Before Election Day, I had myself convinced that humanity was making slow (if sometimes halting) progress in the direction of liberal democracy, and that the light of reason would ultimately prevail. Yes, laughably, I even confess to imagining that the dark horrors of the 20th century were receding on the far horizon, and that despite the ravages of testosteronic governance around the world, our shared environmental crisis would shortly take center stage and push aside our power-driven dramas.
As the growling Debaser-in-Chief would say: Wrong!
Okay, I’m waking up now, and finding that every spiritual tool is requisite. On the one hand I have faith that larger forces of Life and Good are at play here. But attention to the news these past three months has forced a rapid recalibration. Anyone who has Holocaust or other cataclysmic oppression in their lineage knows of what I speak.
The slow slippage of democratic norms that I have taken for granted all my life—like basic civility, respect for human dignity, factual evidence, rule of law—is actually a quite rapid mudslide into a “new normal” that too many in Washington are eating like cake. The changes are quite overwhelming. But being overwhelmed works against us.
There is a certain pageantry about Jewish holidays in New York City. It is Monday morning, the first day of the Jewish New Year, and teems of well-attired families make their way down the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The city looks on as its Jews stride unabashedly in yarmelkas and hats, holding hands with their children or pushing strollers. On the way, friends shake hands or embrace; the air is filled with purposeful celebration as the Jews spread out to their various places of worship.
By ten o’clock I am inside the cavernous synagogue, looking down on the dais from a 100-foot balcony, feeling practically giddy. This year I am not leading Rosh Hashana services, but have the incredible luxury of sitting in the pews, weightlessly carried by the expertise of others. Thrilled, I wrap myself in my holiday prayer shawl, and observe. (This may be the closest I ever come to being an observant Jew.)
With a kind of dual consciousness, I pray intently while also noticing waves of emotion surging and falling away within myself. Elation, boredom, moments of gratitude, and then, suddenly, like tripping into a fierce and unpredicted weather pattern, gales of tears. They sneak up on me as our voices join to sing the oldest, most classical prayers.