Coronavirus Diaries, Part 10–My Lubavitch Year

Courtesy of Shterna Goldbloom


In these days of housebound exile, people tend to remember profoundly and expansively. All sorts of old pictures show up on my Facebook feed. I’m a voyeur as I peek into people’s histories on the other side of a computer screen. I’m safe from a distance until I turn up in some of those pictures.

Some of my grammar school classmates from the Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford have been unearthing photographs from the 70s. I joined HAGH’s class of 1975 when I was in sixth grade. That was a marathon year for me. I had to catch up on six years of Hebrew during which I was the subject of a pedagogical experiment gone awry. I was actually placed in a second grade classroom to learn Hebrew and then spent the rest of the year in fourth grade. The desks in grade two were too small for me. I was humiliated. In seventh grade, I rejoined my age group and never looked back.

But looking back is exactly what I’m doing with these pictures—pictures in which I look mostly sad. My home life was hard back then. I took refuge at my friends’ houses, some of whom celebrated a traditional Shabbat. For a time, I was sure I found my tribe. Then the Lubavitchers came to town and changed my life.

In ninth grade, my most prized possession was a dollar bill blessed by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I received it through a teacher who was one of the Rebbe’s followers. I had written to the Rebbe to ask him what to do about my parents, who vigorously opposed my ramped-up piety. Lubavitcher rabbis were in charge during my graduation year from HAGH. My bible teacher was a charismatic man, and I latched on to him and his wife. He was the one who initially put me in touch with the Rebbe. I craved acceptance and community. The Lubavitchers supplied both things.

My ultra-orthodoxy unnerved my parents. I would not turn on a light during Shabbat or wear dresses that didn’t cover my knees and elbows. This was my version of teenage rebellion. The Rebbe answered my note with this deceptively simple piece of advice: “Honor your father and your mother.” Since then, I have frequently thought about his citation of the Fifth Commandment. Over the years, his instructions have more than occasionally challenged me.

I gradually reentered the secular world, but I never forgot my Lubavitch year. I now understand that my foray into the life of a ba’al teshuva—someone who literally returns to a life of observance—would have marked me as other in the Lubavitch community. Maybe that’s why those pictures of me as a kid make me so uncomfortable. My parents sent me to HAGH to exist in the world from a perch of illusory safety.

Artist and photographer Shterna Goldbloom’s show Ich Bin Di Sitra Achra (I Am the Other) , now on virtual display at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is her story and to some extent mine. Goldbloom grew up in a Lubavitch community in Chicago. To this day, the faith she gleaned from her community is alive. Yet her faith is also complicated. She is now OTD – that is, Off the Derech – derech being the official path of traditionally observant Judaism. However, her photographs are a testament to her life-long attachment to her spiritual roots.

I recently sought Goldbloom out for a conversation about her highly resonant work. She told me that throughout her life, she felt “a strong sense of spirituality, but it was not especially in the traditional spaces. I find that some of the meaningful things I grew up with I have categorized differently. They are their own form of tradition and religion, which is like family and history. I find so much joy and meaning in recreating and following traditions that could use an update.”

Goldbloom, who is 27, sees the holiness that Jewish objects and familiar rituals impart to her life. However, she’s wary of the word “holy.” She emphasizes that she uses holiness as a descriptor in “a very expanded, non-traditional way. There is so much beauty and feeling connected to Jewishness with that word; it has so much potential, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The term sitra achra is a Hasidic term that means “on the other side.” For Goldbloom, it connotes the other, and she interprets the term to depict the beauty in images of queer people and depictions of femininity that don’t fit into traditional categories. “I clearly disagree with some of the lines that I was raised with, but at the same time, those lines can feel relevant to me. In my work, I’m curious about these [traditions] that are residual. Some of the subjects [in my photographs] left [Hasidism] physically but not philosophically. They still saw the world through a Hasidic lens. Other people found new lenses through which to look.”

