Coronavirus Diaries, Part 4–Passover in a Pandemic

I have deleted every event on my calendar for the foreseeable future—everything except Passover. No matter how much I resist, Passover will arrive as it has for thousands of years on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan.

Passover marks the beginning of spring. It’s a holiday of liberation, a holiday where family and friends gather around my dining room table and read from the quintessential Passover text, the Haggadah. “Haggadah” means “telling,” and for centuries, we Jews have been telling each other our origin story—the story of the Exodus when a ragtag group of people enslaved in Egypt emerged as a vibrant nation.

Passover is coming, and yet we wake up to a world that feels like the much-too-long Blue Law Sundays of my childhood. Businesses are shuttered. There is hardly any movement on the streets. The claustrophobia of having nowhere to go is the prevailing feeling. It was only a few weeks ago that the coronavirus was menacing some faraway country. I laughed at my sister for stockpiling toilet paper early on. It was unthinkable that my favorite holiday wouldn’t include family and friends. But here we are. Welcome to the Passover edition of the “Pandemic of 2020.”

In an effort to outwit the pandemic, spring is abruptly canceled, freedoms are severely curtailed and we’re confined to squares on Zoom, waving and blowing kisses to our loved ones. It taxes the soul to live this way. My mother asks when this will be over. I don’t know. I try to keep her calm as I tamp down my own panic. I want to stop arguing with my husband about stocking up on Clorox wipes that we can’t find anyway. I’m afraid we’ll run out of food and medicine. Anything can set off this fear—terrifying statistics, news of a friend on a ventilator.

I’m traditional when it comes to Passover. It has always been a physical holiday for me. Aside from the spring cleaning, I shop weeks before the first seder. Every year, I come very close to hoarding matzah meal, macaroons and horseradish. I switch out my everyday plates and cutlery for dinnerware and silver that languishes in the basement until I bring them up for the annual eight-day festival.

It feels as if I undertook these preparations for the holiday a hundred years ago—before Passover food shopping became a death-defying act. They happened before I fractured my shoulder, and now I can barely lift a plate, never mind move an entire dinner service upstairs. Passover in my house is therefore greatly modified. This year, observing the holiday has to be good enough. I won’t change over my kitchen to the extent I did in years past. Passover preparations have become part of the emergency through which we are living.

There’s a lot of buzz about gathering this year in virtual seders. The plan is to commune with one another in our Zoom cubicles. I’m hopeful that will work with a ritual meal that has been a home celebration for centuries. After all, the Passover seder doesn’t require us to hold it in a synagogue. Its rituals are carried out at the intimacy of the dining room table. Anyone who can read from the Haggadah can lead the ceremony. We will need to take care in our virtual seders of not going through the motions. It’s too easy to drift online.

This moment has not been the first time Judaism has accommodated a new world foisted on us. After Judaism’s two ancient temples were destroyed over 500 years apart, the rabbis necessarily reinvented Judaism. It was genius the way they made it workable for the diaspora. When Jews scattered all over the world, the rabbis asked them to expand their imaginations and transform their tables into the altar of the non-existent temple.

The holiday of Passover is a leading reminder of how virtual post-temple Judaism became. In the daily liturgy, Jews are asked to remember the Exodus as if they experienced it themselves. That feat of recreation is the crux of Judaism. Jews know how to reach back through the millennia and relive the redemption of Passover. In that act of recreation, the Exodus narrative has been overlaid with historical tragedies, including the Holocaust. I need to believe that we can survive this current pandemic and add it to our arsenal of Passover stories.

Every year the seder ends with the declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The hope is that the Messiah will have finally arrived, restoring us to the land of Israel. This year, we’ll also add a wish that at the moment is as improbable as the imminent coming of the Messiah: to celebrate Passover again with actual people seated at our dining room tables.

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

Capturing Family History

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island whose capital was the jewel of the Caribbean. This city had an enchanting esplanade with a sea wall that hugged the ocean. It was called El Malecón. The breezes off the ocean’s turquoise water were refrescante—refreshing. The weather was always warm; the sun was always shining. This was Havana, and my mother, Matilde, lived in a neighborhood called Havana la Vieja—the old section of Havana.

When I was a child, Cuba was a fairytale. I was sad that the country was trapped behind a rusting iron curtain, shut tight and padlocked. No one left, and no one entered. I longed for Cuba throughout my childhood. My mother and I have talked about Cuba all my life. I was born in Connecticut, but my heart has always been in my mother’s Havana. A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed my mother for over an hour about her life in Cuba and her life as an immigrant. The interview took place at Hebrew SeniorLife, where she is a patient, and I recorded her stories with a new app called “Story Aperture,” published by the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA).

