As I was viewing the photos submitted by members of our Pittsburgh Jewish community for this week’s paper, my eyes teared up.
Instead of pictures of our friends and neighbors and family members at fundraising galas or volunteering at food banks, or our children grouping together in song or prayer at our day schools, the photos showed individuals working alone at home, or screens of several people gathering on an online platform for meetings or learning, each face contained within its own square, like a real-life and uncomedic take on the opening credits of “The Brady Bunch.”
I am sad a lot these days. I know this is a temporary condition, this social distancing, and I know how essential it is to keep us all safe and healthy. I am all in on that. But still, I confess here that I am grieving what we are missing, for now.
One of my favorite courses as an undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis, back in the twentieth century, was “The History of Art and Architecture” taught by a scholar named Norris K. Smith. Norris K. (that’s what we called him amongst ourselves) had a soothing yet serious demeanor not unlike John Houseman in his portrayal of Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. in the movie “The Paper Chase.”
Norris K. valued above all else the idea of community, and he illustrated its merit over individualism by showing us the masterpieces of our civilization in slides projected on a huge screen in a massive auditorium. Norris K. would juxtapose slides of intricately detailed Renaissance paintings with modern art to prove his point. Think Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” side by side with Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow.” Goodness resided in those works that depicted universal truths, faith in God, love and loyalty, he said. Works whose meaning vacillated and depended upon the individual viewer were absurd.
The word “idiot,” he constantly pointed out, originated from the Greek root idiotes, which means “individual,” or one who is not part of the community.
It was 1980, and the Sony Walkman had just become a thing. Around campus, you could see scores of students, headphones on, everyone listening to their own cassette tapes. This was abhorrent to Norris K. Music, like art, like theater, was meant to be shared and experienced as part of a group.
I never did buy a Walkman.
In the last 40 years, the individualization of society obviously has mushroomed, thanks to more and more advanced technology. Most everyone now is plugged in most all the time, everyone streaming their own music or movies or television shows, alone. We have even lost the group experience of, say, everyone watching the finale of “M*a*s*h” on the same night.
I often have wondered where this eventually would lead us, all this technology that has made it so easy to forego communal experiences, and would it turn us all into idiotes?
Then the COVID-19 crisis happened.
With the stay-at-home orders in place all over the world, and a ton of various types of content at everyone’s own fingertips, Jewish Pittsburgh nevertheless has made it a point to stay connected. Before the first case of the coronavirus had hit Allegheny County, Jewish organizations and congregations announced online classes and meetups via video technology to keep our community together. Online options for Shabbat services and daily minyans were offered almost immediately by several congregations so that some could still pray together and our mourners could have the required community to say Kaddish. Instructions were provided on how to host Zoom seders so those who are comfortable using technology on the holiday could be with others. Groups of friends scheduled Zoom happy hours.
After last year’s massacre at the Tree of Life building, we affirmed how strong Jewish Pittsburgh is, how generous, and how dedicated it is to remain cohesive. We are seeing that now too. Physical isolation has not led to communal dissolution, not despite of technology but because of it.
With an infinite choice of individualized content, we are still choosing to be a people, even online. And despite all that we are missing now in terms of live interaction, it is so heartening to see our community remaining a community, using whatever means it can.
I eagerly look forward to the day we can gather again in person.
Until then, let’s continue to keep in touch. PJC
Toby Tabachnick is editor of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.