Shabbat is still a stirring experience for Goldbloom. Her mother hosts an inclusive weekly Shabbat dinner in which she welcomes people from all walks of life. Goldbloom notes that a meaningful Shabbat for her will often begin at her mother’s Shabbat table and end with dancing late into the night at a gay bar.

The exhibit’s titular photograph, “I Am the Other Side,” represents the dualism inherent in Goldbloom’s identity as a queer Jewish woman. “I hold all of the meaningful and powerful experiences of growing up Hasidic, and also all of the pain that came with that. But then I am also this queer Jew who lives a somewhat secular life. But these two people inform one another. I’m grateful to have grown up in a community with values of connectivity and warmth, and learning that encompassed intellectual debate. The secular life is not without my critique and sadness and so too with the Hasidic life. They are both connected through and within me.”

Going through those old HAGH pictures on Facebook in which I make cameo appearances, I came upon a rare photo of me smiling. I appeared happy and carefree at the moment. Going forward, my teenage life temporarily merged with my religious life, and then those lives diverged. Or did they? My HAGH classmates mean well in passing along memories that I had long buried. But like Goldbloom, I continue to ask myself the hard questions—What has time afforded me? What do I continue to do that is a memento from those years? What has stayed meaningful to me? My answers to those questions are constantly changing.

As Goldbloom notes the goal of her work has been “loosening borders, and wondering, have people renegotiated the parts [of their lives] that were meaningful for them?” And then there are the bedrock questions—“What is your relationship to God? Do you talk to God?” Those answers are forever in flux for me.

Te Quiero, Mamá

Today I cried over my mother for the first time in more than four decades. My mother lives in a nursing home, marooned in a wheelchair. She’s often confused, and though she’s been in the United States for over 60 years, she frequently reverts to her native Spanish. That is something new for her. When I was growing up, Spanish was the language of my mother’s curses and frustrations, most of which were lobbed at me. I frequently ducked the shoes, the food, even the plates she threw at me.

Today, though, my mother was returning to her nursing home from the hospital. She tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks ago and was asymptomatic for all that time. Even the relentless coronavirus virus was scared of my mother. And then the other day my mother couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t hold down food. The virus was duking it out with her.

The doctor from the home called me to secure permission to send Mom to the hospital. I, the oldest of her three children, am deputized to take on this responsibility. I am legally empowered to make life and death decisions for her. Last month my mother underwent a clinical examination and “it was determined that Mrs. Bolton lacks capacity to make or communicate her own health care decisions. Therefore, you are now activated as Mrs. Bolton’s health care agent.”

The notice chilled me beyond bone. Did I have any questions or concerns, the letter ended. Of course, I did. I have had a lifetime of questions and concerns where my mother is concerned. We have shared a lifetime of bad blood. But there was no question that she needed to go to the hospital. Was this the best number to reach me if I need to act as her healthcare proxy, asked a nursing home bureaucrat. There is no best number for this sort of thing, I wanted to say. Only I stand between my mother and her mortality.

At the hospital, my mother was bombarded with antibiotics for COVID-related pneumonia. A few hours later, her breathing improved. The next day her saturation levels were normal. She no longer needed oxygen, and I was off-duty. She would be discharged the next afternoon. That is when I suddenly wanted to see my mother. So my husband, daughter, son and I donned masks and met her ambulance as she arrived at her nursing home. The EMTs were kind and heroic. They opened the back of the ambulance so we could visit with Mom. We each called off our names from behind our masks. “I’d know you anywhere, Mamita,” she said to me in Spanish. That’s when I cried.

She was masked too, and in a hospital gown. She looked so small on the gurney. Her thick eyeglass lenses magnified her eyes to a bug-like size. She was crying too, as she vigorously waved at us. And then I said to her, “Te quiero, Mamá.” We both knew it was the first time that I had told her I loved her since I was a child.

