Kate Cohen is a writer in Albany, NY.
ALBANY, N.Y. — The first virtual gathering that anyone in my family thought to organize was Shabbat. My dad suggested it, I jumped on the idea and my big sister offered to “host” the “meeting.” The thing is, we are not a religious family. Although we used to have “Shabbat dinner” when I was a kid, only one of us still does, and only sometimes. But there we were on Friday, across six Zoom windows from four states: nine adults, six teenagers, one 4-year-old, and three sets of candles.
Did the global pandemic suddenly make believers out of us? Now would indeed be the perfect time to pledge fealty to a capricious, plague-wielding, Old Testament god. But I can’t make myself believe. When I read the Jesuit priest James Martin’s recent New York Times speculation, “Where Is God in a Pandemic?,” I felt as though I was reading a long and learned piece on why we hadn’t heard a peep from Superman.
But religion? Maybe a little.
Every day, my calendar app notifies me that I have no events. Or I have an event, but it turns out it’s a woodwind rehearsal I forgot to toss in my calendar’s virtual trash bin. I sigh and click to delete. The app dutifully double-checks: Do you really want to cancel “This and all future events”? I mean, no. But yes.
Time stretches out, unmarked, unshaped and, therefore, incomprehensible. Gone are the rehearsals that made Sundays Sunday, the town board meetings that made Wednesdays Wednesday. Dates that never change have changed; events that always happen won’t. The NBA playoffs, the Eurovision Song Contest, college graduations. Wimbledon has been canceled for the first time since World War II. Don’t worry: the 2020 Summer Olympics will still happen — in 2021.
If the only certainties in life are death and taxes, and Tax Day has been moved, what does that leave us with?
Don’t answer that.
I never realized how much these markers meant to me. How much I love the school calendar (three different ones for three different kids) and the awards show calendar and (who knew?) even the tennis calendar! How I love to look forward to things! How I crave dates that can’t be deleted!
That’s where religion comes in. To me, it makes perfect sense that Easter was the moment the president chose for our national reemergence. “Easter is a very special day for many reasons,” he said, and I would argue calendric permanence is one of them. Easter seems as though it moves around each year, but actually it never budges (officially it’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox). The president’s promise can be retracted (thank goodness), but not the holiday. The parades can be canceled, but not St. Patrick’s Day.
The same goes for the sabbath. Jews have been officially resting on the seventh day for thousands of years; that’s not going to change just because . . . we’re resting on all six previous days, too. Lighting those candles made Friday Friday, even if none of us believed a supreme being was actually listening, even if we lifted martini glasses for the prayer over the wine, even if my father added an extra blessing for Purell and no one except my big sister remembered to move on to the bread part.
We don’t need religion, but, as the crisis reminds us, we still need certain things that religion can provide. We need ways to express gratitude, to face death, to comfort ourselves. We need community and ritual and dates that can’t easily be deleted. I may “hide” the Jewish calendar so that it doesn’t show up on my app or in my life, but I cannot change or cancel it. It will always be there.
As an atheist, I believe we can get all we need without God, and I have tried to make that true for my kids. They didn’t grow up with Shabbat; their holy day is International Pizza Day (officially, it’s the Saturday closest to Feb. 9 that my parents can make it). But it took 15 years of determined indoctrination to etch that date into the family calendar.
Normally, I reject the ready-made comforts that religion offers. I don’t like the list of ingredients, and I prefer to live from scratch. But these aren’t normal times.
So I said “yes” when my big sister invited us over for a virtual Passover Seder. Passover, to my way of thinking, is a holiday that celebrates the deadly plagues wielded by a capricious Old Testament god who doesn’t exist. It begins on the 15th of Nisan every year. This year, I’m really looking forward to it.