I don’t need to take a personality test to understand that I’m a quiet, bookish person. If given a choice between wearing high heels and mingling in a large, echoing room or curling up in my pajamas watching Shtisel, well, just pass me the remote.
You’d be surprised to find out just how many rabbis I know who think of themselves as introverts. Being the center of attention may seem like a central part of the job description, but there are many ways to be a rabbi. My work has always revolved around teaching and education, so for the most part, I’ve been able to sidestep the “rabbi as high priest” career path. Sometimes, when I perform life cycle ceremonies in public, my blood pressure spikes. My favorite kind of teaching involves one-on-one tutoring. I’m just not a person who enjoys the pulsing heartbeat of a crowd.
So, back when the coronavirus lockdown began, I assumed that social distancing would play to my strengths. After all, it’s not like I was ever at the gym at 5:30 AM cycling with other gregarious, energetic souls. Compared to my ants-in-their-pants, travel-loving, season-ticket-to-the-theater friends, I figured I could handle this quarantine with relative ease. I planned to be a loving, understanding parent who’d keep busy by arranging Facetime saxophone lessons for my son, bartering brown sugar for creamy peanut butter on neighbors’ front porches, and expanding my culinary skills by binge watching my idol, Ina Garten.
But this pandemic humbled me, as it has so many of us. As residents of Westchester, New York, one of the first epicenters of the disease, our family just entered week 400 of this quarantine. (OK, It’s actually the eighth week.) Like the rest of humanity, I ache to see extended family and friends’ beautiful faces up close. What I would give to have the chance to offer a public blessing at family friends’ (now postponed) b’nai mitzvah, which was planned for last Saturday — and, yes, I’m even wistful about the thought of wearing Spanx and an itchy dress in front of a packed room.
Nowadays, much of my day is spent in various states of anxiety. I worry about issues of physical health and the ever-growing heaviness of my children’s mounting disappointments. But also: I worry that I am not meeting expectations. As parents and good citizens, we are supposed to be community-minded, helpful to our families, supportive to our partners, educators to our children, groomers for our pets, and stalwart professionals for our coworkers. Somehow, before the lockdown, we were supposed to have gathered supplies of masks, gloves, and paper goods, plus our children’s favorite brand of strawberry toothpaste, rubber bands for braces, and the exact ingredients for whipping up orange chicken.
But that’s not all that’s demanded of us. Amidst this crushing list of tasks — to say nothing of the significant amount of time spent worrying about elderly family members and friends, death, poverty, emotional breakdown, a bursting health care system, and the collapsing world economy — we are also supposed to be fun. And, apparently, this does not come easily to me.
Yes, I love the way people are coping with the stress of this dreadful disease with humor. Who can resist a charming video of college puppy mascots engaging in a Zoom meeting that’s interrupted by a doorbell? Laughter is healing; humor is vital! And I’m no stick in the mud: Back in the day, before any of us outside of the medical field knew the difference between serologic and molecular disease testing, I had been known to purchase the occasional stash of Double Stuff Oreos, wear holiday socks with dancing pumpkins and candy corn, and I once sang karaoke at my friend Val’s birthday celebration (she lives in Brooklyn, too — extra credit). I may not ever have been the life of a party, but I can be fun sometimes.
Or, so I thought. Facebook never intimidated me before the pandemic. But now, when we’re not exchanging tips about where to buy fresh produce, honoring our loved ones fighting against this virus, or pleading with people to use their common sense, we’re posting photos showing just how fun and creative we can be. Yes, it’s exciting and adorable. But it is also making me feel like I’m failing at fun. I can’t keep up with my social media pals and their mock British High Tea parties or at-home beach barbecues with flamingo themes and sundresses. One of my favorite couples posted photos of themselves dressed for a virtual fundraiser; they were wearing a ballgown and an elegant tux, appropriate for a meeting with the Queen. I saw the post while I was wearing sweatpants, clogs, and a pilled shirt with a polar bear on it. (Actually, as it happens, I’m wearing that very same outfit right now.) Who knew you could have “French night,” in which each family member dresses as someone or something you find in Paris (one child showed up to dinner as a mime, another as the Eiffel Tower).
Dance parties, family game nights, giant bread-baking festivals — these are all terrific ideas for people fortunate enough to be healthy and sheltering safely in their homes. I’m sure it’s fun and a welcome distraction and, yes, it’s entertaining for me to watch others do this — but this is simply not the way I operate. I need every ounce of energy for laundry, dishes, and holding it together. Right now, I’m trying to be positive, helpful, and wear pants with a zipper. There isn’t a lot of energy left in me for fun.
The thing about this surreal springtime is that it strips away so many of the distractions that we normally have — what we see now is our essential selves. What do we do with our time when work or sports or carpools disappear? Who are we? Are we looking outward to our communities and seeing where we can fit in to help? Are we focusing inward, rediscovering a craft, learning a new skill? Who are we when the world is not watching us as much as it usually does? Who do we want to be — both now and at the sparkling moment when we can fling open our front doors, when the phrase “social distance” can finally end its run of acting as a verb?
Maybe I’ve never really been all about fun. And you know what? That’s OK. So I’m not having a hula hoop party on Zoom, but I am listening to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on repeat, I’m reading a Lily King novel, and I’m talking to my parents two, three times a day. I attend my rabbi and cantor friends’ live streaming services from around the country. I’m not posting humorous recreations of famous works of art on my Facebook page, but maybe tomorrow I’ll make those tiny little meatloaves that Ina Garten showed me — the ones with the zigzagging ketchup flourish on the top.
Some days are more fun than others. But, meanwhile, I’ll live vicariously through my Facebook pals’ creative posts and warm my soul in their reflected joy. I’m keeping my heart open wide, and for now, that will have to do. I can’t wait to hear everyone laughing in person soon.
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