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Confessions of a lockdown addict: I don’t want to go back to the old “normal”

This is an adaptation of our weekly Shabbat newsletter, sent by our editor-in-chief on Friday afternoons. Sign up here to get the Forward’s free newsletters delivered to your inbox. And click here for a PDF of stories to savor over Shabbat and Sunday that you can download and print.

Truth time: I don’t want to go back to the old “normal.”

Yes, of course, I desperately wish that not one more person would die or even suffer a single day from this deadly virus, and I deeply hope the millions of people who have lost jobs and small businesses because of the pandemic find work. I definitely miss the serendipitous encounters, especially with folks very different from those in my immediate orbit, and I cannot wait to hug my friends again. I know my kids will be better off when they can finally go back to in-person classes and sleepovers with friends.

But this terrible, horrible very bad year of isolation has also had an abundance of silver linings, and I worry we’ll snap back to our old ways without truly learning the lessons this crisis has brought. 

A year ago, in an editorial calling on our community to “make the new normal” Jewish by staying connected, I wrote that I was “not afraid of getting sick; I am afraid of being afraid.”

I am so lucky that I and those closest to me have not gotten sick, and definitely understand that is why I can see any silver linings in this experience. But now, on the anniversary of the earliest outbreaks in the United States, I am afraid of forgetting what we learned about ourselves, about prioritization, about the essence of community, about Judaism. 

This grim anniversary, with more than 500,000 Americans and counting having succumbed to COVID-19, comes at a confusing time in the arc of the pandemic.

Infections and deaths are way down from the terrifying highs of December and January — but hovering at the levels of last summer, levels that seemed very scary at the time. President Biden has promised that there will be enough vaccine for every American adult by the end of May, and every day I hear from another friend or relative who has gotten her second shot and is making plans for an in-person Passover.

A lot of smart people have written smart things about the dangers of opening up too soon — talking to you, Texas — and I, too, am worried that exuberance over the positive indicators could take us to another unnecessary spike. But even when it is truly safe to return to offices and schools and theaters and airplanes, even when we’re assured we no longer need to wear masks, I hope we find yet another new normal rather than returning to the one we used to know.

Some of this is easy. I know I am one of many who has already declared that I will never again commute five days a week; I’m definitely planning to work from home on Fridays, and to sit down each week for Shabbat with homemade challah.


Image by Jodi Rudoren

I desperately hope that I will forever find ways to replicate the new, smaller ways I have connected with my kids during these long months — the quick ping pong games my son and I sneak in between classes and meetings, the ambitious baking projects my daughter and I take on because we have no weekend plans. I’ve already talked to her about continuing to make our dinner once a week, because it’s so wonderful for me to arrive home to a hot meal — and equally so for my daughter to experience the joy of making something yummy for people she loves.     I realize this all comes from a position of great privilege: a house with plenty of space for each of us to have our own workspace; a job I love, good health care. But some of it is more universal. Here are a few bigger, more complex changes to the way we operate that I hope do not lapse as we start to regain some of what we lost:

The urgency, focus, and prioritization that comes with crisis Plenty has been written about how and why Israel is leading the world in vaccinating its citizens: universal health care helps, plus a robust technology sector, a good dose of politics, and the simple fact that it’s a small country.

But I think the secret ingredient, which I experienced up close during my nearly four years as Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, is that it is a society used to mobilizing in crisis. One of the key differences I saw between Israelis and Americans was a deeper engagement in news and politics, because Israelis of all stripes understand there are real stakes in their elections — and in what happens between them.

We American Jews began to feel those higher stakes as antisemitic violence and hate speech grew during the Trump years. The whole country was galvanized in a new way by the pandemic, as it affected everyone, albeit unequally.