Although I had my own questions in mind, there are helpful lists of questions right in the app, visible on the screen as you’re recording. In addition to general inquiries, you can cover a range of topics, such as “Judaism, Race and Ethnicity, “Archiving #MeToo” and “Voices of Change.”

Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of JWA, noted that Story Aperture was a natural next step for an organization that democratizes history. “So many of the ways women work and contribute and experience things don’t happen in the public limelight of what has been traditionally important,” she told JewishBoston. “We wanted to make sure we were capturing stories of ordinary people. [Recording these oral histories] helps to remember the moments of daily life as part of the ways that people make history. History is not always a society-changing moment; history is created every day people build families and communities.”

I didn’t expect to learn anything new from my mother. Her history is etched in my mind. She came to the United States in 1958, a couple years before Fidel Castro installed himself as Cuba’s president for life. Her first winter in Brooklyn, she caught pneumonia. “I had never endured such cold,” she said. She went back to Cuba but realized there was nothing there for her. The university was closed and shortages were commonplace. It was the beginning of the end.

My mother married my American father in 1960 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a good life, but something was missing: Cuba, No. 20 La Calle Mercéd and El Malecón, where my mother and her family strolled after their Shabbat lunch. There was El Patronato, which served as both synagogue and de facto Jewish center. “We had beautiful Purim balls there,” she recalled. “One year, Abuela [Grandmother] made me a black velvet gown with little pearls around the collar. It was gorgeous. I felt like Queen Esther.”

My mother attended Jewish day schools until she was admitted to the Instituto—high school in Havana. “I went to the Theodore Herzl Primary School for elementary school,” she said. “We were big Zionists. I remember when Israel became a state, my father was screaming from joy. Abuelo’s [Grandfather’s] brothers had immigrated there—one of them was a rabbi.”

My mother is Sephardic. Her mother was from Greece, her father from Turkey. She told me the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities were separate in Cuba—separate schools, separate synagogues, separate cultures. My mother’s family spoke Ladino, a fortuitous occurrence that enabled them to acclimate to Spanish quickly.

Then the surprise of the conversation: “Abuela was my strongest advocate to go to university. My father was against it. He was worried that I would meet boys who weren’t Jewish. But Abuela was preparada that way, ahead of her time.”

My mother used the word “preparada,” which literally means “ready,” as a way to describe her mother as insightful. I asked her if she thought Abuela was a feminist. “I think so. She was modern, more modern than Abuelo,” my mother said with a laugh. “She knew French and played the lute. She made me beautiful clothes. But she wanted more for me. She wanted me to be educada [educated].”

My mother told me my grandmother took in sewing to help defray the costs of sending her three children to college. My mother, I realized, inherited her mother’s work ethic. She went back to school in the early 1960s to earn a teaching degree and was part of the first wave of women who were also earning graduate degrees and subsequently entering the workforce.

I remember Abuela babysitting me when my mother studied for her exams and cooking picadillo or me. Abuela also made a raft of dresses for my sister and me when we were little. Her most elaborate creation was the flower-girl dresses we walked down the aisle in at my uncle’s wedding. We were all tulle and aqua.

So, my grandmother was a feminist in her own right. This is the kind of discovery that Rosenbaum and her colleagues hope will happen when people use the app. “This is an invitation to have conversations and share stories that have not been shared before,” she said. “We want people to be our partners in documenting history. We want people to see their stories as part of the historical narrative.”

To that end, Rosenbaum encourages women of all ages to document their stories, and their participation in marches and protests—anything that will add to the diversity of perspectives and experiences. “We’ve lowered [the technological barriers] so that it’s not hard to get started,” she said. “We’ve streamlined the process to document history as it is unfolding.”

This piece was originally published on

Space and Sparks and a Jewish Woman Astronaut

This month, Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir added to my love of all things space and NASA. She and her sister astronaut, Christina Koch, took a seven-plus hour jaunt outside the International Space Station to perform maintenance. The 7-year-old space fan in me resurfaced when I heard about this first all-female spacewalk.

Courtesy Photo (NASA)

I have always imagined space as a black galaxy flecked with infinite stars and dreams and prayers. Space was the place God inhabited. Miracles were shipped down to earth from there. As a little girl in the 1960s and ‘70s, I couldn’t get enough of the NASA launches. There was the rumbling of the rocket engines. The release of orange fire provided the momentum for a spaceship to pierce the earth’s atmosphere. I was mesmerized by images of the Gemini and Apollo launches on a black-and-white television. Those events were almost as exciting as my birthday. I was ecstatic when I heard the scratchy, disembodied male voices connecting the earth to the heavens. Now I am thrilled at the sound of women’s voices transmitting from space.