This essay was originally published on

The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 9–Dignity in a Pandemic


This week I cried as I watched videos of two friends leaving healthcare facilities after having survived the novel coronavirus. Nurses, doctors, chaplains, and everyone associated with their care applauded my friends. One was on a stretcher on his way to a rehab facility, the other walked out on his own power. Their ongoing recovery has taken weeks, if not months. This is what survival looks like in a pandemic. This is what joy looks like in a pandemic.

This fraught time has me thinking about the alliance between life and death. My friends, thank God, survived. I want to wrap every one of my superstitions around them to keep them safe and healthy going forward. But, as the superstitious side of me must note—l’havdil—my thoughts must be separate. I read each obituary of those who have succumbed to the virus as if I’m reciting a Kaddish for them. These are people I will never meet. Nevertheless, their deaths have touched me. They are grandmothers, firefighters, artists, chefs, daughters, sons—all of them felled to this insidious, mysterious virus.

I read an article on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s website that brought home the love and the kindness that accompanies Jewish burial. In Hebrew, it is described as Hesed shel emet: the truest act of kindness. The Hebrew Free Burial Association, a non-profit organization that assures every Jew the dignity of a religious burial no matter what their circumstances, could not keep up with the recent rate of deaths. Consequently, they were running out of tallitim or prayer shawls in which to wrap a body. I called the association’s director of operations, Andrew Parver, and he confirmed what I read in the JTA. When people heard about the association’s dilemma, they donated tallitim in unprecedented numbers. “Once we hit into our reserves, we made an appeal. We’ve been very inspired [by the response]. It’s beyond our wildest imagination.”

Parver asked for tallitim on the association’s Facebook page as well as local list servers. He said that almost immediately, he was fielding calls from all over the country. The response has enabled the association to keep up with the unprecedented number of funerals it has overseen in the past couple of months. Parver noted that in a given year, the association arranges almost 400 funerals. Last month the number was over 100 funerals.

When I spoke to Parver, I had also been thinking about the pluralistic Community Hevra Kadisha of Boston—another burial society with a sacred duty to prepare bodies for Jewish ritual burial. Last winter, Boston became the first community to complete “Toward a Gender-Inclusive Hevra Kadisha,” a comprehensive guide to gender inclusivity. James Cohen and Emily Fishman chaired the committee that was tasked to write guidelines and compose liturgy around the ritual of tahara—cleansing or purifying the body. “We put a lot of intentional thought to represent the wants and desires of the community,” Cohen noted

The needs of the community also included assurances to those who had identified as non-binary they would be posthumously served according to their wishes. Rabbi Becky Silverstein reached out to the transgender and non-binary community on behalf of the Hevra Kadisha to determine priorities and needs. As he surveyed those communities, he saw it as “a moment where people’s voices could be heard and they could share their experiences. We were meaningfully helping to shape a project that was not just symbolic. We were saying to trans and non-binary people: here’s a way in which people are working to make this tradition more accessible to you. People want to make your experience a part of what is happening in Judaism.”

Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor Mater crafted liturgy for the Hevra Kadisha. Kapor Mater adopted a number of principles according to Jewish law in which “transgender status does not disqualify one from receiving tahara.” She went on to write about the “acknowledgment of the shameful reality that many Jewish communities’ discrimination against and oppression of their transgender and non-binary brothers, sisters, siblings do not cease when they die.”

Kapor Mater’s rendition of the liturgy, the blessings she adapted for transgender and non-binary persons, take into consideration the person’s lived gender. She noted that certain texts and blessings can be an issue for non-binary people as well as binary transgender people. Even cisgender people may be uncomfortable with verses from the “Song of Songs.” “The verses,” writes Kapor Mater, “stress the ‘perfection’ of the body, which is a notion that people who through life with dysphoria or dysmorphia, and the like may not relate to.”

