The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 3–The Anti-Plague Edition

I was initially going to call this diary entry “The 11th Plague.” But that felt too doom and gloom, too easy and snarky. Yes, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic—something we haven’t experienced in our lifetimes. But most of us reading this are safe and hopefully healthy in our homes. I like a meme going around that says, “We’re not stuck in our homes; we’re safe in our homes.” And as one of my friends told me, she’s thinking of this time as a “great Shabbat-like pause.”

Amid all this mayhem, we’ll welcome Passover 2020/5780. This year’s seders will morph into virtual ones. Holiday tables will have empty places. Just as the untouched place setting for Elijah is a harbinger of the Messiah at the seder table, so are our missing relatives and friends harbingers of better times. Today, they are missing. Tomorrow, we will be reunited.

Passover is my favorite holiday, and it was especially so when I was a child. I think back to the days when my extended family crammed into my grandmother’s apartment, and it was still expansive. My abuela, as I called her, cooked a full complement of food, including bourekas made with matzah meal, charoset made with raisins and wine and, since we are Sephardic, bowls of fluffy rice to go with the lentils we ate.

In some ways Passover was among the most American of holidays that my Cuban family celebrated. Though my grandparents didn’t know English, our table was still set with the Maxwell House Haggadah. We didn’t read from the Haggadah so much as use it as a roadmap for the seder—a word that means “order.” My grandfather, or abuelo, modified the Haggadah in Ladino and Spanish.

I have always been inexplicably anxious over some parts of the Haggadah, even when I didn’t have the language or the knowledge to articulate my discomfort. However, over the years, I’ve come to learn that Passover began in anxiety. We leave the land after 430 years of enslavement as we rush to bake bread. All the while, death hangs in the air. The Israelites are commanded to mark their doors with blood as God passes over some households and not others to kill the first-born child. All in all, it’s an odd prelude to our liberation as a people.

This year, the inherent anxiety that begins the Passover story is ever-present in the pandemic, which we’re desperately trying to sidestep. Again, resist thinking of COVID-19 as another plague. But how can we not overlay the Exodus story onto this coronavirus narrative? Is this a prelude to a new world? Once we emerge from self-isolation, how will the Passover holiday be changed? This holiday is different from all others in that food is linked to ritual, and ritual is the gateway to remembering the Exodus as if we ourselves experienced it. It doesn’t get more virtual than that.

I’m hesitant to describe myself as living inside a plague because the world in general, and the Jewish people specifically, have lived under much more horrible conditions. This morning I read an affecting opinion piece in The New York Times by Tablet Magazine editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse. She writes, “…I’ve come to think of Passover as the stem cell of the Jewish people, a reserve of core source material with the proven ability to generate new meaning and solace in circumstances even more extreme than what we are living through now.”

In her piece, Newhouse also focuses on a black-and-white picture of people secretly baking matzo in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943. As she points out, there were Jews in bondage once again celebrating their ancient liberation from Egypt. It’s too easy to say that the image is ironic. To me, these Jews recall our shared history, our texts and our liturgy to sustain us in the direst of times. In the picture, one of the women is smiling broadly at the camera. She is reclaiming Passover and the primal joy of freedom.

In that spirit, I will rescue the memories of Passover seders in my abuela’s apartment. When my mother and aunt recited a song in the middle of the seder, it was a virtual parting of sorts. Although they only remember fragments of what they sang so loudly and clearly in Ladino, it still resonates as a comprehensive message: Todos que tengan hambre venga y coma. Este año aquí, el año invieñendo en tierra santa.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat. This year we are here; in the coming year we will be on sacred land.” That sample of hope overrides thoughts of an 11th plague. And remember that meme—we’re not stuck at home; we’re safe at home.