I loved watching the astronauts of Apollo 11 set foot on the moon’s dusty crater-pocked surface for the first time. The whole endeavor was wild and wonderful. It was 1969, and I had not yet flown on an airplane. As far as space was concerned, my body and soul were blank slates.

In March 1970, space was back in my life during a moment when day became night. It was a solar eclipse. My father, the NASA maven, prepared for it by buying us three kids and my mother plastic sunglasses to shield our eyes in the unlikely event we were exposed to the blocked sun. “Looking into the face of an eclipse can blind you,” he said. I sat frightened on the sofa with my feet sticking out at a 90-degree angle. I didn’t trust those small sunglasses to protect me against the fierce sun. I shut my eyes tightly until I saw a gathering of swirling light.

Meir, who is 42, is the fourth Jewish woman, 15th Jew and first Swedish woman—she holds dual American and Swedish citizenship—to participate in a space mission. She may also become the first woman to walk on the surface of the moon. At this time, she is among 17 candidates who are being considered for NASA’s Artemis program. From Greek mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister, the goddess of the hunt and the patron of women. Meir may do a moonwalk in a few years; the space agency has announced there will be another one in 2024.

Space and moon exploration may have a Jewish antecedent. In the Bible, Joshua begged God to still the sun in the middle of a battle. God heard his pleas, and the day stopped. Only the moon continued to move, slipping in front of the sun as it did for me on that March day of my own solar eclipse.

And now there is Jessica Meir. Her Iraqi-born Jewish father immigrated to Israel and fought as part of the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1948 War of Independence. He met Jessica’s mother in her native Sweden. The family eventually settled in Caribou, Maine. Although Meir’s mother did not convert to Judaism, the family identified as Jewish and attended synagogue. Meir was quoted in Kveller as saying, “Personally, I’m not really a religious person, but I think my Jewish cultural background is obviously a big part of my culture and especially traditions.”

It is standard for an astronaut to take three personal items on a mission. On her mission, Meir brought an Israeli flag, a pair of socks with images of menorahs and, according to The Forward, a painting of a phoenix by the late Rona Ramon, widow of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Ramon, along with six crewmembers, died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003.

Meir is not the first Jewish astronaut to bring Jewish items to space. Ramon brought a drawing by a 14-year-old boy trapped in the Theresienstadt Ghetto during the Holocaust. He also carried with him a miniature Torah smuggled out of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Other Jewish astronauts have transported a mezuzah, shofar, dreidel and small Torah complete with breastplate and traditional pointer.

As a child, I had always hoped that just as Moses had glimpsed the back of God’s head, the astronauts would see a defining part of God, however briefly. Maybe someday they will. In the meantime, I squeeze my eyes shut this time to conjure sparks of the Divine.


Translating the Holocaust

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was at the center of a firestorm when she referred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention centers as “concentration camps.” In an Instagram Live video, the freshman Democrat asserted: “The U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border, and this is exactly what they are. … I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say ‘never again.’”

Ocasio-Cortez instantly drew both support and ire for her comment. I wondered whether this kerfuffle was a question of semantics or an analogy gone awry. After all, concentration camps call up images of the Nazi genocide, and genocide is not what is happening on the border. On the other hand, as Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps,” recently told Esquire, “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz.”

Concentration camps did not start out as brutal slave labor camps or extermination camps. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg sagely and calmly wrote in The Washington Post recently that, “We already know that the path to atrocity can be a process, and that the Holocaust began with dehumanizing propaganda, with discriminatory laws with roundups and deportations, and with internment. Those things are happening in our country now, and they’re known as some of the stages of genocide first articulated by Genocide Watch in 1996.”

When I watch the news clips or listen to radio interviews from the border, I shake as I hear my mother’s Spanish, now my Spanish, being spoken. Ocasio-Cortez and I share the touching intimacy of a common language. Spanish was the language of our childhood, the language of our grandparents. It was the language that distinguished me as a Latina Jew. Though it wasn’t always easy, I’m proud that I was a bilingual baby.

My cousin was 6 months old when she fled Cuba with her parents. I can only imagine the horror if she had been separated from my aunt and uncle. These children who are captured on the border are herded into cages where, terribly frightened and very hungry, they are vulnerable to crimes and misdemeanors by officials in charge. They are prisoners of a war about which no one is talking. I read that a border guard sexually assaulted a 4-year-old girl.

My Cuban relatives were never here illegally, and neither are the migrants in this administration’s concentration camps masquerading as euphemistic detention centers. It’s important to point out that anyone declaring asylum at the border of the United States has a right to a hearing and to due process.

