“Are you kidding me?”
In disbelief and trepidation, these words blurted from my mouth on Tuesday, March 3, when our 15-year-old son announced that school was cancelled. With one foot out the door for the school bus, he received a text that SAR High School in Riverdale was closed due to the coronavirus.
Initially, I truly hoped that this text that grounded a fleet of yellow school buses was merely a prank. Just days before Purim, this kind of upheaval aligned with the spirit of a holiday that revels in turning the world upside down. As the truth sunk in that SAR Academy and High School were shuttered, we naively prepared for this holiday that invites mask-wearing as a vehicle to explore the layers of life’s ironies. In 2020, Covid-19 played the role of Haman ushering in a dark and cold chapter when masks have become anything but child’s play.
In the blink of an eye, our concerns shifted from whether Joseph would ace his math placement test to calculating the unimaginable impact of a global pandemic on both of our sons’ friendships, academic momentum, and spiritual life. At least, we thought, this would be over within a few weeks in time for Passover. If not, socializing would be so much more appreciated this summer at sleepaway camp. As each “it will definitely be over by then” marker passed by, it became clear that this virus would be with us for some time.
SAR was one of the first schools in the United States to close. In the months that followed we witnessed not just a cascade of school closings, but the deafening silence of New York City. School buses no longer jammed the city streets; rather a cacophony of sirens wailed on end.
And when the streets breathed again with life, they were regretfully paved with strife. This microscopic tsunami impacted our bodies as much as our souls laying bare the socioeconomic and racial fault lines in our country. While we applauded essential workers, it became abundantly clear that those most vulnerable were those who could not afford to stay home.
I recall sitting with my head in hands, lamenting the tragic irony that Covid patients were attached to ventilators, while George Floyd begged for mercy as much as for breath. Yearning for unity, our society reluctantly acknowledged that America’s Founding Fathers’ uplifting words about equality and liberty are as much unfulfilled promises as salt on a shared open wound. In one instant, two viruses intersected with no cure in sight for either.
With my son quarantined at home during the early days of Covid-19, I imagined that a year of learning would be not just halted but disrupted beyond repair. Shortly after shelter in place commenced, I overheard Joseph’s class-Zoom and the chatter emanating from his laptop’s speakers shocked me. His freshman English teacher facilitated a spirited conversation about Billy Collins’ poem, “The History Teacher,” and the eponymous subject’s efforts to “protect his students’ innocence.” The best teachers do not whitewash history, rather they remove the varnish so we can see it more clearly.
Eavesdropping on this class, the next one and the one after that, I breathed a little easier. Joseph’s teachers harnessed texts old and new to build their students’ character and fortitude as much as to reveal it.
Just as I thought that the year was over, it become clear that a new era had just begun.
We are not the first generation to worry about what tomorrow will bring. Jews carry the collective trauma of exiles, loss of political independence, pogroms, persecution, and genocide. From Yochanan Ben Zakkai in Yavneh to Elie Weisel in Auschwitz, we have always found a way forward.
For the Jewish people, the destruction of Second Temple represents not just our greatest tragedy, but also the quintessential paradigm shift. In The Talmud and the Internet, Jonathan Rosen asserts: “The rabbis were translating one way of life into another way of life. .. This mixture of endless proliferation mingled with endless loss provides a rich and contradictory set of impulses I find peculiarly suited to modern life.” Through evolution and revolution, Judaism has evolved over several thousand years. The Written Torah gave birth to the Oral Law, and now, before our very eyes, the digital platform has become the building blocks of a virtual world.
Life as we knew it in New York City has been radically disrupted. Business after business has been boarded up as carloads of people emigrate to other less densely populated areas.
Last week, Joseph waited for the school bus for the first time since March. Just the thought of in-person learning raises my spirits and gives me hope about the resilience of the human spirit.
Yet we cannot help but worry about the children of Generation Zoom whose school bus will not come for quite some time and who will play catch up for years because of systemic issues beyond Covid-19. Frankly, for the first time in our lives it is not clear what tomorrow will look like, only that masks will be required.