A former staffer in the Lilith office would always answer the perfunctory “How are you?” question with an enthusiastic, “I’m doing great, thanks. How are you?” These days, both the question and its cheery, upbeat rejoinder seem out of place. We’ve had to change how we say hello and goodbye.
“Sholem Aleichem” is the common greeting in Yiddish, with its reflexive response: “Aleichem Sholem.” I would hear this exchange as a child, both from elders via the Old Country and from younger folks paying their respects not as mimicry but with an understanding of how sweet the underlying sentiment is: “May peace be upon you; Upon you may there be peace.” I always loved the sureness with which this exchange was conducted. Identical in Hebrew, we traditionally chant the lines as an opening to Sabbath rituals. In Arabic the words are the same. The beseeching and its underlying wish are kindly, benign, sincere, maybe even a little banal. Fair enough. These days we would settle for such hopefulness with which to start any encounter.
But greetings like “How’s it going?”—or even “How are you?” which really demands no answer—feel off-limits to us now, as does that blithe “I’m doing great.” Now, we have to probe deeper. None of us can assume anymore that the person on the other end of any conversation is free from suffering, and I find myself beginning even a simple business email (maybe you do the same) asking for reassurance: “I hope this finds you well, as well as circumstances permit.” Our openings are fraught with the underlying assumption that all lives are under threat this very moment, not something most of us have had to consider during our lifetimes, and never for so long. Certainly after a terrible natural disaster, or 9/11, or—recently and horribly—attacks on synagogues, other houses of worship and peaceful demonstrations. But now the onslaught feels consistent, and long-lasting, with no certainty as to when, or even how, the pandemic will end.
Approaching the one-year anniversary of when the Covid-19 virus broke into our consciousness and our communities, I’ve been thinking about how my everyday exchanges signify a different kind of connectedness and concern than they did before. Even strangers now conclude a routine phone call with “Stay safe.” And we now attend to and value the labor of the grocery store clerk and the delivery person—to say nothing of health care workers and eldercare aides who make possible such limited safety as we are able to muster.
Traditionally, religious Jews respond to the pro-forma greeting “How are you?” with “Baruch HaShem,” thank God. Today, even for non-believers, this pious response may connect with how we’re feeling—and I don’t mean merely religion-by-rote, wherein this response can be as unthinking as saying “Bless you” by reflex when you hear a sneeze. (Of course, in our present circumstances, if anyone sneezed you’d run for cover and wash your hands.) What I mean is that I am perpetually conscious of feeling grateful. You too? Despite horrendous losses of life and of health, losses of jobs and prospects and plans for the future, we hear all around us “I feel lucky to have food to eat, or …a place to live, a friend to call….” Or for a book to read, a podcast for company, or a few minutes to spend with a kid talking about something other than the virus’s disruptions and dangers.
Along with recalibrating how we greet people, we’re redefining what constitutes happiness for us now. We’re grateful on this small scale at the same time as we recognize the poisonous behaviors from callow and careless officials who were entrusted with public health and safety and who instead cast aside science, good sense, empathy, responsibility and more to exacerbate our danger rather than ameliorating it.
So, how will our new greetings, with their concern for and gratitude toward others, translate on a larger scale? Dare we hope that even if our own prospects shrink we’ll nonetheless look for ways to help others grow theirs? You know that characteristically the poor give more generously to charity, as a percentage of income, than do the wealthy. Will those who have prospered begin to give more, both to meet daily needs and to drive our society towards justice? Will the gratitude for our own small and large blessings spill over into good deeds, so that we can be reasonably sure down the line of having good health and good government, more fairness and less bias, more food and less hunger, more safety and less peril? May it be so. And may peace be upon you. Sholem Aleichem.
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief