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Thanksgiving ends, Hanukkah begins
A latke topped with pea puree and lemon salsa, from a more culinarily-ambitious era
Thanksgiving just ended and already we’re in Hanukkah. From one perspective, that’s a fortuitous conjunction. Hanukkah is spiritually far more akin to Thanksgiving than it to Christmas (indeed, the Maccabees can plausibly get to play both sides in the Thanksgiving story, being both a community of religious zealots and a resistance movement against an oppressive colonial power). But one does occasionally need to catch one’s breath.
This year, I think we’re going to catch it by being relatively low-key in our Hanukkah celebration. You’d think last year would have been as low-key as it could get, thanks to Covid, but in fact we were ridiculously social last year—just on Zoom. Because Zoom gatherings in groups of more than three or four rapidly descend into chaos, we did multiple such gatherings on multiple nights, which meant that night after night we were on a tight schedule to get food ready and cocktails prepared and so forth by the Zoom time—and then we had to be on, full time through the Zoom gathering. Even though we were just cooking for ourselves, it was, like Edgar Wright’s London, a lot.
So this year, even though we’re back to gathering in person and indoors, we’ll probably limit it to a couple of nights, small groups and relatively simple menus. Next year, though, who knows? Once upon a time, I did an annual eight-course meal for Hanukkah. I did that for eight years running, in fact. One of these days I’ll surely do something similarly ridiculous again. So stay tuned.
The True Meaning of Thanksgiving
I didn’t have a column in The Week this week and my latest piece at Modern Age (on the film “The Green Knight” and the play “Pass Over”) hasn’t been posted on line yet, so the only writing of my own to “wrap” this week is my Thanksgiving-related post on gratitude:
As some readers may recall, my mother was born in the Soviet Union, because her parents fled eastward after the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland in 1939, and then were deported further east by Soviet authorities. After the war, the three of them made their way west, first back to Poland, then to Austria, then to West Germany, and finally to the United States, where, many years later, she met and married my father. In a sense, then, I owe my existence to Adolf Hitler.
So if I am to be thankful for my life, must I be thankful for the Holocaust, without which I wouldn’t exist?
The idea is obviously perverse, so of course I don’t think so. Rather, if I am grateful for my life, I should recognize all of the manifold contingencies that made my existence possible. That so many of those contingencies could have gone the other way, and led to my grandparents’ or my mother’s death, should waken in me a sense of grateful obligation to reduce the scope of those horrible contingencies for others. But that the great machine of death was itself a contingency that made my specific life possible is an irony, yes, but not something I need to weigh in the balance of my gratitude—because gratitude is not about weighing in the balance. It looks only at one side of the ledger, and deliberately so.
I raise the example, an admittedly extreme one, because everything about our lives is ultimately like that, in kind if not in degree. Nothing is an unmixed good: no family, no country, no leader or historical figure, no religious institution or artistic achievement or intellectual tradition. To be able to experience gratitude at all, then, means being able to focus on the good in the mix not because it necessarily outweighs the ill in some abstract calculus, but simply because what is good deserves our focus and our recognition.
I’m actually pretty happy with this one, so do please read the whole thing.
Meanwhile, to round out the wrap, here are some thoughts on a couple of other things that happened this week that have occupied my mind.
Today’s Panic Is Sponsored By the Letter Omicron
As everyone reading this surely already knows, there’s a new coronavirus “variant of concern” (dubbed “Omicron” so as to ruin the evenings of all the columnists who had prepared bad “Nu” puns) that was discovered in South Africa. As Zeynep Tufecki points out in her New York Times column, we owe the doctors, scientists and policymakers in that country a debt of gratitude for giving us the head’s-up so early. Thanks to them, we know about Omicron’s existence well in advance of being able to know whether it is a serious threat. Because of that, we have the opportunity to take dramatic action before it’s too late: to conduct mass testing, surveillance and contact tracing and thereby prevent the new variant from spreading domestically.
But of course we’re highly unlikely to take those kinds of steps, since we haven’t taken them in response to any of the prior waves of the virus. Indeed, we haven’t even really imposed a travel ban—we haven’t closed our borders to visitors from Europe or Asia (where the Omicron variant has already been found), nor imposed severe quarantine requirements on either them or on Americans returning from abroad. Nor are we likely to impose significant new restrictions on activities that facilitate domestic transmission, among other things because they would not be obeyed. Nor is it obvious that such restrictions would even be efficacious; Delta is already so transmissible that the non-pharmaceutical interventions that we employed earlier in the pandemic are insufficient to prevent the virus from spreading in the absence of mass vaccination, and since Omicron seems to have replaced Delta where it was first observed, it is probably even more transmissible.
Bottom line, it’s extremely likely that we’re going to face an Omicron wave a few months from now, just as we are dealing with a Delta wave right now. Maybe we’ll delay it a bit, and thereby give the vaccine-makers more time to deploy Omicron-tailored boosters. But that’s it.
That doesn’t mean we’re facing catastrophe. There’s obvious pressure on any pathogen to evolve so as to evade an immune response, as well as pressure to become more transmissible. There’s no similar pressure to become more deadly—on the contrary: it’s in the interest of a pathogen to keep a host alive but sick so it can keep replicating and spreading to additional hosts. That doesn’t mean that Omicron couldn’t be more deadly—it certainly could be—but if it is, that would be an accident. Meanwhile, the odds are high that even if Omicron is able to evade immunity to some degree, such that existing vaccines (or natural immunity from previous infection by other variants) do a lousier job at preventing infection, they will still provide substantial protection in terms of preventing serious disease and death. I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, and I start out as someone who is basically in decent health and under-65. So I’m really not overly worried for myself.
But even in the absence of catastrophe, there’s still reason for concern, particularly about the ability of the health care system to absorb rising hospitalizations. That, though, is not a worry confined to an Omicron-shadowed future; it’s a worry for right now, because we’re already facing rising hospitalizations thanks to Delta. This is happening even in places with very high vaccination rates like Vermont—because even high vaccination rates aren’t 100%, because even high efficacy at preventing serious illness isn’t 100% (and does seem to fade over time if not boosted), and because the extremely contagious Delta variant has already proven its ability to cause transmissible mild infections in vaccinated or previously-infected people. If Omicron is otherwise comparable to Delta, but more able to evade immunity, then the Omicron wave is likely to be similar, only worse.
It became clear some time ago that Covid was going to become an endemic disease. We would never reach herd immunity, but could hope, through mass vaccination and new therapeutics (which should also work well against Omicron), to reduce the seriousness of Covid to something we can live with. I remain hopeful that Omicron doesn’t change this picture materially. But it’s a less-rosy picture than I had hoped to see back in May, and has been for some time.
Giants In the Sky
Josef Stalin reportedly said that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. The course of Covid certainly bears that observation out; as the death toll has risen, we’ve gotten more and more numb to the normalcy of it all. But we’re still powerfully affected by the death of someone we actually care about, even if they’ve lived an inarguably full life and died at a ripe old age—even if, in fact, we didn’t actually know them personally.
Stephen Sondheim, who revolutionized the American musical, died unexpectedly this past Friday at the age of 91, and in my little world that overlaps somewhat with the New York theater community, the sense of mourning has been widespread. That’s not only because he wrote so many extraordinary shows, nor even because he such a profound influence on the art form through his work. It’s also because he was an extraordinarily generous supporter of those who would start their own theatrical revolutions—generous, most importantly, with his critical insight. Viewers of the recent movie, “tick, tick . . . BOOM,” can catch a glimpse of what that meant, as Sondheim plays a pivotal role for the main character—Jonathan Larson, from whose early one-man autobiographical stage show the film was adapted—in his development as an artist. Larson went on to write a musical, “Rent,” that set the tone for what the American musical might become as surely as Sondheim’s “Company” did twenty-six years before. He also was a crucial mentor to the director of that film, Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose own theatrical revolution is at this point surely more widely known than either Larson’s or Sondheim’s. But there are uncountable others whose encounters with the man, even if brief, touched them profoundly, and for life.
The circle of mourning goes far beyond those who were touched by him directly, though, because at its best his work achieved an emotional complexity and sophistication that is rarely paralleled. Isaac Butler does a better job in his tribute than I ever could at elucidating what made Sondheim’s work so special. If you’re going to read only one piece to commemorate his life, that’s the one I’d recommend.
As for me, the first experience that I can remember with Sondheim's work was as a teenager in London in 1987, when I saw the revival of “Follies” starring Diana Rigg as Phyllis. “Follies” is one of many Sondheim shows that didn’t do well commercially on its first outing, and the London production substantially reworked the show, with a new book, an intermission, and four new songs. One of those was written for Rigg, who wasn't a dancer and so wasn't able to perform "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," so Sondheim wrote her a strip-tease act called "Ah, But Underneath." It is not by a long shot the best song in the show, but it’s the only number I actually remember from that production. I was absolutely entranced, simply because, duh, I was watching Diana Rigg do a strip-tease. My appreciation was not, shall we say, layered.
The show must have stayed with me at a level deeper than conscious memory, though, burrowing its way into my soul. There's something essential in it, something that gets easily and unfairly minimized as nostalgia. It’s not only not nostalgia, a sentimental immersion in the past it’s not even a piece about nostalgia. It’s about the desperate panic when you realize that the past really is gone, and gone forever, and about coming, belatedly, to actually grieve and accept that. I've returned to that show again and again in years since, particularly to the 1985 concert version, which I think is unsurpassable. I'm particularly fond of Carol Burnett’s rendition of “I’m Still Here,” though the character who speaks to me most, and more and more as time goes on, is Benjamin Stone; here’s George Hearn’s rendition, from that same concert, of his song, “The Road You Didn’t Take.”
Sondheim is often criticized for emotional distance, but I don't see how anyone can listen to the songs in that show and not be overwhelmed by emotion. What he didn't do often if at all is tie those emotions up in a tidy bow and send you out of the theater duly catharized. But that's precisely why I've long felt that he's playing my song.
I imagine he’ll continue to play it for as long as I can hear—longer, if my memory holds out, and I can continue to play it in my head.