Coronavirus Diaries Part 2: Worshipping Alone Together

There were 30 of us on display on the screens of our laptops, “The Brady Bunch”-style. We had answered the request to make a minyan each evening for our friend’s week of mourning. Each of us in our Zoom cubicles made this unprecedented shiva call. My friend’s 95-year-old mother died on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funeral was private. The mourning was virtual. We gathered in memory of a woman who loved to be with people. It made for a weird irony not to be with our friends in person.

Judaism is a communal religion for which praying in concert requires a minimum of 10 people. Although the Talmud uniquely reaches across the centuries—rabbis who lived hundreds of years apart argue with one another throughout its pages—no one could have anticipated this strange time. It’s like living in outer space. Only we are earthbound—so much so that we are confined to our houses to slow the spread of this menacing virus. Who knows if and how we are releasing this mortal enemy lurking among us? People cross the street when I take my dog for a walk. We quickly nod as if even that small gesture can spread the virus.

Each night that we logged into the virtual shiva, we heard another story about our friend’s remarkable mother. She read voraciously almost until the end of her life. She left behind a memoir for her family. At 90, she fulfilled a lifelong dream and performed stand-up comedy, or, as she creatively described it, “sit-down comedy.” It broke my heart to see my friend crying the tears of a grief-stricken son.

To pray alone in Judaism is not encouraged, but it is allowed. Only the Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, must always be said in a minyan. Grieving properly is a group effort, and it’s a sacred responsibility to be among the 10 people who form a shiva minyan. The rationale is that a mourner should not be alone with their grief. Fellow congregants should be available to provide comfort. Being in the midst of a minyan allows for a spontaneous opportunity for the mourner to share a cherished memory or a special story about the person who died.

Simply put, it’s good to be with people. No matter how unprecedented it was to gather online for my friend and his family, it still felt right to be together. It was comforting to see other people occupying their Zoom squares in solidarity. It felt special to be able to say “amen” to my friend’s Kaddish.

Last Friday evening, Gov. Charlie Baker was invited to my temple and spoke to our congregation through a livestream. It was my first time accessing the temple’s live feed, making it particularly surreal for me to see the governor speaking to an empty sanctuary. No one was present except the rabbis and cantor who were there to conduct the service. There were also the musicians who socially distanced themselves from one other as they played the familiar, comforting Shabbat evening melodies.

The governor pointed out how difficult it is for communities of faith to be socially isolated. “Think about what we do at services or at funerals—we hug, we kiss, we cry and then we hug and kiss some more,” he said. He pointed out that the audience for a funeral is typically the elderly—the population most vulnerable to this frightening, mysterious virus. Everything, he went on to note, has been put on pause. Yet this is a time for grace. And religious communities are our greatest source of grace and strength. “Whatever this thing is, we’ll find our way to see it through,” the governor said. I wanted so much to believe him.

I’m a Shabbat morning regular. I go to services at least two Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat) a month. As the old joke goes, Cohen goes to synagogue to be close to God and Greenberg goes to synagogue to be close to Cohen. I’m the Greenberg. I go to temple to be close to my 96-year-old friend Bunny. Bunny epitomizes the Shabbat morning experience for me. Through the years, Bunny knows for whom I stand if I say the Kaddish. She knows my joys, my sorrows and everything in between for which I pray.

Bunny doesn’t do virtual, and, truth be told, I don’t think to be virtual with her would be entirely satisfying. Consequently, I miss seeing Bunny terribly. I miss sitting with her at the oneg (festive reception following services). I miss chatting with her about my week and my kids. But mostly, I miss my friend’s hugs. It devastates me that hugging her has become potentially deadly for us.

Hands-free worship. No-touch mourning. Minyans in cyberspace. People in self-isolation trying to outwit an invisible, mortal foe. To what do we answer “amen” to in these foreboding, lonely days?

I Want to Hug My Son. I Can’t

Yesterday I needed to see my son, Adam, in person. From a respectful, necessary distance of 6-plus feet, we met in the backyard and formed a loose circle of four with my husband and daughter.

