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Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. We believe that his thought may be even more important in the 21st century.

Education Corner

In The Twinkling of An Eye: Five Features of the Upcoming Pandemic Transitions

by Rabbi Jeffrey Schein

This article was originally published on March 18, 2021 at eJewishPhilanthropy.

Prelude 

We will soon be going through a transition. Some prefer to call it the movement towards a “new” normal. In our volume L’Dor V’Dor in the Digital Age, we call it more simply pre-pandemic, pandemic and post-pandemic.

When will the transition occur? That, of course, involves prophetic powers well beyond my paygrade. Nor do I have access to any CDC stream of pandemic tracking data not available to the reader of eJewishPhilanthropy. Hopefully, however, the observations below are helpful to our preparations for the transition when it occurs.

Five Features of the Transition

1).  The transition will in the end be a series of mini-transitions. It will wash over us in smaller ripples rather than a single cleansing wave.

2).  As we approach Pesach, perhaps we should keep in mind the tradition of a Pesach Sheni, a second Passover celebrated on the 15th of Iyar, a month after the first Pesach celebration. This Pesach was for those who were ritually impure or otherwise absent from the celebration on the 15th of Nisan. The pandemic leaves us all ritually and morally changed. Metaphorically speaking, the right time to recongregate as full communities will be our second Pesach.

3).  Transitions are full of creative possibilities. In Pirke Avot, we encounter numbers of lists (usually and unsurprisingly numbering 10) of miracles that occurred bein ashmashot, in the twinkling of the eye that marked the division between the six days of the week and Shabbat. Creations no less grand than the tablets of the ten commandments and Miriam’s well and manna which would sustain the Israelites in the wilderness, were fashioned in this “brief but spectacular” moment.

Perhaps only slightly less miraculous that we ought to bear in mind as we go through these transitions are the nisei gedolim, the great miracles of adaptability (many but not all technologically inspired) that have inspired us during our time in the pandemic wilderness.

4). We ought to be considering the tradition of Special Purims. For nearly a millennium Jews have proclaimed special Purims when they arrive at the other side of an existential threat such as an antisemitic ruler or an unruly mob. Proclamations included a feast and a megillah unique to the circumstances that had put the community in danger and the particulars of its “salvation.” The value of hakarat hatov (recognizing the good) commands us to be as creative in our expressions of appreciation and celebration as we were in designing precautionary measures regarding the pandemic. We ought to encourage communities to be preparing such a scroll whenever they feel they have crossed the line from pandemic to post-pandemic.

5). The planning for the new normal needs to be attuned to the complexity of our increasingly digital life. I regularly invite participants in my seminars to poll responses to this question about the role of zoom in their lives.

In general, I would characterize my attitude towards Zoom (and other such media platforms)

a) extraordinarily positive: a god-send

b) mostly positive

c) decidedly a mixed blessing

d) a necessary evil; mostly negative

I also understand these complex tradeoffs more richly after February 27th, when our oldest grandson became a Bar Mitzvah. Of course, an awareness of hakarat ha-tov of hundreds of relatives and friends (many of whom could not have attended even without the pandemic) is the major response trope around the event. God bless a well-managed Zoom Bar Mitzvah!

Yet, beneath the Simcha lay a radical shift, a virtual trading off of Jewish values. For the immediate nuclear family, the lack of a big seudat mitzvah, saturday evening party, and obligatory Sunday going away brunch left us longing to strengthen the ganze mishpocha (extended family) that usually accompanies such a Simcha. Yet, in its place emerged an unexpectedly intimate and meaningful ritual for our nuclear family.

Ten of us surrounded the Bar Mitzvah, who had moved to the center of the circle after Shabbat dinner. Siblings proposed their toasts accompanied, of course, by lavish physical assaults on the Bar Mitzvah brother. Bubbie and Tzayde, Sabba, and Grandma were each given a chance to offer a blessing and reflections. We never achieved this level of intimacy in the otherwise wonderful celebrations of our own three children. Despite our best efforts to keep the “mitzvah” in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, we may have succumbed to the mores of Bnai Mitzvah partying.

Perhaps the extended family anticipated the vacuum left behind. The approach of two virtual family B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies opened up a different stream of communication. A cousin posted a letter recently found about a Polish family branch that had moved to Sweden. The curiosity and welled-up sense of making creative connections led to an email chain that is 100 posts long and full of treasures in the form of historical records, warm memories, and videos of bygone eras.

Poetic Postscript: The Creative and Necessary Blurring of Past, Present, and Future

It is 1969. Joni Mitchell’s album Clouds is soaring on the charts. The album includes the song “Both Sides Now.” Judi Collins will later sing the song with an evocative blending of irony, nostalgia, regret, and hope, with the deep human need for perspective. The iconic song is the music I hear as I finish this article. I hear the song differently today because it is on the anniversary of our last time traveling, a trip to Boise to visit our daughter and son-in-law.

eJP readers will of course, sing their unique versions of “Both Sides Now.” Simultaneously, we as a community will need to do our best to build new structures that help us integrate the best of the pre and post-pandemic Jewish worlds as the melody lingers.

 

Jeffrey Schein can be reached at jeffrey@kaplancenter.org.

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