Ah, 2020. You will live on in our memories as truly and unforgettably terrible. And yet, there are things that we will definitely be carrying with us into 2021. For every challenge brings a lesson worth learning. To this end, we asked some of our opinion writers: What’s one lesson you learned from the dumpster fire of 2020 that you’re taking into the new year with you? Here are their answers:
Perseverance and home-made pastries
Mia Brett, legal historian:
For me, 2020 was a chaotic year that involved both extreme highs and lows. Due to COVID, I gave up my apartment, moved back in with my mother, and haven’t been on a date in nine months. Like many, I also am experiencing near constant anxiety and grief that we are living in a dangerous pandemic that people aren’t taking seriously.
But in that time, I also passed my doctoral defense, deepened friendships, improved my baking skills, and saw Biden/Harris defeat Trump. I hope I’ve learned perseverance, priorities, and the importance of home made pastries.
Interconnection and interdependence
Forward contributing columnist:
The lesson I take from 2020 is that people are more interconnected and interdependent than we tend to think in today’s individualistic world. The pandemic hasn’t been bound by borders, ethnicities or political identities, and neither should our empathy be. Like the plague, our kindness to each other must be unbound.
The interconnectedness we see between each other should also be extended to our perception of the relationship we hold with nature. It is not merely something to be tamed or a resource to be harnessed. Today’s unique moment is a chance to rethink whether we want true change, or if we plan to just go back to the status quo ante once the pandemic ends. There is really only one option: Covid-19 has shown us how the “old normal” is in essence unsustainable.
A poet is born
Alex Zeldin, Forward contributing columnist:
Countless acts of grace
Enduring issues of race
Work got brand new tools
Rabbis closed up shuls
Not enough done for our schools
But we’re all in this gale
Voting done by mail
New government that won’t flail
We’re all Keynesians for now
Apply that know-how
So our next Rosh Hashanah
Isn’t up in Canada
Schooling when ‘convenient’
Einat Wilf, author and former member of Knesset:
As a mother of three children still in their first school years, who previously assumed she was tethered to their school schedules for the next decade of their lives, COVID-19 has liberated me from any sense of commitment to their school programs or schedules. Through the lockdowns, I have learned both that I can home-school my children and that I can enjoy it. I now consider their schools an option to be exercised when convenient. I do not plan to assume the full burden of home schooling, but confident in my newfound home-schooling skill, I can now imagine taking my children out of school to travel, whenever we want.
All suffering is relative
Bethany Mandel, Forward contributor:
As thousands of Americans have died and many times more lost their livelihoods and businesses, this year has brought plenty of surprises, like the complete lack of perspective of those who have experienced no significant hardship.
I have friends who have lost family, friends who have watched their life’s work and savings go up in smoke, and despite the hand that 2020 has dealt them, they remain determined to rise above the circumstances and do better, not just for themselves and their families, but for their community as well.
It’s the millions who had to do nothing but work from home and cancel their vacations who have spent this year complaining about hardship; it is they who have the biggest chip on their shoulders about what 2020 has wrought. These are the folks content to sit at home, still collecting their paychecks, while ignoring the carnage outside their front doors.
Meanwhile, grocery store workers and electricians go to work every day, making sure we’re fed and warm. There are the faith leaders organizing expanded food pantries, the small businesses barely squeaking by, yet still choosing to dedicate a day of profit for a struggling nonprofit. There are the tireless health-care workers going to work every day in suffocating personal protective equipment without fanfare, taking care of our sick families and friends.
If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s who people really are. There are people who want in a foxhole with you, but there are also those who require a crash course in real life.
We can do it — if we have to
Rabbi Eli Steinberg, Forward contributor:
If you had asked me in December of 2019 whether I thought I was capable of the things I did just to get through 2020, I would have not considered any of it possible. Could we get through seemingly endless lockdowns with small children? How would our relationship with God hold up without the institutions we have come to rely on to facilitate that? I could never imagine any of it.
But we managed to do it. Because we had to.
That realization opened my eyes to even more possibilities, to things I would have never imagined I could do. We need to stop being limited by the small-mindedness of our imaginations, and recognize that we can accomplish so much more if we only realize that we need to accomplish so much more. Anyone who is living through COVID-19 can no longer fall back on the assessment of self as the determiner of what we can and cannot do.
So, while 2020 was certainly filled with challenges and things we want to leave behind, it also opened our eyes to this truth. The only difference between what we can and cannot accomplish is the recognition that we have to do it.
Don’t push things off
Ari Hoffman, Forward contributing columnist:
Focus on the necessities but remember that it’s OK to miss the luxuries. Don’t push things off because the world might shut down while you do.
Stronger than I thought
Carly Pildis, organizer and Forward contributor:
In 2020, I learned that I am stronger than I thought. If you had asked me in February if I could work on an election with no child care for my 3-year-old daughter, I would have said it was impossible. But I did it. I just got up every day and made it work, one moment at a time.