There was Adam, momentarily out of self-isolation from our backroom, out in the fresh air.

I never imagined that his post-college year of teaching English in Spain would abruptly end this way. But in a matter of days, Spain skyrocketed to a level three country with coronavirus cases multiplying rapidly. My biggest fear was that flights out of Spain, and Europe in general, would be suspended before we could get Adam home. Thankfully that didn’t happen. However, my boy went straight from the plane last week, to two weeks of self-isolation. It reminded me of when the Apollo 11 astronauts had to go into quarantine after their moonwalk.

Although Adam is the only one in our household practicing this directed and self-imposed isolation along CDC guidelines, it feels as if our family of four is on some kind of psychological lockdown. We’re all in self-exile in our house. My husband has a cold and is socially distancing himself. I’m on pause with a broken shoulder and can’t do much for myself or anyone else.

My daughter, who is 25 and a student, is the only person fully operational at our house. She’s on call to do everything from slicing a bagel for me, to preparing meals that she leaves outside Adam’s door, to bringing the garbage pails out to the curb. She was in tears the other day over how overwhelmed she was with our care and feeding.

In his way, my son is also overwhelmed in quarantine.

Long stretches of time are a liability. Theoretically, the world comes streaming to him on his laptop, but boredom still seeps into everything he does. How many episodes of “Law and Order” can he possibly watch? It turns out not so many when the world feels as if it is coming apart. How can he concentrate on reading a book in this new dystopia?

I can’t focus either. The books I want to read are piling up on my nightstand. I’ve always done my day job as a culture writer remotely, but somehow it feels different in this new reality. For the first time, I feel truly alone during my workday.

I can’t imagine how I would have coped with this pandemic if my children were little. These strange, long days have triggered bouts of anxiety and depression in me. My kids, now adults, calm me. It occurs to me that we’ve had a complete role reversal.

I read a funny piece in the New Yorker in which boomer parents ignored their nervous millennial children and went out to restaurants and theaters, despite the coronavirus spreading like wildfire. Of course, since that piece was published, everything has been shut down. I’m a boomer parent, but I wouldn’t dream of misbehaving that way — I’d never be cavalier in this maelstrom of infection. Quite the opposite: I’m depressed in the way that dystopian movies or science fiction make me feel. I visualize physical and psychological wreckage everywhere.

FaceTime offers connection, for which I am grateful. It’s not a substitute for physical contact, but it’s what I have — my overloaded internet serves up herky-jerky images. My heart aches when I hear my son’s voice from the back room, and his visage pixelates on my screen. Since he’s been home, I have yet to give him a hug and a kiss. It remains an unspoken sadness between us. If I tell him the obvious — how much I want to embrace him — I’m afraid I’ll breakdown and cry.

Since I’m not touching anyone in my family, we’re experiencing what psychologists called “skin hunger.” We long for that all-important human touch. The salutary effects of physical contact have been well documented in medical and psychological studies.

So when my husband asks if he can hold my hand the request feels essential and yet transgressive. Last night, I pressed my lips against my husband’s forehead to make sure he wasn’t running a fever. Maybe I was being cavalier after all. My son, on the other hand, takes his temperature twice a day per the CDC’s guidelines. I’m sure it’s a lonely exercise for him. When he shouts from the backroom 98.4 degrees, we all breathe a sigh of relief.

As my son self-quarantines in our midst, the days are more disorienting. He should be with us. The other day my husband, daughter and I were gathered in the den talking and laughing. On the other side of the door that leads to the backroom, we heard scratching. It was my son. He asked if we were all together. Implicit in his question was abandonment, betrayal, skin hunger. He broke our hearts. And we, in turn, broke his.

