‘What is the last normal day that you remember?” asked a friend on Facebook recently. It was a thought-provoking question in more ways than one. Usually, when disaster strikes it hits suddenly, catapulting a specific date into the history books. There’s a build up to a war, but it breaks out on a certain day; everyone remembers where they were on 9/11; an earthquake takes place at a certain time and place. The novel coronavirus, on the other hand, gradually crept up on us, starting in China and spreading around the globe.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Western media were following the fate of some 3,000 tourists trapped on cruise ships. They were constantly asked how they managed to keep busy in quarantine. Now, the words “social isolation” are no longer novel and corona has taught billions of people what it means to be confined and unable to touch loved ones. We no longer need to ask what it feels like. We feel the pain.
When I cast my mind back to “the good old days” – pre-corona – one of the last normal days I remember was my birthday at the beginning of March. I celebrated with a friend by having a festive breakfast at a neighborhood restaurant, Zariffa. This is the type of place popular with locals but almost unknown to tourists – oh, for the days when there were tourists in Jerusalem. My friend and I joked about the prime minister’s recommendation to adopt the Indian “namaste” greeting instead of shaking hands, but never imagined that within a month we would be avoiding contact with colleagues, let alone strangers. We sat what now seems exceptionally close to a table where two sisters were holding their newborn babies – babies who, it turns out, were born at the start of a new era.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world. It has also changed our perception of time. Everything is much slower. I am constantly thinking “Was it only last month that this or that happened?” My March birthday seems to be in another lifetime.
You don’t have to be Einstein to feel that time is relative: It goes fast when you’re having a good time. This is not a good time.
Looking out at the beautiful full moon on Seder night last week – a tiny Seder for two – I considered the wisdom of Judaism’s use of the lunar calendar. The waxing and waning of the moon lends a natural rhythm to life, and helps you keep track of time in a way that endless sunrises and sunsets can’t.
This time of year usually has its own very special feel in Israel, a unique emotional roller-coaster. Passover is swiftly followed by Holocaust Remembrance Day (which starts this year on April 20 in the evening), and a week later by the back-to-back Memorial Day and Independence Day.
Nothing is the same when you can’t celebrate or mourn together, when you can’t party or pray with others. Zoom gatherings more than anything else for me only emphasize that meetings are being held in a virtual world, rather than the real one.
Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, let me reissue my annual plea: Along with the command “Never forget!” abide by the obligation: “Never trivialize!” Everyone has their own way of dealing with the difficulties coronavirus has heaped on us, but I’m concerned by the endless memes featuring a picture of Anne Frank and some trite comment about how “If she could do it, so can we!”
These are awful days, but they are not comparable – in any way – to the horrors of the Holocaust, the systematic effort by the Nazis and their collaborators to hunt down and kill every single Jew and to wipe out an entire people, culture and religion.
THE CORONAVIRUS crisis has meant that people everywhere have had to reexamine their lives, needs and priorities. It’s been brutal, but the reassessment itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I spoke to author and thinker Micah Goodman to hear some of his insights.
“Things are slowing down – and it’s healthy,” he tells me.
“One of the interesting things that western civilization does to our minds is to call for admiration of youth,” Goodman says. “It’s part of western civilization’s tendency to be a death-denying society, where we try not to think of the fact that it’s all going to end one day.”
Youth is much more visible in the public space than older people, he notes. Advertising billboards display young people. Only the young are considered beautiful.
“That cultural mood of admiration of youth has psychological implications... When a civilization tells you that the best part of your life is the end of your life, it creates a whole different way to experience time than the current culture which says the best part of your life is your twenties.
“This way you have something to look forward to, instead of always losing something. When you think the best part of your life is your twenties, you live with deterioration; you’re always one day away from your best time. But in a more traditional society – let’s say Chinese tradition – every day you are one step closer to the best days of your life.
“So how can a Western civilization not be a melancholic civilization? My argument is that admiration of youth creates an experience of deterioration with time and as a result we are suffering psychologically.
“Now corona has come around and is telling us to make a lot of sacrifices in order to save older people. That’s the deal. We have to save our parents and our grandparents. The challenge is that this civilization that admires youth now has to sacrifice everything out of respect and admiration for the older ages. Corona offers us a great opportunity to consider the passage of time: Is it progress or deterioration?”
Goodman notes that Jewish tradition respects the elders. It’s something we have in common with Chinese culture.
“Western civilization has gotten over many brands of racism, but it’s only amplifying our ageism,” Goodman says.
Goodman, 45, stresses the difference between brilliance and wisdom.
“Today we appreciate brilliance more than wisdom. Brilliance is sophisticated quick-thinking, but wisdom is a kind of intelligence that only comes with age.
“The corona age is giving us wisdom: People are learning to see what’s really important. We also see the limitations of brilliance. There is no real sophisticated easy way out of this crisis. There is a moment of modesty when we realize that no matter how smart we are, there’s something that’s bigger than us that we can’t really figure out.”
Goodman’s philosophy resonates with me, particularly at this time of year. Jews are now marking the period of “Counting the Omer,” the 49-day stretch beginning the second day of Passover and ending with the celebration of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. It is considered a time of mourning, lifted on the 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer, which according to tradition is the day on which the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples ended.
Who isn’t looking forward to celebrating the day this modern plague ends? But, just as it didn’t have a starting date, it won’t have a precise day on which it stops. And the economic and psychological effects will be longlasting. Simple pleasures like celebrating a birthday at a restaurant will not forever be a thing of the past, but for now they are as unachievable as reaching up and grabbing that waxing and waning moon.
Suddenly, I am longing to celebrate my 60th birthday next year in style.
“Are we supposed to be depressed on our birthdays? It’s such a western thing. It’s a psychological condition that’s the result of a cultural condition,” says Goodman.
Plato, he reminds me, argued that the older you get, the happier you get. “There’s a lot of research to suggest that that might be true. That the happiest age is the sixties, when you’re liberated.”
Corona is taking a terrible toll, but it also offers us an opportunity to take stock. How we handle it will have major ramifications for the future.
With the wisdom that comes with the pandemic that has aged us all, I understand that this is a year like no other: 2020 will go down in history as lasting three months and a decade.