As the first burial society in the country to bring forward burial rituals and blessings for transgender and non-binary individuals, other Jewish burial societies have looked to Boston’s Hevra Kadisha for guidance. The questions can be complex. For example, who performs tahara on a non-binary person? In Boston there is a non-binary team ready to execute that ritual. What happens in other places where there are far fewer than 150 volunteers with which Boston is based?

Parver says that his group has had very few occasions to arrange Jewish burials for transgender and non-binary people. “Our mission,” he says ,“is to make sure that every Jewish person, when they die, will receive a proper, dignified funeral and burial. Every case is different and we do our best to care for everybody to the best of our ability.”

Thank God, my friends were blessed with the gift of life in this terrifying pandemic. And thank God there is the Boston Hevra Kadisha trailblazing the way for every Jew to receive what is rightfully theirs—a respectful, dignified Jewish burial complete with the appropriate rituals.

As Silverstein notes, “We have an opportunity to put something out in the world that can serve as a template. The Community Hevra Kadisha of Boston took on the responsibility for creating [guidelines and adapting liturgy]. It’s a gift that the Hevra Kadisha has given the community.”


The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 8: We Are Family

My 85-year-old mother, Matilde Bolton, is a patient at Hebrew SeniorLife in Roslindale. Now that you know that, you’ll understand why this New York Times headline haunts me every moment of every day: “’They’re Death Pits’: Virus Claims at Least 7,000 Lives in U.S. Nursing Homes.” In the two months since the first coronavirus deaths were noted in a Seattle facility, a fifth of all COVID-19 deaths have been connected to nursing homes. And now, my mother has tested positive for the virus.

I see my mother twice a week via 30-minute calls. So far, she’s asymptomatic for the virus, but she is very confused. Why hasn’t she seen me in years, she’ll ask me? The squares that her children and their families populate on the iPad screen disorient her. Where are we? Who is speaking? It’s both comforting and agitating for her to see our pixelated images floating from who knows where.

Before I continue, I need to applaud the HSL staff. Each time we zoom with my mother, a staff person, in full coronavirus attire, is by my mother’s side. (“We metaphorically, and physically, ‘suit up’ and battle COVID-19 for 24 hours a day,” said a recent HSL dispatch to families). Margo, who is a physical therapist but now deployed to help coronavirus patients, guides my mother during the call. “This is your daughter, Judy,” she patiently points out. “Your granddaughter, Anna, is speaking to you.” My mother nods. Later on the telephone, my mother will ask me to remind her of my sister’s name. “Carol,” I answer, tearing up. “So many people in our family,” she says, bewildered.

Before the coronavirus, my sister and I each visited my mother a couple of times a week. During our visits, I kibitzed and reminisced with her. I amused her when I brought up family lore from decades ago as if it happened yesterday. I got my mother to talk about the big family holiday dinners as if they just happened. “We all fit in Abuela’s (grandma’s) small apartment,” she said wistfully. She was clearly delighted.
My sister, a middle school teacher, engaged mom with simple jigsaw puzzles and general knowledge flashcards meant to test fourth and fifth graders. She skipped the ones with math, but was persistent about questions like, “On which continent is Egypt?” My mother can’t remember what a continent is. It turns out that’s a tricky question. The answer is Africa and Asia.

Carol and I both loved S, my mother’s 100-year-old roommate. “I’m a pistol,” S said about herself the first time I met her, and indeed she was. S was also a fashion plate. She always sweetly commented on what I was wearing with the caveat, “You look good for your age.” I’m reluctantly using the past tense about her. The other day on the telephone my mother sounded scared as she told me that S coughed and coughed for days and then suddenly she wasn’t in the room anymore. I don’t dare mention to my mother that the coronavirus is at HSL. I don’t dare tell my mother that she tested positive.

The other day I was talking to a writer about losing her mother to Alzheimer’s. She told me that the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient could weigh as much as 30 percent less than a healthy brain. Over time the tissue grows porous. In effect, the brain becomes a sieve through which the past slips. What if my mother has the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s? What if we lose our shared history—our newfound camaraderie? My mother and I were never the best of friends. She was a fierce woman, a difficult woman. But things are different now. She is mostly docile, almost sweet. When flashes of her contrarian side show up, I’m oddly relieved. “Yes, there she is,” I think.

