Stephen Colbert’s late-night talk show returned before a live studio audience last week, 15 months after moving first to what looked like his basement and later to a closet-sized studio in Times Square.
I sort of liked the pandemic version of what he called “A Late Show,” whose only audience appeared to be his wife Evie and a camera operator. Somehow the laughter of just two people feels (to me, anyway, watching on YouTube) more genuine and well-earned than the guffaws and cheers of a live audience. The quarantine version of Colbert’s show felt warm and intimate. Like Evie, my wife was my only audience for the last year and a half, and happily we never got sick of each other, and if possible grew even closer. And when at times Colbert would look frustrated with the format it was just validation of what we were all feeling in our homes.
I wouldn’t have wished this awful plague on my worst enemy. The death toll was obscene, doubly so when you consider all the ways a competent government could have handled it from the start. For so many people – those raising school-age kids, caring for an elderly or disabled loved one, stuck in dangerous or abusive households – the pandemic was a nightmare.
But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t learned or grown as the result of it. In fact, I will miss some of the claustrophobic feeling of the pandemic. The restrictions imposed false boundaries on my choices, social circles, leisure time and activities. Within them I was forced to improvise, adapt, change.
In that sense, COVID restrictions reminded me of the artificial (and in my case voluntary) limitations that come with Jewish religious observance. Keeping kosher, for example, is a day-long, every day exercise in forced limitations: You can eat this but not that. As Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn once put it, “The laws of kashrut offer a Jewish spiritual discipline that is rooted in the concrete choices and details of daily life — to be practiced in an area that seems most ‘mundane.’”
Keeping kosher tames the “Paradox of Choice,” psychologist Barry Schwartz’s term for how an overabundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety and depression and feelings of social inadequacy. We are all Robin Williams in “Moscow on the Hudson,” fainting in the coffee aisle. Ten years after first identifying the syndrome, Schwartz suggested things are only getting worse: Social media has increased the average person’s fear that “[n]obody’s good enough and you’re always worried you’re missing out.”
The kosher laws create their own anxiety, but they also limit my choices in a good way. The boundaries in that sense are liberating – I stop wondering what I am missing out on and learn to appreciate what I can actually have.
Shabbat does this with time. On Friday nights I find myself entering a vestibule into a different dimension, shutting the door on the cares and shmutz of the week before, and hunkering within the day’s limitations until another door opens on Saturday night. Inside what Heschel calls the “cathedral” of Shabbat I am forced to find, and appreciate, different ways to use my time.
Of course, Shabbat only lasts 25 hours. I wouldn’t want to live forever inside a cathedral, and like many I am relieved when it is over. The pandemic often felt like 4:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in June, when you’ve read and napped and eaten all you possibly can and can’t believe there are still five hours to go. Unlike with Shabbat, we don’t know when the pandemic will end.
That led the philosopher Patrick Levy to compare the pandemic to the torment of insomnia: “We know we are powerless to hasten the end of our waiting but feel pressure to be productive,” he writes. “We should enjoy this extra time we have on our hands, either spending it with our loved ones or taking the chance to improve ourselves. Needless to say, for many such pressure is oppressive.”
Now that the end is in site, however, I can look back on the pandemic as a sort of sabbatical — “the pause between the notes,” in the musical metaphor used by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers to describe Shabbat.
There will be literature of nostalgia for the lockdown, when the world was cleaved into categories of the sacred (or healthy) and profane (or dangerous).
A common critique of religious rituals of abnegation is that they are a retreat from the cares of the world — that we fetishize our self-denial while turning our backs on the pleasures, and challenges, of being fully human. I get that. In lockdown I was all about my own ego: my space, my time, my anxieties. My home became a fortress and my mask became my armor, not just keeping me inside but keeping the world out. To some degree I’ve lost the habit of going out into the world, and feel I could happily cocoon myself long after the pandemic is a memory.
No doubt I will get used to the world very quickly, and I’ve already started: museum trips, restaurants, in-person Shabbat dinners. But I am willing to bet there will be a literature of nostalgia for the lockdown, when the world was cleaved into categories of the sacred (or healthy) and profane (or dangerous). When the things we couldn’t do made us appreciate the things we could. When thrown back on our own devices (sometimes all too literally) we figured out new ways of being ourselves.