This essay was originally published on Cognoscenti–WBUR’s Essay Page

The Coronavirus Diaries–On Handwashing

Like all of you, the coronavirus pandemic is front and center in my mind. This is a time of vulnerability yet also a time of gratitude for the ordinary. It is a time when simple acts like hand washing become reflective and holy. Judaism has a lot to say about hand washing. There is a singular prayer commanding us to wash our hands. Ritualwell, an innovative website dedicated to interpreting Jewish ritual and liturgy for the 21st century, has presented the traditional prayer of al netalit yadayim—instructions for washing our hands—with an updated preamble.

As we wash our hands
We pray,
Blessed is the Soul of the Universe,
Breathing us in and breathing us out.
May our breaths continue
And our health and the health of all
Be preserved
In this time of sickness and fear of sickness.
Holy Wholeness,
We take as much responsibility for this as we can
By observing the obligation to wash our hands
For as long as it takes to say this prayer.

Barukh atah adonai eloheinume lekhha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and instructed us on washing hands.

I also found another beautiful and extended meditation on hand washing that said a lot about human interdependence. It was broadcast on the Jewish Women’s Archive podcast, “Can We Talk?” featuring Dori Midnight, a community healer and spiritual leader. Here is part of what she said about relearning to wash out hands:

We are humans relearning to wash our hands. Washing our hands is an act of love. Washing our hands is an act of care. Washing our hands is an act that puts the hyper-vigilant body at ease. Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve. Wash your hands like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver… you get the picture. Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach like water is a precious resource made from time and miracle. Wash your hands and cough into your elbow, they say. Rest more, stay home, drink water, have some soup, they say.

A couple of weeks before this pandemic, I went to visit my son who was in Spain teaching for the year and slipped on a cobblestone street. I landed hard on my right shoulder and knew immediately I did something very bad. I fractured my right shoulder in three places. I couldn’t move my arm, and I was nauseous. I had tripped in front of a café, and a considerate waiter helped me to my feet and brought me a chair. I was shaking uncontrollably when he handed me a glass of water.

On the pain scale, my pain was a certifiable 10, and that earned me a place at the head of the line in the emergency room. The doctor looked at my X-ray and told me, “You need to get back to your country as soon as possible.” She sent me on my way with a padded sling and a raft of painkillers. The next afternoon, I was on a plane back to Boston, but not before my son arranged for wheelchair assistance in the three airports I would be traversing.

Life is very different in a wheelchair. For me, it was the dependence on others that was alternately novel and scary. I would not have made it home without the acts of love and care Midnight calls up in the JWA podcast. My kind wheelchair attendants situated me in vans, and at one point in a catering truck with a hydraulic lift, which enabled me to enter a plane that had no jetway in place. On the flight home, my pain scale had different criteria. I was miserable from the pain yet heartened by the way the airline attendants put “my hyper-vigilant body at ease.”

When I boarded the flight from Madrid to Boston almost three weeks ago it was a different world. The coronavirus was something that was happening elsewhere. People took some precautions. On the plane, the man across the aisle generously wiped down my tray table with his sanitizer; others wore masks. “Social distancing” had yet to enter the lexicon. I never imagined that something was coming none of us had lived through; something that would frighten us on the most granular level. In just a short time, the coronavirus has fully arrived as a disease to outwit. To succeed at this macabre game, washing hands is no longer an afterthought. It is a life-saving measure for us as much as it is for others. This simple fact makes our dependence on one another all the more crucial.

Two poems about the pandemic have comforted me. In her poem, “A Prayer of Hope During This Pandemic,” Rabbi Naomi Levy asks God “to turn our panic into patience, and our fear into acts of kindness and support.” Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Universalist minister, asks us to think of this time of quarantine as an extended Shabbat. In her poem “Pandemic” she versifies:

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

I have weeks to go until my shoulder heals. As I write this, my son is scheduled to board a flight tomorrow—the same one I took from Madrid a few weeks ago—and come home where he will immediately self-isolate in our back bedroom for 14 days. I pray he doesn’t feel too isolated as we try to support him from the other side of the door. As Ungar continues in her poem:

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

This post originally appeared on JewishBoston