THE VERY FACT
Being the lover of Yiddish that I am, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I recently read an article by Shalom Goldman, Professor of Religion at Middlebury College (Vermont) about Yiddish Plague Songs. In that humans, being the creative creatures we know them to be, have been known to react to crises through song, Professor Goldman writes that Simon Small (Shmulevitch), songwriter, lyricist, bard, actor, badkhn (wedding entertainer), balladeer, and early recording singer, responded to the Spanish Flu, the epidemic of a century ago that killed ten times as many Americans than the current crises, with the song Menshenfresser (devourer of people). If Menshenfresher is any indication of the general feeling that pervaded this country a little more than a century ago, then based on what has been forwarded to me within the last few weeks, I cannot help but feel that in reacting to the current pandemic, we’ve come a long way.
Just as Germany coined the term schadenfreude, a term that can be understood to mean rejoicing at the misfortune of others, so too did Germany coin the term galgenhumor, more commonly known to us as gallows humor. Gallows humor refers to cynical humor as a form of reaction to traumatic situations. My first glimpse of gallows humor as a reaction to the current pandemic was a YouTube forwarded to me, showing Shayla Fink of Winnipeg, Canada, sitting at the piano, playing an upbeat song she composed, called “Corona, Corona”. Since then, I have received other, similar parodies. Mah Nishtana? How do we explain these diametrically opposite reactions to life-threatening plagues?
In that all parodies I have received have been composed by Jews, I cannot help but feel, that as a people, we have come a long way. A century ago, when the very notion of a Holocaust against our people was totally unfathomable, we Jews were already in possession of a persecution complex. Justifiably so. Our brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe were still dying in pogroms. A total of 1,326 pogroms were taking place across Ukraine, around the very time the Spanish flew was indiscriminately attacking helpless individuals in this country. True, there was no anti-Semitic strain in the Spanish Flu, but a victim is still a victim.
One of the first lessons implicit in the Torah is that of time. As soon as HaShem began the creation process, “evening” and “morning” were introduced. Once HaShem concluded His role in the creation process, Shabbat was introduced. In both cases, humans adjusted their lives to time. Until recently – it wasn’t until less than a century ago, that electricity was commonplace in the homes of the country – society adjusted itself to going to bed at sunset, waking up at daybreak and setting aside the Sabbath as a day of rest. Within the last few decades, society transformed itself, so that time had to adjust itself to society and more specifically to the individual. It may very well have begun with foods such as instant coffee. The radar range or microwave oven exacerbated our ever-growing impatience by turning hours into minutes and minutes into seconds. It is time that conforms to us; we don’t conform to time. And so, we are indignant to a virus that interrupts our daily schedule. We regard it as some kind of joke, albeit in the poorest of taste and we respond accordingly.
Because these United States of America have proven to be the ultimate equalizer, Jews and non-Jews alike, have developed a sense of invincibility. Advancements in technology and medicine have made us smug. With the cold war having been consigned to history, Americans seem to have adopted the attitude actor John Wayne portrayed in his role as a cowboy, on the silver screen. Perhaps our 43rd President captured that attitude best on September 11th, 2001, when he in effect said: “No tinhorn terrorist was going to keep him out of Washington.” That very same attitude was very much evident last month when American college students defiantly flocked to the Florida beaches. No foreign virus was going to prevent them from having fun in the sun. How very differently, the attitude of Americans manifested itself, when this country was overtaken by the Spanish Flu. Back then, the people of this country – in no small part a conglomerate of immigrants – would have to wait close to another 2 ½ decades to hear the encouraging words: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
The parodies will undoubtedly continue. Whether they are worth listening to, is a matter of preference. The very fact that we Jews no longer bewail epidemics, the very fact that Americans can afford to respond to the Coronavirus with indignation, the very fact that that we see ourselves as being invincible, says more about us than it does about the virus.