By Benjamin Gottesman, Editor-In-Chief
I have never watched Game of Thrones but I know the meme. A man, wrapped in furs, grasping a sword, stares blankly ahead, hair flowing in the wind. “Winter is coming,” the caption reads. It is not hard to feel like the man in the meme. Although it is only November, winter is, indeed, coming. The wind chill is picking up, sweaters are abundant, and maariv times are getting earlier. “Brace yourself”, the man enjoins. By the time you leave your 4:30 class, it will feel like a plague of darkness has descended over Manhattan. Midterms are imminent, and there is no scheduled break in class for weeks on end. “Brace yourself. Winter is coming.”
In the early 1980s, South-African psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal noticed that his mood and mental wellness sharply deteriorated during the winter. He, and his team at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland, began to earnestly study the phenomenon. After extensive testing, they coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly referred to as Seasonal Depression. They observed that the early sunset and lack of natural light contributed to a holistic unease in a significant part of the population. Winter, they found, naturally brings with it increased levels of mental unwellness, regardless of one’s mental status during the summer months.
Our people have associated the onset of the winter with calamity for generations. Marcheshvan, the eighth month of the Jewish calendar, is a month devoid of festivity. According to our tradition, it is the month in which the flood of Noah ravaged the world. Historically, it is the month in which we lost our matriarch, Rachel, and, in recent years, is the month of Kristallnacht and the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. Winter has not been kind to the Jewish people; Marcheshvan, as evidenced by its name (mar is the Hebrew word for bitter), lacks the sweetness of Tishrei’s now-forgotten honey. It is empty of the upcoming light of Kislev and Channukah. It is no surprise that Seasonal Depression rears its head in such a depressing season.
This past week, I stopped in at the Wilf club fair and was delighted to see so many wonderful options. There is an incalculable value in attending an institution in which there are so many opportunities to get involved in meaningful extracurricular activities. Every great university is centered around an active and impassioned student body, that understands that their collegiate obligations begin outside the classroom and are not simply relegated to the library and study hall. Additionally, it seems that almost every day there is a different academic event sponsored by the faculty, opening up windows into the global intellectual world. On the kodesh side, bulletins on both campuses are stuffed with flyers for various shiurim and chaburos. The Beis Medrash has been a vibrant bastion of lomdei Torah these first few weeks of zman.
How long does this last? Hundreds of people signed up for various clubs this week, but it seems that so many club events struggle to find enough people to eat OSL’s pizza come November and December. Will the same amount of people show up to their favorite shiur when midterms descend in full force? It is hard to stay a fully motivated student during the winter slog– it feels nearly impossible to stay active in our extracurriculars smack in the middle of the long stretch of the semester.
All I would like to say is “keep showing up.” I know school sometimes feels like an all-time job. I know that when it’s barely 30 degrees out and the sky is the color of a bad bruise the beis medrash may feel like it’s miles away, as opposed to down the block. What makes YU great is all of us, plugged into each other and our school, striving to create a community with robust opportunities for everyone. When an honors event only gets twelve guys, the community suffers. When there are more empty than full seats at a shiur on Beren, we all lose. We are here for more than tests and homework. We are here for each other. We are here for YU.
In the old country there was a longstanding tradition that on the Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh, the cantor would chant the blessing of the new month to the tune of a song associated with the upcoming holidays. Thus, on the Sabbath before the first day of Adar, the cantor would recite the blessing to the tune of mishenichnas adar, the most well-known of the Purim songs. Before Nissan, he would sing the blessing to the tune of v’hi sh’amda, or one of the other Passover melodies. However, when Marcheshvan rolled around the community was flummoxed: what do you sing for such an empty month? There are no holidays, no cheerful songs associated with this time! The community decided that Marcheshvan should be welcomed in the classic sing-song of chavrusos learning a blat Gemara. When the world feels cold, it is our people’s tradition to huddle together and engage in something meaningful. When the world is dark, we leave our homes and light it up as one. Winter is coming. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.