And so what can I do for my mother in these days of the pandemic? My JewishBoston colleagues, including our parent writer Kara Baskin, were part of a live webinar last week “on the unique ways people in our community are helping older family members and friends during the coronavirus pandemic.” Karen Wasserman, the founding director of “Your Elder Experts,” a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Services, joined Kara in conversation.

One of my takeaways from Kara and Karen’s conversation was how we need to connect consistently with our elders during this time of separation. As Kara pointed out, with more independent grandparents, that can mean something as simple as having kids wave to them as they drive by the grandkids’ house. For example, Kara’s young boys rode their bicycles around their grandparents’ parked car as they sat in it and waved. For the elderly like my mother, who has to self-isolate in her small room, Karen suggested recording family stories she can play on a loop so she feels less lonely.

I’ll be waving again at my mother from my zoom square this week. I expect her to point at me as she always does to confirm that I am Judy. Yes, I am Judy, Matilde’s daughter. We are family.

Coronavirus Diaries, Part 7: The Poetry of Joy Ladin

In this latest edition of the Coronavirus Diaries, I turned to one of my favorite poets, memoirists and Torah scholars Joy Ladin, and asked her to read of a couple of her poems closely with me. Ladin holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University. She is also the author of several books, including a volume of poems, “The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New & Collected Poems and a work of biblical interpretation called “The Soul of a Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective.

Most recently, Ladin’s scholarship and wisdom can be heard on Tuesdays in her new program, “Containing Multitudes: Exploring Identity, Religion, and/or Poetry.” The title echoes a verse from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself:”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Ladin says she has always been drawn to the idea that Judaism contains multitudes and contradictions. “Whitman is into something that I think is useful for Jews who struggle to figure out, ‘what does it mean to be Jewish and where do I locate myself in relation to all of this?’ In this series, I will be talking with people who are different enough from me and different enough from one another that we can have a conversation that shows the creative and exciting as opposed to simply the maddening and frustrating. We can explore the overwhelming aspect of being part of a tradition that is so multitude-ness and so filled with different ways of thinking and being and praying and believing.”


The first poem Ladin and I read together is called “Wrestling,” which she introduced with the following description:

“I’m very taken with that image of Jacob wrestling with the angel or the mysterious figure. I worked on this poem for a long time and it had different meanings at different times of my life. At first, it was very specifically about this terrible relationship that I had with my father and a relationship in which I felt like I was being wounded and I had to fight. But because he had stopped having anything to do with me, I realized I’m the one who is in control here. I’m the one who can’t let go because if I let go of this internal fight with him, that’s hurting me so much, I don’t have any of him at all, he’s just gone.

I froze the poem at that moment of the battle instead of getting to the part of the conclusion and the blessing. It’s also probably why there are so many ‘I’ sounds. This cry as the pain of the ‘I’ rhymes and the poem never leaves those sounds; it never finds a more healing sound.

As I was entering into gender transition and still working on the poem, it took on a different meaning for me, which is it related to the sense of terrible isolation that I knew I was going into with my family. I knew that my relationship with my now ex couldn’t survive gender transition; we talked a lot about it. I, like my ex, was afraid of the children being hurt by my transition. Neither of us wanted that. So I had a sense that in order to become myself, which was a risky thing, I was going to have to go alone to the other side of the river and fight through whatever I thought.”

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of the Yabbok, and sent them across the river, along with his possessions. And Jacob was left alone; and an angel wrestled with him until daybreak. Genesis 32:23-25
You wish you’d stayed on your family’s side.

Not that you’re losing. Not at all.
The angel’s wings snap
in the vice of your thighs.