Sometimes Holocaust vocabulary contains the only words that can describe the human rights tragedy happening at our southern border. We’re on the cusp of something revolutionary in terms of our thinking about the memory of the Holocaust. Using some of its vocabulary cautiously is wholly appropriate in extreme situations, like the one we face today. For example, visit T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights online and find a picture of a woman holding a sign that says: “This is what ‘Never Again’ looks like.” How does that dishonor the memory of the Holocaust? Those words are an improvised Kaddish—a prayer of mourning—for the 6 million. The words are also a prayer of optimism. When “Never Again” is evoked it shows that the victims of the Holocaust did not die in vain.

This past year I have spent time in a church basement, and what I do there is called companionship. That is, I watch over a family who is on the run from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE. The people I’ve grown to care about are always a hair’s breadth away from being deported back to the poverty and violence that plague their Central American country.

There is a script for me to follow if ICE comes to arrest this family, my family. I will ask to see a warrant. If they have one, I will let them in, but not before I’ve allowed enough time for the woman and her family to hide behind the broad lectern on the altar of the church. The altar is the most sacred space in the building. To arrest innocent people there would taint the holiness of the place. I will tape the incident with my iPhone and say, “This is the last opportunity you have to check your conscience before you take these innocent people away.” I will then go off-script and ask the ICE agent a final question before these people are handcuffed: “Are you sure you want to take this beautiful mother away from her American-born children?” I will ask again and again until she and her children are out of sight.

One afternoon, the church basement flooded. The mother and I mopped the floor of her living area together in companionable silence until she sadly riffed: “The people here are nice, but I wish they spoke Spanish like you. I don’t know why it doesn’t matter that my children are American. Hace meses que no veo el sol. I haven’t seen the sun in months.”

Good Germans asked themselves in the 1930s what they could do to help their fellow Jewish citizens. (Yes, another imperfect analogy.) We can donate today to organizations like HIAS and T’ruah. When federations like Combined Jewish Philanthropies sponsor trips to border cities like McAllen and San Diego, we can make every effort to go. We can lobby our representatives in Washington, D.C., to stop this madness. We can vote. And we can we sit in church basements in close, loving silence until this nightmare is over.

This essay was originally published on

My Father’s Silence

A few years after my father died in 2002, I sent away for his naval records. K. Harold Bolton, who served in the South Pacific during the Second World War, never talked about his time in the U.S. Navy. His silence about everything made me a snooping little girl, which turned me into a curious adult. There was nothing more I wanted to know than what my father had seen from the deck of his supply ship.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. A recent New York Times front-page article bore the headline: “Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why.” These children who span the generations want the same thing: to crack open their fathers’ silence about their war.

My father’s silence and his subsequent secrets have haunted me all of my life. My father, who was part of the “Greatest Generation,” is also a member of what the Times describes as the “Quietest.”

His records arrived in a thick packet wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. As I avidly read them, the information that floated to the top was that he was exceptionally stubborn, inexperienced and always one of the youngest officers on any ship to which he was assigned. The numerous Reports on the Fitness of Officers in my father’s file consistently indicate that although he stood out for his bravery, loyalty and patriotism, in the end, he was an average, even naïve, officer.

This was not the answer I had expected when I examined the mystery of my father. Although I was thrilled to have the status reports, solid evidence that revealed facets of the man, they surprised — and ultimately, disappointed — me. I was so sure these reports would confirm that he was larger than life and, at last, make him understandable. Instead, the reports didn’t mesh with the man I thought he was. From the few pictures I had seen of him in uniform, I expected a capable officer who comported himself like a much older man.

Maybe this is the way most children see their parents — through a lens of time and story that ultimately fuses into lore. My father was the man who did push-ups every morning on the green shag rug of his bedroom. He was the man who walked a brisk two miles a day, even in winter. He expected his orders to be followed as he gave them. Yet blue-back nights when my coughing from asthma shook the house, my father stood guard by my bedroom window, gazing out, one of the few times I felt secure and loved.

I found a handwritten note in his file in which my perceptions of him as a young man became clearer. In the letter to his commanding officer, my father laid out his reasons for disobeying orders. He had been waiting to ship out in San Francisco the first Christmas after Pearl Harbor and wrote that he had decided to give the men under his command three additional hours of liberty to boost morale. At the very least, that unilateral decision must have incurred a reprimand.

I also came upon a punishment meted out to my father. It happened toward the end of the war, when his commanding officer remanded him to quarters for 24 hours for going AWOL for a day. Disappearing like that didn’t seem in character. Yet the information rounded out the profile I was putting together of an officer who did not follow established ship routines and, according to notations from his commanding officer, did not “wish to acquaint himself with them.”