One result was turnout in the November elections higher than we have seen in a century, and I certainly hope that holds. Relatedly, after many years of mostly fruitless debate over whether and how to make our elections more accessible, states instantly created early- and mail-in voting systems that were virtually fraud-free. We should never go back to the archaic, democracy-limiting strictures of making everyone stand in long lines at some random school on a specific Tuesday.

And we should not need a crisis of this proportion to make clear that elections — and other political decisions — have real consequences we all need to care about.

You can be there without being there Sure, we all have Zoom fatigue. But I dearly hope that the new normal will include a lot more virtual meetings, events and conferences. I love that I can moderate a panel discussion from my basement couch with thought leaders and audience members from around the world and then jump right back into my other work (or perhaps a quick game of ping pong).

I do not want to return to the habit of spending two hours shlepping across town to meet someone for overpriced salads when we could do our business in 30 minutes — nor to spending three days and much more money to do the same in another city. The lower barrier to entry for events — and services and study sessions — and meetings has made it, actually, much easier to connect with more people. 

Similarly, we should not give up the Zoom-mitzvah, Zoom-shiva, Zoom-bris or Zoom-wedding.— instead, we need to hybridize.

The Zoom-shivas I’ve attended, where people took turns in an orderly way sharing memories of the departed and speaking directly to the mourners, were far more meaningful than many of the crowded, awkward in-person ones where it’s hard to decide when to approach the person on the low chair and how long to stay in that coveted spot.

And, as I wrote a couple months ago, our twins’ hybrid mitzvah truly brought the best of both worlds — an intimate, in-person gathering free of the excesses and logistical hassles and broad virtual participation by many who would never have traveled to be with us. I am so glad my kids turned 13 in 2020!

The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other How great is walking? Exercise, fresh air, moving through space at a human pace.

Years ago, a mentor at The Times suggested walk-meetings; I and everyone I know enthusiastically agreed — and never actually did them. Admittedly, a walk around Times Square is radically less pleasant than one in Montclair, New Jersey, but I have been absolutely blessed that my boss — who lives a mile away — and I do our twice-weekly check-ins outside and on foot.

Can we keep it up once we’re back in the Forward newsroom in Manhattan’s Financial District? Hope so. Plus: my main dates with my mom-friends are now walks rather than pricey coffees or lunches, and I try to get up from my desk a couple of times a week for a quick constitutional. Please remind me a year from now that I pledged to keep doing that.  

Being busy can be a crutch I have long been a subscriber to the belief that busy people get the most done. I am one of those busy people. Pre-pandemic, I had a regular Sunday breakfast date who always marveled at how much I had already accomplished by our 9 a.m. meetup and how much more I had planned afterward. When my kids would ask what we were doing on a weekend, I would tick off multiple social events, synagogue commitments, shopping adventures and household chores. 

Not anymore. It took me a long time, but I have learned to do nothing with my kids, and love it.

We might play a board game after a late breakfast. We’ll probably watch a movie. As the weather warms, we’ll get out for more walks and have people over again for Shabbat meals or firepit S’mores in the backyard.

But I don’t want to go back to packing in as much as I can, rushing between three parties on New Year’s Day or from store to store. I am not eager to return to the fear-of-missing-out days where I feel badly about what event I’m not invited to or why our vacation plans aren’t as interesting as the next family’s.

I want to buy less, own less, travel less, do less — because I’ve learned that less is more than enough.

I could go on: I want to only wear comfortable shoes, and not waste time matching my jewelry to my outfit. I want to keep making homemade soup and dropping some at a friend’s house even though she didn’t ask. I want to keep saying thank you to the people who work in the stores and delivering packages and healing the sick. I want my daughter and I to keep our weekly shift at the food pantry. I want her to continue the daily drawing habit she started last March because there was nothing else to do.

I’d love to hear what you want to hold onto when/if we get to the new-old-normal. Send to [email protected].

Your Weekend Reads.

(You can download and print a PDF of these stories by clicking here.)

Jodi Rudoren is Editor-in-Chief of the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, or email [email protected].


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