Some days we planted gardens and other days my husband returned home to both of us in tears. But we got it done. I made it to Election Day and felt that we both got to be a part of that win, together. I am stronger and tougher than I ever realized, and that’s a lesson from 2020 that will stay with me.
It’s the little things
Shira Telushkin, writer and Bintel Brief columnist:
Banana bread is actually really, really easy to bake. Also, limited time at home, it seems, wasn’t the only thing keeping me from rereading Herodotus.
Compromise is possible
Sam Abrams, professor of sociology:
The nation is better than Donald Trump. Americans want to heal, hear others, and work through differences. Except for those 10% to 20% of Americans who are on the ideological extremes and think that they are in the midst of a battle for the soul of America, most Americans are measured, far more open and more moderate than it may first appear.
My own work shows that 79% of Americans believe that it is possible to compromise and find common ground with people who disagree with you. We now need to celebrate difference and begin dialogues about our shared outlooks, interests, values, and how to achieve a bright future.
‘I know who I am’
Noa Balf, scholar of politics and government:
It may be my Jewy-gooey core speaking, but this traumatic year has been somewhat revelatory, an entire quarantine of heshbon nefesh. I keep returning to June Jordan’s words from 1978: “I’m centered, but I’m not finished.”
I know who I am, I know my motivations, my set of values, my community. This year has revealed to me that at my core, I am solid and safe. However, it has exposed the uncertainty of circumstances and the delusion of control. Somewhere Shalom Aleichem is laughing at me. So long 2020: I am good.
The value of community
Rabbi Eli Brand, Talmud scholar:
The value of community, family and kids. It has been a difficult year for everyone. Although my wife was laid off and I lost many hours at my job, we thankfully didn’t lose any close family members. But my kids were out of school and we were stuck home all day. We could not go out and pray, and I had to learn over the phone.
But the community stepped up in a big way. They provided lunches, had trucks with singers drive through the neighborhood to entertain the people at home and were available to go shopping for immunocompromised and other high risk people.
Instead of fighting and growing resentful of my wife, we were there to support each other when one of us was down and struggling. Our bond through this difficult time grew stronger and I have newfound respect for her endless strength and compassion and the patience she has for the kids and I.
And then there were our kids brightening up our days, saying the silliest things that made us forget about our situation and cracked us up. They showed us how resilient they are. They couldn’t go play with friends for months on end but they didn’t flip out or throw tantrums and adapted to their new reality.
I have come to value community and family even more than before, and understand now better than ever how important these things are, not just for individuals but also for the very fabric of our society.
Family dinners delight
Emily Shire, writer and law student:
Romanticizing the family dinner seems cliché, the stuff of antiquated Campbell’s soup commercials, but 2020 has taught me how much of a boost they provide.
Before the pandemic, my weeknight dinners were rushed, lonely affairs, a messy mix of scarfing down microwave burritos and typing up notes for class (for which my keyboard paid the price). When I moved home during the pandemic, dinners became my favorite part of the day, not only because my mother is an amazing cook but because I was surrounded by my parents’ and brothers’ stories, quips, and laughter.
These weekday meals are a major source of joy and remind me of how much support I have right around me when I face the tougher parts of my day alone.
Later is now
Abe Silberstein, Forward contributor:
After the pandemic, I intend not to postpone plans unless absolutely necessary because you can never be quite sure what the world will look like next week.
The meaning of exile
Joel Swanson, Forward contributing columnist:
There’s a famous line from Maimonides’s commentary on Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, that I find myself returning to often these days. Maimonides says that one who transgresses and is truly repentant will “exile himself from his former place of residence, since exile atones for iniquity, inducing, as it does, humility, meekness, and lowliness of spirit.”
I’ve been thinking about these words a lot, since it feels like we’ve all felt most of the year of 2020 exiled from ourselves, cut off from our homelands, our families, our plans for the future, even our bodies themselves. Some have suggested that the full extent of the dumpster fire that was 2020 is, in some way, a punishment for some great transgression that we don’t even know we’ve committed. Fully one-third of Americans believe the coronavirus was sent by God to teach us a lesson.
As for me, I don’t know that I believe that COVID was sent by God. But I do believe in the meaning of the exile in Jewish history. Even before COVID, my family’s history in Europe during the Shoah taught me to expect that nothing was permanent, that I should keep a suitcase packed at all times, that even my body can only ever be a temporary home.
It’s a reminder that, no matter how much we think we may have made a permanent home somewhere, the Jews are always a people of wanderers, a people of the desert as much as a people of any permanent home. As Maimonides reminds us, the Jewish history of exile teaches us to remain humble, because everything we strive to build can be taken away from us, every home we construct we can be cast out from.
And then we have to remain humble and find meaning in that fragmentation, that incompleteness, that sense of being far away from home and from permanence. We’re a people of exile. We can never achieve permanence. And everything that has happened in 2020 reminds us of that fact.
I don’t know if my sense of being exiled from my family in New York, whom I can’t visit, my exile even from my own healthy, undamaged body in 2020, will atone for my iniquities. But I know it connects me to a deep Jewish history. And maybe that’s enough.