The angel gropes,
searching out the sinew of light,
the blessing you stole in disguise

from a father who could only love
what he couldn’t recognize. The angel threatens
to kill; to die;

claims to be your father’s God;
your father himself, abashed and blind;
the fear that took his eyes.

You wish you could let him go. Lose
to keep him alive. Dissolving
in the breaking light,

he begs you to let him fly,
his feathers melting,
running down your thigh.

Ladin’s current poetry project is a book-length series called, “Shekinah Speaks.” According to Ladin, “the Shekinah, in Jewish mystical tradition, is the feminine aspect of the divine. And the tradition imagines her in binary terms, so she has to be the opposite of whatever the male-identified aspect of God is. The male identified aspect of God gets to do things, and the Shekinah just feels things. She feels what human beings feel. She suffers. She’s the immanent aspect of God, and she doesn’t get to talk, so we don’t know what her voice is. We just know that she is supposed to be there when we rejoice. She is there, when we suffer. She is there, when we go into exile. And God cannot be whole until both the Jewish people return from exile and the Shekinah returns from exile back to God. So I wanted to know what she has to say.

She’s been a spectator in my psyche. I tried to create a form of composition that would enable me not just to put words in the Shekinah’s mouth but to allow her language to emerge. The strategy that I used for that was to mix two kinds of language that aren’t mine. One was language from God’s monologues in Isaiah, particularly the great ones starting from Chapter 40. I mixed them with words I found in Cosmopolitan magazine articles, whose themes resonated with Isaiah’s. I know this sounds improbable. I would mix the words together and wait for a sense and a voice to emerge. I searched for words that didn’t seem like me, but sounded divine, and in particular was language that was making me uncomfortable or summoning me beyond my ways of thinking.”

For her second poem, Ladin chose one that is related to the pandemic and one that was particularly comforting. “Comfort Animal,” was published last year in Poetry Magazine.

Comfort Animal
From the sequence “Shekhinah Speaks”

Comfort, comfort my people …
—Isaiah 40:1

A voice says, “Your punishment has ended.”
You never listen to that voice. You really suck
at being comforted.

Another voice says, “Cry.”
That voice always gets your attention,
keeps you thinking

about withered flowers and withering grass
and all the ways you’re like them.
Hard to argue with that.

Death tramples you, an un-housebroken pet
trailing prints and broken stems,
pooping anxiety, PTSD, depression.

It’s better to be animal than vegetable
but best of all is to be spirit
flying first or maybe business class

with your emotional support animal, your body,
curled in your lap, soaring with you
above the sense of loss you’ve mistaken

for the closest to God you can get.
You want to cry? Cry about that.
Who do you think created

the animals to whom you turn for comfort,
dogs, miniature horses, monkeys, ferrets,
hungers you know how to feed,
fears you know how to quiet?
I form them, fur them,
it’s my warmth radiating from their bodies,

my love that answers
the love you lavish upon them.
Your deserts and desolations

are highways I travel,
smoothing your broken places,
arranging stars and constellations

to light your wilderness.
Sometimes I play the shepherd;
sometimes I play the lamb;

sometimes I appear as death,
which makes it hard to remember
that I am the one who assembled your atoms,

who crowned your dust with consciousness.
I take you everywhere,
which is why, wherever you go, I’m there,

keeping you hydrated, stroking your hair,
laughing when you chase your tail,
gathering you to my invisible breasts

more tenderly than any mother.
You’re right—you never asked for this. I’m the reason
your valleys are being lifted up,

the source of your life laid bare.
Mine is the voice that decrees—
that begs—your anguish to end.

When you suffer, I suffer.
Comfort me
by being comforted.

Ladin says that as she composes these poems, she is grateful to spend time listening to the Shekinah’s voice. “I’m always thinking about how this [world] looks to a being who exists beyond time and space. I think, ‘I’m working on this project that’s premised on the idea that right now the Shekinah is there with me and talking to me,’ I try to live that as a truth as opposed to an idea.”