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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

It’s OK to Audit Life — for Now

I returned to synagogue one recent Shabbat. It wasn’t the first time I’d prayed with others; our backyard minyan was given the green light a few weeks ago, and there have been services in the shul’s parking lot. But going inside was different.

In the moments before I entered the building, I had a flashback to the dread I’d felt when I returned to the Young Israel of Scarsdale, N.Y., for the first time after the funeral of our rabbi and rebbetzin, who tragically perished in a fire in their home 12 years ago. I wondered then if I would ever feel comfortable or happy in the sanctuary again, surrounded by the memories of such devastating trauma. But of course, with time, the synagogue became a place of simcha. Returning to the shul now, I wasn’t suffused with grief as I had been then. But the surreal feeling, the how could this be happening, was all too familiar.

So many aspects of the experience of Shabbat that should have been ordinary were, instead, jarring. I was relieved to find a strip of blue tape where I usually sit, indicating it was an available spot in compliance with social distancing. But I missed my friend with whom I’ve shared the pew for more than a decade; she’d chosen to daven in the outside service. Only seven women, including me, populated the women’s section, leaving not six feet of space between me and the next congregant, but 18 feet in every direction. We prayed with our masks on, and I struggled to envision the smiles I hoped were hiding behind the sinister-looking facade.

There is something deeply unsatisfying about exercise over FaceTime or, more critically, saying Yizkor via Zoom before Yom Tov.

The young man chanting the parsha was required to have every aliyah and raise and dress the Torah, as though life for the rest of the community — the honors that would have been bestowed for births or engagements or yahrzeits — had simply stopped. On a positive note, we were permitted to sing during musaf, and the strength of the communal voices made my heart soar as my glasses fogged over.

As the pandemic appears to subside in our neck of the woods but continues to rage in others, I thank God every day that so far, I and my loved ones have been spared the illness and economic pain that have been visited on so many. Over these past three months, I’ve asked myself repeatedly, “What are you complaining about?” and I don’t have a good answer. I’ve struggled to move from feeling guilty to accepting the displacement and anxiety caused by the new normal. The disruption of daily routines has taken a toll.

Like many others, I still spend many hours in front of my computer screen, working. But before COVID-19, there was more to my week. There were shivah visits to pay and weddings to attend, workout sessions with a trainer, volunteering at a legal clinic and participating in writing workshops. And although some of these pursuits can continue in an altered format, there is something deeply unsatisfying about exercise over FaceTime or, more critically, saying Yizkor via Zoom before Yom Tov.

And yet, we must start to take steps toward reclaiming all the aspects of our lives that made them rich and fulfilling before the pandemic. I’ve enrolled in a Zoom summer course — a philosophy class that’s over my head but I’m excited. It meets three times a week for five weeks, and I’m relying on the schedule to provide the grounding that my rudderless summer lacks.

But I’m cutting myself some slack. As committed as I am to learning something new and engaging with my classmates, I’ll remain in audit mode, sitting in the virtual back row as I get my bearings back in the world. I can’t jump in with both feet yet, and that’s OK. We’ve all been through something destabilizing, even if others have suffered on a different level. It’s OK to take the reentry slowly. It’s OK to audit life, for now.


Reyna Marder Gentin is a graduate of Yale Law School. Her debut novel, “Unreasonable Doubts,” a romantic legal thriller (with a Jewish bent), is available here.

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