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 HowWeAre.org


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.”

The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 6: Virtual Commemorations of Memory and Survival

April 2020 has been a month of a roaring pandemic as well as searing memories of the Holocaust. Particular to the month has been the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz death camps, and the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Public commemorations of these anniversaries and more have been broadcast on the internet. At the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC) virtual Yom HaShoah remembrance on Sunday, Gov. Charlie Baker delivered remarks, as did Rabbi Marc Baker, president and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“As communities around the world commemorate Yom HaShoah,” Baker said, “we will honor the memories of those lost in the recalling of this horrific chapter of our Jewish and human history. We will also tell the stories of those who survived. Reminding ourselves that in the face of anyone or anything that tries to destroy us, the resilience of the human spirit and the Jewish people will overcome.”

April has also been designated as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and Rachael Cerrotti, a third-generation Holocaust survivor and storyteller, has rolled out a new project for the occasion. Over the past decade, Cerrotti’s story has been entwined with her grandmother Hana’s story of survival during World War II. The only survivor of the Holocaust in her family, Hana was sent to Denmark by her parents at the beginning of the Holocaust. After the Nazis invaded Denmark, Hana made her way to Sweden and eventually settled in the United States.

Cerrotti’s project to tell her grandmother’s story culminated in a popular podcast produced in conjunction with USC Shoah Foundation called “We Share the Same Sky.” Founded by Steven Spielberg, the foundation houses over 100,000 hours of audio and visual testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Hana was interviewed for the project in 1998.

Cerrotti’s new undertaking is called “What Is Home Project.” Working again with USC Shoah Foundation, Cerrotti is collecting stories from survivors on the theme of home. She recently told JewishBoston: “Home is the heart of every survivor’s story. You flee your home—your home isn’t a space anymore. You also dream of home and the memory of home. You recreate your home. It’s this feeling of how do we get back that place, or will it ever come back? And yet here we are, being told to sit at home. It causes us to understand that home is not as simple as one thinks.”

Cerrotti has put out a call on social media for people to tell their stories of home “from this emotionally complex space [of the pandemic], and we’re encouraging people to do it in all types of forms, including poetry, photography or audio clips. Home can be a space in your head, a memory or a smell. It can also be very literal.”

In addition to presenting stories of survival throughout the Holocaust and beyond, Cerrotti is also curating a collection of tales of living during the pandemic. She envisions that within two generations, children will hear from grandparents about what it was like to live through the COVID-19 pandemic. “My goal is to get people to think about the power of intergenerational storytelling and to understand that we just don’t consume history, we create history,” she said. “To guide people in telling these stories, we have a different theme every week. Last week was ‘Spaces and Places.’ ‘Family’ is our topic for the week of April 20, and the following weeks we’re looking for stories that touch on ‘Resilience’ and ‘Messages for the Future.’”

I thought about the themes attached to Cerrotti’s project as I attended virtual broadcasts of Yom HaShoah events and listened to George Takei’s story in a Facing History and Ourselves webinar called “Standing Up to Racism, Then and Now.” Known for his role in the original “Star Trek” television series, Takei is a Japanese American who was interned with his family in “10 of the most desolate places in the United States” during World War II.

As it happens, April is also the 78th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans. “When I was 5 years old,” Takei said in his talk, I was categorized as an enemy alien in my own country.” Takei was born in Los Angeles and his mother was born in Sacramento, California. His father was brought by his parents from Japan to San Francisco when he was a young child.

Takei recalled that his family—his parents and two siblings—were ordered out of their Los Angeles home at gunpoint. “Because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, we were seen as the enemy and alien,” he said. “War hysteria swept across the country, combined with racism. We were at war with Germany and Italy, but Italian Americans and German Americans looked like the rest of America. We looked different.”

Amazingly, Takei is not bitter. He credited his father with instilling in him a deep love for the United States. “I learned about American democracy from the man who suffered the most, who felt the pain of the failure of democracy the most but who firmly believed in the core ideals of our democracy,” he said.

Later in the week, I listened to Esther Ringel, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, tell her powerful story. Ringel, who was a child when she was deported, recalled how she was alone after the selection of prisoners at Auschwitz. It was the last time she saw her mother and brother. She said she owed her survival to a young woman named Eva, who shepherded Ringel to her liberation by the Russians. Ringel referred to her as an “angel.” Now in her 90s, Ringel lives in Israel and is the matriarch of a large and thriving family. She and Eva remain close.

Baker asked the JCRC Yom HaShoah attendees to bear in mind that the signature story of Jewish nationhood and survival is the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites endured 430 years of slavery under a succession of cruel pharaohs before they fled Egypt under threat of death. Jews have been commanded to relive this story in word and deed through the millennia.

To that end, Baker recalled something he recently heard at a virtual seder: “The retelling of the Passover story is as close as we can get to the genetic transfer of hope.” And, as it turns out, this week was an embodiment of that sentiment.


I am gloomy, and I feel guilty that I’m so blue. I have a warm home and a stocked refrigerator. I’m sheltering in place with my immediate family, whom I love very much. And yet. Even though there are glimpses of silver linings that reflect love and gratitude, this quarantine still feels like a punishment.

Sometimes my mind feels fuzzy. For example, I can’t remember why I argued with my husband the other day. I only recall that when I shouted at him, “Where was the ever-patient man I married 30 years ago?” He quietly answered, “He’s usually here.” A few hours later, as we kissed passionately — an act that feels forbidden in this new world — I couldn’t stop thinking: Did we just infect each other?

