The Constant Mask: Purim in a Winterless World

I went to see my mother after Hanukkah, just before the secular New Year, in the place where I grew up, about two hours east of where I live now. Already, when I set out from my rural town to drive the highway to the city where she lives, I could tell there was, yet again, something off about the day. Though I could see frost on the car when I looked out the house window, it had burned off in the rising sun by the time I got outside, and the ground was muddy. As I drove, I passed ponds where thin ice was already giving way to open water, and, but for the very highest elevation, there was no snow.


By the time I got to the city, still not quite midmorning, the thermometer in my car told me the temperature was approaching 50, and I could tell that the people walking around were having trouble figuring out what to do with their winter coats. This was Boston, Massachusetts. Though the climate was already starting to show preliminary signs of going haywire way back in the year I became bar mitzvah, still every animal instinct in my body was screaming at the loss of the familiar. The weather I was experiencing in my hometown on this late December day felt like it would have been mild even for the Purims I used to know.


I’ve been like this for a long time, intensely triggered to an almost preconscious degree by days of unseasonable warmth. I remember keeping as a secret, in my years at RRC, the times I would not leave my apartment because I couldn’t quite bear to move through a springtime world in calendrical deep winter. As such days have become increasingly the norm and not just an occasional fluke, I’ve found myself inhabiting more and more often what in Superman parlance would be termed a Bizarro World — characterized, certainly, by a fear of what’s to come, but maybe even more so by a lack of any certainty as to what I should be doing now. I fight, at such times, against a paralysis of motivation, and it becomes all I can do to move, with excruciating sluggishness, through a world grown alarmingly strange.


This warm winter day was no exception. If anything, the feelings were all the more acute for playing out against the backdrop of the place where I was a child — where I could easily measure the distance between whatever seasonal cues had provided foundation for an early sense of safety and pleasure, and this present, harrowing mildness. I picked up my mother and stepfather, and we drove to lunch at an Indian buffet, passing the slope where my siblings and I used to sled, still showing its grass, and the joggers sweating their way up and down a barren Heartbreak Hill. There were no cold-chaffed faces or slushy boots at the restaurant. The patrons wore windbreakers or light sweaters, and as I watched the crowd of my fellow humans gorging themselves, throwing away whatever they chose not to finish, my own appetite in abeyance even before food I would have devoured had the day been, say, 15 degrees cooler, I wondered, “Isn’t it on anybody else’s mind?”


I confessed to my mother what I was grappling with because I needed to puncture the tension, even just a little bit, but she’s known me for a while, and it didn’t come to her as a surprise. After speaking my mind, we tried to strike on some easier vein of conversation. I told her about this piece.


“They asked me to write something for Purim,” I said. “But I don’t know what to say. I’m not feeling very funny.”


She thought about it for a moment. Then she said, “What about Zelensky?”


“What do you mean?” I asked her. “What about Zelensky?”


She told me she had happened upon some clips of “Servant of the People,” the Ukrainian TV show in which our Jewish brother, Volodymyr Zelensky, had played a schoolteacher who becomes president of his country. It aired just a few years before life began imitating sitcom.


“Maybe there’s something there,” she said. “He was a comedian. A clown. And now look at him!”


In so far as I had a mind to receive it, the idea intrigued me. But it took a while to get around to following up. In the meantime, I continued to register what I began to think of as the death of winter “by a thousand cuts,” constant small reminders, emerging out of every corner, of drastic change, often linked to some sense memory of a thing that wasn’t there.


It dawned on me one morning how long it had been since I’d heard the sound of an avalanche of snow falling off a slanting roof — a noise that would frighten me when I was a kid but that now I ached for. My skin hungered for the bite of a frigid wind, and I thought about the long ago days when I would come in all bundled up from the cold and have to slather my chapped little lips with Blistex — and how much it stung! In early January, I read that there was already sap trickling in the sugar maples all the way up to northern Vermont, something not “meant” to happen until March, and I remembered that we used to laugh on Tu Bishvat about how it must be spring somewhere. While I know it is relatively trivial when compared to the climate-induced hunger that is already ravaging parts of the globe, still, I found, I could drive myself nearly mad thinking about the Winterfests they used to hold in these parts on the ponds and lakes that may never again — at least not in the lifetime of humanity — freeze over to the extent that makes such celebration possible.


Like all things, these moods ebb and flow. They will recede sometimes sufficiently, maybe in response to a decline in the magnitude of warmth from the astronomical to the vaguely seasonal, to make space again in my brain for a love of culture, which my eco-therapist tells me is, by evolutionary necessity, one of the first things to be jettisoned when the limbic system hunkers down into survival mode. So, a week or two later, I began thinking about this piece again and what my mother had suggested about President Zelensky.


The first challenge was to strike upon the keywords for an Internet search that would clearly indicate I was interested in Zelensky the funnyman, and not the fatigued and grizzled icon of his nation’s resolve — this latter identity, of course, being the one that commands the lion’s share of present news cycles. I played around with a few possibilities: “Zelensky, comedian,” or “Zelensky, TV show, funny, president.” I can’t remember what ended up yielding the best results, but, soon enough, I was on YouTube, sifting through the front page of suggested clips, beginning with a number of short documentaries about the improbable transformation from satirist to war leader before finally giving way to actual footage from his erstwhile career in mass entertainment.


