next major blow of catastrophic bad luck. I am fast forwarding nearly two decades, which were certainly not devoid of unlucky times–school shootings and lockdown drills, rising teenage depression and anxiety, cyberbullying and Internet safety gone awry, pressures of social media, and of course the frightening polarization of American politics, shootings in synagogues and rising White Supremacy.

And then the pandemic. A national and international lockdown. A shutdown of all business and commerce. Of all schools and communal life. A cancellation of milestones—weddings, graduations, proms, funerals. Deaths upon deaths upon deaths. People dying alone in hospitals. Body bags in Central Park. Everyone in masks. Even as I write about it, I still can’t believe it actually happened. My parents didn’t have that when they were my age. My grandparents didn’t have it at all. We were not lucky anymore. We were certainly not living at a great time in history. On the contrary, we were living during an incomprehensibly hard time. A difficult time to live—even literally in some cases. A difficult time to be a child. And a very difficult time to be a parent.

And this is where I still am, even as life has gone back to what people love to call a “new normal.” I am finding it so hard to be a parent. And while I know that it has never been easy to be a parent, it feels particularly hard today. It feels like an unlucky time to be raising children.

How do we assess the full educational, developmental, and social damage a global pandemic leaves on children, teenagers and college students? How do we help them understand the political landscape in the US today and encourage them to be engaged citizens when a Capitol is stormed, election results are denied, and so many Americans are ok with that? How do we comfort them about hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters brought about by global warming when science tells us it will only get worse during their lifetime and that of their children? How do we monitor our children’s safety as social teenagers when parties are filled with increased levels of binge drinking, rufies, laced marijuana and hard narcotics? How do we instill in them the importance of academic integrity with the arrival of CHAT GBT? How do we make sure they form meaningful in-person relationships when the majority of their interactions consist of vanishing blips of electronic jargon? How do we expect them to remain confident and secure when everyone’s lives—the famous and the infamous– are broadcasted with so much fanfare and glory 24-7?

Ascribing to a codified religion usually makes it easier to answer some of these questions. And no doubt, there are ultra-Orthodox observant Jews and members of other religious faiths who keep their children away from social media, secular education, liberal arts colleges and the like.

But for those of us committed to living a modern observant life—maintaining a commitment to religious law while engaging with and contributing to the world around us—there only seems to be more questions and harder questions. How do I teach my children to be defenders of the State of Israel while being able to acknowledge her mistakes and bad judgements? Especially today as she teeters on the edge of eroding democracy like witnessed here in the US? How do I help them navigate the new landscape of gender identity and pronouns with a Jewish lens and a respect for all of humankind? How do I help them vote and form educated opinions when so many of our values and loyalties feel at odds with one another?  As an American parent and as a Jewish parent, I am stumped.

Surely every generation has its challenges. I wonder what my grandparents would say to me if they were alive today. Would they think my generation has it easier or harder than they did? Is this a good time or a bad time to be living? Who knows. I do know they would marvel from the fact that I have six children, and they would hope, like I hope, that one day soon I will tell them all how lucky they are.

About the Author
Erica Schwartz is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Jewish Week and The Forward. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and six children.
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