The virus spread like wildfire in my mother’s nursing home. She’s the latest patient to test positive for COVID-19. All I can think of is that despite the abuse that my mother heaped on me for so many years, I don’t want her to die alone.

Sheltering in place while symptom-less is its own madness. I indulge in the magical thinking that goes hand-in-hand with my panic disorder. If I do or do not do Y, X will or will not happen. Do my thoughts control me, or do I control them? Will I know if I’ve crossed the border into an irreversible nervous breakdown?

A friend says the worries I have about my well-being stem from a healthy curiosity, and curiosity thrives when you feel safe. The best I can say is that I am subconsciously safe. I have a big stash of medication and love. Those things are more precious than the toilet paper and the eggs I hoard.

When I can focus, I have work that I love. But I’m terribly behind on my journal entries. I am mulling over an idea inspired by a writing prompt I saw — “Write about a time where you were dead wrong about someone.” A few days later, I have an epiphany. My mother! I was dead wrong that her conditional love was typical.

My mother’s nursing home facilitates a Zoom call with her. She looks healthy, and she’s more engaged than confused this morning. For the moment, she is alive and curious about her grandchildren, who are on the call too. She doesn’t know she has COVID-19. She only knows she is safe.

This essay originally appeared in McSweeney’s A Force Outside Myself: Citizens Over 60 Speak

The Coronavirus Diaries, Part 5–Passover Entertainment and Poetic Solace

This week I heard Idina Menzel sing the Four Questions. Billy Porter serenaded me with “Let My People Go.” I gleaned wisdom from Rabbis David Wolpe, Dana Benson, Amichai Lau-Lavi, Mordechai Lightstone and Sharon Brous, who delivered a short, affecting sermon. She said the story in the Haggadah is one that has “held a grip on the human imagination for thousands of years, precisely because it was never just about what happened then but has also always been about what is happening now. [The world needs to be reminded of those who are] degraded and oppressed and enslaved and have walked on that long journey toward freedom.”
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All of this happened at “Saturday Night Seder,” a virtual event on YouTube this past Saturday. Jason Alexander emceed the festivities, and the likes of Beanie Feldstein, Henry Winkler and Rachel Brosnahan contributed to the star power. The seder was also a fundraiser for the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

The “Saturday Night Seder” began with these declarative sentences:

3,000 years ago, our Jewish ancestors fled their homes in search of a better life.

Two weeks ago, some anxious Jews stuck inside our homes decided to put together a seder.

We invited all of our favorite people. Including you!

Given this seder’s stellar lineup, there was no doubt it was going to be entertaining. After all, Sarah Silverman found the afikomen Andy Cohen hid in a surprising place. In his inimitable way, Harvey Fierstein gifted the audience with permission to personalize the last line of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

And then there were tears. There was the saltwater that stood in for the tears of our Israelite ancestors. There were my tears when “Next year in Jerusalem” became a rallying cry for next year with our families. Next year with actual hugs. Next year in health. Next year in peace. It was then that the seder went from celebrities to the heroes of our time—the people working in the COVID-19 hospital wards—ardently wishing for anyone listening to be reunited with the people they love and the places that comfort them.

I’m not one who easily cries. However, I saw my children in those people. My daughter is preparing to apply to medical school and my son is going to medical school in the fall. I am both proud and terrified. I feel as if I am sending them to war against an invisible enemy. As I wipe down every doorknob and package that comes into my house, I cry for the people arduously working in grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals. These brave workers confront and fight the coronavirus each and every day with all their might.

I also continue to find daily succor from people such as Dr. Craig Smith, surgeon-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Smith has emerged as the medical poet-in-residence of this pandemic. It began with a daily note he sent to his colleagues from the frontlines. He quickly gained a following for his deep empathy and crystalline prose. In a March 20 missive, Smith began with the latest grim statistics—there was an uptick in positive tests, hospital beds were vanishing, masks and ventilators were scarce and the curve—still rock solid—was nowhere near flattening. Smith, however, did not leave the story there for his readers.

He continued: “So, what can we do? Load the sled, check the traces, feed Balto, and mush on. Our cargo must reach Nome. Remember that our families, friends, and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent. Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.”

Here was Smith referring to a dog sled race, long before the Iditarod, to beat the 1918 flu epidemic. There was more of his poetic prose and literary allusions for his April 1 entry:

“Writing on April 1, late in the day, I can’t possibly be the first person to shout out the first four lines of ‘The Waste Land’ (T.S. Eliot). But first or not, I can’t resist: ‘April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.’ The rest of the poem is much too long, too grim and overwrought for my taste. The line-breaks that highlight three verbs (breeding, mixing, stirring) are a nice writerly touch, but I admire it most for one phrase—mixing memory and desire. In an April that may be apocalyptically cruel, that is how we are poised, desiring spring.”

The Wall Street Journal described Smith’s emails as, “Winston Churchill’s radio speeches of this war.” Indeed, Smith’s notes have been equal parts encouragement and battle plan for his readers and colleagues. As the article observed, “The daily notes of this 71-year-old surgeon…have become essential dispatches for many people in search of leadership, courage and maybe even a pep talk.”

In what I have come to think of as a typical Smith flourish, he ended his April 11 message with lines from Emily Dickinson: “‘Hope is the things with feathers/That perches in the soul.’ Best known for the first line, I prefer the second: ‘Hard to reach with guns.’”

May we experience our versions of Jerusalem in the coming year. May we be with the ones we cherish, and in the places that make us happy, wherever we are next year.

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?