Just as the cold snap clipped the autumn leaves off the trees and ushered in a frost, my seventh-grade students and I set about our annual ritual — making tallitot, or prayer shawls. Since this will be the year the students become b’nai mitzvah, they’ll be able to wear the tallitot they made and take an extra feeling of pride as they stand on the bimah holding fast to the Torah.
And while the tzitzit, or ritual fringes, we tied together will provide religious significance to the garment, I can’t help but think — and pray — that the shawls will comfort and protect them from whatever life throws at them.
In an era when truth turns to “truthiness” and facts are mere matters of interpretation, they’ll need — we’ll all need — something to hold onto that can ward off an unhealthy cynicism.
Cynicism is an attitude about the world that spells doom, and for many, the recent election lends a palpable sense of impending doom. It’s an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general lack of faith in the human species and derived from the ancient Greek cynics who rejected all conventions, whether religion, manners, housing, dress or decency.
We baby boomers were raised with the specter of a far worse extreme — nuclear war. Armageddon was depicted in movies from “Fail-Safe” to “Dr. Strangelove.” Yet look around at today’s movies, TV and books aimed at young people as they present a world already destroyed. Whether it’s via series like “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent,” wave after wave of dystopian, post-apocalyptic depictions are a narrative they’ve grown up with from the time they were swaddled in blankets.
And ever since the dawn of the new millennia, while serious adult readers were putting “The Road” onto the best-seller lists, Al Gore packed theaters with his PowerPoint presentation and altered the linguistic landscape turning “An Inconvenient Truth” into a phrase that’s been recycled and reapplied to causes of every kind. If you haven’t seen the next phase of that Jeremiad, see HBO’s “How To Let Go of the World.”
Indeed during my students’ lifetimes, and as a culture, we’ve gone from “Oblivion” (another tale of post-apocalypse, though this time we were done in by invading aliens who we had to nuke) to Denzel Washington’s biblically nicknamed, post-apocalyptic yarn, “The Book of Eli.”
Each work, in its own way, presents a bleak vision that hasn’t been seen in pop culture since the Cold War (which I hear might be starting up again).
So how does all of this jibe with kids who are about to step into adulthood, read from the Torah and assume the role of future leaders? I think the first piece of wisdom to stress and impart to them is they’re not alone. As they enter adulthood, they join us. They become part of something larger — a people who have survived for thousands of years, and whose lessons and rituals are what stitched us together and kept us from fraying.
Indeed, after an interminably long and disruptive year, with an election that tore us apart like contestants on one big reality TV show, it’s time to demonstrate to our kids how we can mend our world and embrace them as members of a bigger family that’s here to support them.
As for the year behind us, let’s just say what they say at the end of any Hollywood production — and what I told my students when they were completing their tallitot — “Cut! That’s a wrap!”
Abe Novick is a writer and communications consultant and also teaches the seventh grade on Sunday mornings at Bolton Street Synagogue. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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