Even then, it took a while to make my way to “Servant of the People.” First, I found the crassly amusing video of an early appearance, by the hero of the Ukraine, on his nation’s version of the “Got Talent” franchise: boyish, clean-shaven and smirking mischievously as he pretended to play classical music on a piano with his penis. After that, I was surprised to discover a series of appearances on a Slavic “Dancing with the Stars” and became almost envious watching a debonair Zelensky’s flawless execution of a series of ballroom dance routines with his beautiful partner.


Finally, I arrived at the sitcom: full episodes offered free of charge in what I took to be an act of international solidarity. I watched about half the pilot, in which, riding a crest of viral stardom, and the underestimation of a triumvirate of sinister puppet masters — an everyman history teacher, fed up with governmental corruption, catapults into executive power. Honestly, it didn’t hold my attention for much longer than that. But in order to feel I had been diligent in research, I also watched a few random excerpts till one of them truly caught me up short, evoking real laughter, though I wasn’t sure what kind. Striding across the plaza before the parliament building, the comic president received a phone call from Angela Merkel, then still chancellor of Germany. “Congratulations,” she said. “Your application for E.U. membership has been accepted.” Pumping his fist in the air, Zelensky responded: “Thank you! The people of Ukraine will be thrilled!” There was an awkward pause, before Merkel continued, “Ukraine? Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought I was calling Montenegro.” And as the dejected pantomime leader hung up the phone, you heard him muttering, under his breath:


“Fucking Putin.”


“He was a comedian,” my mother had said. “A clown. And now look at him!” Look at him, I thought. He was a player in a jester’s mask, who, inspired by his own foolery, put on the heavier one of office. Now, in a world of true madness, it has become his constant face.


I thought, too, about a movie I couldn’t bring myself to watch when I was a kid. My older brother had it on in the other room. He’d told me about it, and I was steering clear, though I remember standing by the door, overhearing with a terrible fascination. It was a horror movie. Some kind of occult magician had mass-produced Halloween masks, and when a commercial jingle played on television during a primetime show that everyone was expected to be watching, they would come alive, and become forever inseparable from the fleshy faces of the children who had put them on. I could hear the sickly jingle playing, treacly and sinister, and the hero of the film, who’d penetrated to the core of the conspiracy but was too late to stop it, crying out in desperation: “Turn it off! Turn it off!”


I was elected “shpielmeister” on my first Purim at RRC, meaning I was considered the funniest of them all, and this despite my comedic Achilles heel — the inability to resist laughing at my own jokes. Purim was once my favorite day of the Jewish year, an occasion for the riot of my own humor to greet the bursting of spring as it began to work its way into our bloodstreams. I hoped, as I grew into the mature roles of my life, to always be infused by this current of frivolity. You can lecture me on privilege, but I already know that lesson, and, in any case, believe that most of us with the good fortune to have much to lose reach out towards these sensations of ease, security and pleasure — the giddy music and the elegant dancing — as the moments at which we feel most fully ourselves.


It is this valence of myself that I feel slipping away in these days of non-winter, as if, beyond the shock at the impacts of current climatological disruption and the awful premonition of suffering to come to me and my loved ones, I am daily losing my grip on the world of my delight. My saving grace is a meditation practice in which I sit still and search for a vein of living that doesn’t greet such loss with abject despair, but with the stony face of the one who has to keep striving, even if he harbors grave doubts as to whether it is victory that’s coming. I can’t say that I like it, and a voice in me cries out to “turn it off” before it becomes my one and only face. But it is what must be done.


I am finishing this in early February, and the forecast calls for two exceptionally cold days to descend upon us, though I know it is an illusion: a visit from the “polar vortex” that is a function of the destabilized Arctic. When it passes, there will be nothing but mild weather, as far as the eye can see, and my stomach is already tightening at the prospect. The news comes in from elsewhere: Snow has yet to fall in New York City, and up in Ottawa, where I have in-laws, the famous Rideau Canal looks likely to go the entire season — for the very first time in history — without freezing enough for skating. Here, I have managed to take my kids sledding a few times on wet snow that found some way to fall even as the air stayed above 32 degrees. When the cold is gone — all of winter crammed into two fleeting days — I will hang buckets, too early, from the maple trees, moving through a haze of the joy I do not feel. But why shouldn’t my children taste syrup?


I am miles away from the antics of ad lo yada — the intoxication in which you willfully surrender the capacity to tell friend from foe, Haman from Mordechai — and who knows how far we will have blown through spring by the time Purim actually gets here? I feel more like our Jewish sister, Esther, who fasted and put on her costume to meet the king, praying that even if it didn’t bring her happiness, at least, in the mask of her hard-set face, there could still be read a sense of courage, duty and resolve, in a Bizarro World running low on mirth.

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