My father’s stubbornness also surprised me. He never properly learned to use the sextant for navigational calculations. According to his file, he was resistant to acquiring this new skill. But a spiritual part of me thinks that perhaps it was because those kinds of calculations demystified the heavens, while my father wanted to romanticize them. Over the years, I had seen glimpses of Dad, the romantic, who cried when he listened to opera on Saturday afternoons. Dad, the patriot, who cried when he listened to John Philip Sousa’s crisp, booming marches. Dad, the accountant, who finally, reluctantly, learned to follow established routines.

My brother, who became the keeper of the Navy stories Dad chose to share, had another version of Dad’s punishment to supplement the Navy records. Our father was never AWOL, he says. The real story is that Lt. Bolton had fraternized with the ship’s black cook, called Cookie. Our father had stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity, to put his arm around a man who had just received news that his brother had died while fighting in Europe. He called Cookie by his given name, Ernie. The lieutenant also removed his hat in a show of mourning, making him technically out of uniform.

Finally, the lieutenant wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship.

Contrary to the jumbled, sometimes discouraging, naval reports, there was a promotion for my father by the end of the war. By the time the Navy honorably discharged Lt. Cmdr. Bolton in 1945, he had proven himself an exceptional man.

This essay was originally published on Cognoscenti

Living in Translation

My grandparents, who were among the wave of Cuban refugees that came to the United States in the mid-1960s, never felt malleable enough to learn English. “No eshpeake Engleesh” was their standard retort. This set of circumstances not only made me bilingual, but also designated me as their official translator. With no English, my grandparents were essentially isolated in America.

A person’s native language is love and memory. It is comfort and familiarity. It is bedrock identity. I thought about that when I read a recent article in The Washington Post with the headline: “Nearly Half of White Republicans Say It Bothers Them to Hear People Speaking Foreign Languages.” Though not a surprise, it still saddened me.

I often accompanied my grandfather, my Abuelo, on walks around his neighborhood where we ended up at the corner grocery store to buy packs of M&Ms. “Que dice?” What is this person saying? He always asked me that question when we were out in the world. He tried to pronounce some of the English words he overheard, but the consonants crumbled in his mouth. He proudly told anyone he encountered, pointing to me, “Mi nieta es Americana. Eshpeake Engleesh good.”

My grandmother, Abuela, was a homebody who loved American soap operas. In the pre-cable, pre-Univision years when there was no Spanish programming on American television. My grandmother stayed glued to “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light,” soap operas that reminded her of the novelitas she had listened to on the radio in Havana. I translated a bit for her, but somehow she understood the intricacies of those shows without me. One character was “malo.” Another one was “desafortunado,” unlucky. These imaginary friends of hers kept my Abuela company on long and dreary winter afternoons in Connecticut.

The Post article further reported that according to the Pew Research Center, “Forty-seven percent of such Republicans say it would bother them ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ to ‘hear people speak a language other than English in a public place.’ Eighteen percent of white Democrats said they would be similarly bothered.”

The article described two incidents that were part of a pattern of racism towards others. In the first, a United States Border Patrol agent detained two women for speaking Spanish at a gas station in Montana. It turned out the women were U.S. citizens. The second incident happened at a New York deli where a man was enraged when he heard the workers speaking Spanish. He threatened to call immigration officials.

The United States as a country does not have an official language. I wish I had known that in the days when Abuelo would pick me up from school. “Ándale!” Hurry up. The kids made fun of us. They called me Spic and Span, and one said, “Your grandpa can’t speak English because he’s so stupid.”

When my children were young, I encouraged them to learn Spanish. My son is now as bilingual as I once was. That bodes well in the United States, which has 41 million native Spanish speakers and 12 million bilinguals. If the trend continues, the United States could very well surpass the number of Spanish speakers in any country by the year 2050.

Another important piece of advice I gave to my kids was to engage in deep, meaningful translation to understand people. The example I gave them was that God happily listens to prayers in more than 70 languages. It’s a metaphor that I plucked from a Jewish commentary on the Bible: God has always been an equal opportunity linguist.

When I think of my Latina heritage, I always paraphrase Winston Churchill, who said he was half-American but wholly English. I too was half-American, yet my childhood was completely Cubana. These days my Spanish is more Spanglish, reflecting how rusty I’ve become. But plunk me down in a Spanish country, and it comes back to me much the way a photograph develops in a darkroom. The language is imprinted in me. And while my Cuban Abuelos were not able to communicate with the American side of my family directly, they always had me to translate for them.

This essay was originality published on Cognoscenti