Josh Glancy

The pandemic year showed us what matters

'In some ways this entire crisis has been an illustration of the succour and resilience inherent in the Jewish way of life.'

December 11, 2020 13:14

We always chuckle about the build-up to Christmas in our family. It tickles us that the gentiles devote several months preparing themselves for this event, worrying about how to secure all the necessary ingredients before the shops close, how best to crisp their bird, roast their potatoes, accommodate an expansive list of family members and mooching hangers-on, ensure that everyone is lavishly fed and watered and has enough booze to send them to sleep by late afternoon.

Sound familiar? Many Jewish families would just call that an ordinary Shabbat. In fact my Auntie Trish, a renowned balaboosta, would call it a quiet one.

I’ve been thinking about this distinction of late, as Britain frets over trying to have a normal Christmas amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis. I’m sympathetic to the predicament: it’s been a miserable, lonely year and Christmas represents a rare flicker of hope in what will be a long winter. Everyone has earned an extra brandy and a hug from mum over the gruelling months of lockdown.

It’s not for me to judge whether such festivities are foolhardy in the circumstances. Rather I take it as a reminder of just how lucky many Jewish families are. Foregoing our own festivals this year was difficult of course, but far less agonising, because most Jews are lucky enough not to rely on one lunch a year to come together and feast with our families. In fact we are actively encouraged to do so on a weekly basis.

In some ways this entire crisis has been an illustration of the succour and resilience inherent in the Jewish way of life. The way many Jews live, in tight, interwoven clusters with close proximity to family, has provided solace and support as the outside world became temporarily inaccessible. Ready-made pandemic pods were often near at hand.

This became apparent to me in America during the rush home for Thanksgiving at the end of last month, which inevitably spawned a fresh round of Covid anxiety. American airports are always packed around Thanksgiving, because so many people have to travel across the country to reach their extended families. I was reminded of celebrating Jewish festivals as a child, walking just a few hundred metres to the synagogue, stopping off at family on the way home for lunch or kiddush or both. Nothing was ever far.

I’ve been troubled, as I imagine many other Jews have, to read reports of our Chasidic brethren in Brooklyn and beyond flouting lockdown to host large indoor weddings and celebrations. These rebellions are undoubtedly foolish, suggesting a troubling scientific rejectionism and contravening my (admittedly basic) understanding of pikuach nefesh, doing whatever is necessary to save life. But they do also reveal something beautiful, perhaps the most condensed example imaginable of what I’m talking about: a love of family, community and ritual above all things, even if it is misguided.

And resilience? It’s embedded deep in our culture, in our stories and our often tragic inheritance. When you’ve endured pogroms and inquisitions, when you’ve watched the ten plagues devour Egypt, then withstanding one coronavirus plague is not excessively daunting. The other day, during a long, stormy drive from New York to Maine, I introduced my American girlfriend to the joys of Desert Island Discs. We delved into the archive to listen to the astonishing, agonising story of Ben Helfgott, the Holocaust survivor turned British weightlifting Olympian. If anyone needs their resolve stiffened during the pandemic’s final stretch, I can recommend nothing better.

What the pandemic of 2020 has demonstrated, starkly, painfully at times, is what really matters in our lives. It isn’t international travel or crowding into the pub, as much as I miss those freedoms. It’s having love and sustenance close at hand. It’s not being left desolate and alone when the buzz of modern life is temporarily silenced.

In fact there’s a popular meme that went viral last week on Instagram that made this point well. It was a picture of a message written in chalk on the pavement: “I thought 2020 would be the year I got everything I wanted. Now I know 2020 is the year I appreciate everything I have.”

TerrIbly saccharine of course, but you can see what this Clinton Cards graffiti artist is getting at. As this strange year draws to a close, we are all left appreciating what we have. As Jews, it is perhaps more than we even realise.

December 11, 2020 13:14

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