The TBS Book Club

When bad things happen, you must try to turn them into good things. So our shul took the terrible, lonely, bizarre months of the pandemic and came up with programs that promoted togetherness.

One of these programs was our TBS Book Club. For all these years, every Sunday, when I’ve read the paper and looked at the Bestseller list, I’ve always wished that I could read a lot of those books, if only to be reading the books that are influencing our culture, but mostly because I thought it would be fun and cool. But there was never time for that, until the pandemic, when, for once, we all needed things that we could do by ourselves that would connect us to others. So we started a Zoom Book Club, and we read American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins about Mexican immigrants coming to America, The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larsen about 1941 and Winston Churchill in Great Britain, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles about a man imprisoned in a hotel by the Communists, a book that really worked for us who felt imprisoned in our homes during those months, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett about twin African American girls, one who stays in her hometown and the other who passes for white in the America of the 50’s and 60’s, The Order by Daniel Silva about an Israeli spy and the Catholic Church and Christian-Jewish relations, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig about life and its regrets, The Four Winds by Kirsten Hannah about the depression, and Premonition by Michael Lewis about the prelude to the pandemic. The book we liked least was The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab. During the month we were reading it, I got complaints like: “Rabbi, this is like having to do homework.”

But I want to tell you about this book and what I got out of it. In this variation of the Faust legend, a young French girl in 1714 sells her soul to a Devil-like creature. She gets immortal life but in return, she’s cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. No one remembers her after she’s left the room or even turned the corner. The extraordinary life of Addie LaRue is an adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world. She doesn’t have relationships. That all changes 300 years later, when she stumbles upon a man who remembers her name. So The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is about how life is being with other people.

In the last year, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that loneliness can actually kill you. How many funerals did I do for people who had lived to a deep old age, to get Covid and do ok, but were so alone that nothing mattered any more and they just lost the will to live, and sort of just gradually checked out of the hotel? And medicine supports this impression. Lonely people are more likely to have heart attacks and cancer and alcoholism and even common colds. Loneliness can make you assume the worst in others and see enemies in harmless strangers. You become paranoid. You get to this point where you think that you are just unlovable.

It’s great to be independent; it’s great to take care of yourself. But in a world that is so interdependent, that image is no longer appropriate. What happens in the world; happens in America. The virus showed this beyond dispute.

The pandemic came and there were no longer public spaces; the schools and the malls and the stadiums closed. And the loneliness hit in a whole new way.

What is loneliness? A writer named Maggie Nelson wrote, “Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” Loneliness is solitude, with a problem. When the pandemic hit, all of a sudden, we all had a problem.

I’ve read that different people have different thresholds for loneliness based on how we’re biologically programmed before we’re born. So Henry David Thoreau could spend a couple of years at Walden Pond without losing his mind; a lot of us couldn’t take two days at most. Some of us go nuts when we don’t have any text messages for two hours. But some of us do just fine; some of us can handle solitude better than others.

I think we need balance; we need other people, but a good measure of solitude is also a good thing.

When we started coming out of the pandemic, we wanted to re-connect so badly. What the pandemic taught us, what it made crystal clear, was how much we appreciate being with people. I can’t imagine ever taking this for granted again.

So these are just a few thoughts from one of the books we read. We’d be happy if you joined us, the last Monday evening of every month (except September) at 7:00pm after Minyan on the regular Zoom link. In October, The Maidens by Alex Michaelides. In November, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. Please zoom on.
Rabbi Scolnic