British Columbians, like others in much of the world, are stepping gingerly into what may be a post-pandemic period – or an “inter-pandemic” phase, if the predicted second wave bears out. Our daily briefings from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, and Health Minister Adrian Dix are cautiously optimistic, tempered with the reality that some people, given an inch, will take a mile. Confusion around, or contempt for, changing social distancing guidelines has meant numerous instances of inappropriate gatherings.
All in all, though, British Columbians have so far experienced among the lowest proportions of COVID-related illnesses and deaths than almost any jurisdiction in the developed world. Each death is a tragedy, yet we should be grateful for those who have recovered and the fact that so many of us have remained healthy so far. Thanks should go to all those who have helped others make it through, including first responders, healthcare professionals and also those irreplaceable workers we used to take for granted: retail and service employees and others who have allowed most of us to live through this with comparatively minimal disruptions.
In our Jewish community, so many individuals and institutions have done so much, from delivering challah to providing emergency financial and other supports for those affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Canadians, in general, seem to be making it through this time as well as can be expected. Polls indicate that Canadians are overwhelmingly supportive of the actions our governments have taken during the coronavirus pandemic. How the federal and provincial governments manage the continuing economic repercussions and the potential resurgence of infections in coming months will determine long-term consequences both for us and for their popularity.
In signs that things are returning to something akin to pre-pandemic normal, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once-and-still-prime minister, is complaining about a “left-wing coup” and asserting that “the entire right” is on trial. In fact, it is not an entire wing of the Israeli political spectrum that is on trial, but Netanyahu himself, for bribery, breach of trust and fraud. He is accused of exchanging favours to friends and allies in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in trinkets like cigars and champagne, and favourable coverage in media. Whatever strategy his team has for inside the courtroom, his PR strategy is pure deflection: blame the media, the court system, political opponents. He’s fighting two trials: the one in the justice system and the one in the court of public opinion. Netanyahu has managed to save his political hide thus far, through three successive elections and a year of coalition-building and horse trading. Predicting what might happen next is a popular but fruitless pastime.
More signs that things are not so different came from U.S. President Donald Trump on the weekend. As the death toll in the United States approached 100,000, Trump took time off from golfing to deliver Twitter rants, including retweets calling Hillary Clinton a “skank” and smearing other female Democrats for their appearance. Trump also insinuated that MSNBC TV host Joe Scarborough is a murderer.
Sitting (mostly) comfortably in our homes watching such things from afar, it’s no wonder Canadians are feeling good about the way our various governments – federal and provincial, of all political stripes – are behaving these days.
Yerushalmi kugel by Jamie Geller. (photo from jamiegeller.com)
If I’d known the world was going to be locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would have stocked up on toilet paper, disinfecting wipes and pasta much sooner. Of course, only one of those is edible.
Desperate measures call for desperate times and, when so many restaurants have closed, cooking has become mandatory. As has self-isolation. Sure, we could order takeout, but I’m still slightly paranoid about who cooks my food. After all, you’re only as healthy as the last person you were in contact with. I rest my case.
I’ve tried to be creative in the kitchen, but, when you’re used to eating sushi at least once a week and shopping for fresh food every day, it gets challenging during a lockdown. Now we eat more pasta. Way more pasta. My husband Harvey loves it. Me, not so much.
Harvey does a Costco run every so often to stock up, but I’m loathe to send him out into the dangerous spittle-filled world of COVID coughs right now. And the regular stores are often out of the basics, at least until recently. To be completely frank, I’m sick of cooking. So, what’s an accidental balabusta to do?
I’ll tell you what I did. I handed Harvey my mother’s tattered Jewish Council Cookbook the other day and pronounced: “Make something!” So, what does he choose from all those geshmak recipes? Tuna noodle casserole. You know the one – it’s composed of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, Kraft Dinner and a can or two of tuna. If you want to get really fancy shmancy, you can grate some aged cheddar cheese on top. It’s the quintessential comfort food. Minus the sushi. Or, in Harvey’s case, minus the tuna.
My first dip of the fork into the ooey-gooey goodness of the tuna noodle casserole elicited a squeal of surprise. It was actually delicious. Processed deliciousness, but nonetheless yummy in the extreme. The tummy wants what the tummy wants. After a few bites, I expressed my perplexity that I didn’t taste the tuna. Harvey said it had probably sunk to the bottom, so I did a deep dive to the base of the casserole dish, and … bupkis. Harvey had a go at it and, likewise, nada. He humbly walked over to the fridge, opened it, and sheepishly admitted that he’d forgotten to put in the tuna. So, we were eating KD with mushroom soup and a crusty topping of melted cheddar. It was still superb, in a plebian sort of way. Does this count as accidental balabatishness? I didn’t think so. Even if it did, I wasn’t the balabusta who made it.
I’m not proud of what we ate. But I’m sure other people have eaten worse. Much worse. Think fried Spam. Or headcheese (whatever that is). Nobody is going to raise their hand and cop to either of those atrocities, but, trust me, I know where the bodies are buried.
In the end, a casserole that I thought was going to feed us for two nights lasted three. Kind of like a tuna-based Chanukah miracle – the “excess” tuna gave its life for a couple of sandwiches, to boot. The real victory was that I didn’t have to cook for three whole nights.
Don’t think I can’t hear you yelling, “What’s the matter with you people? Haven’t you ever heard of salads?!” Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I have. And, as much as I love salads, it’s not a mutual admiration alliance. Harvey buys pre-bagged salads for himself as a side dish, but rarely do we eat a jacked-up salad for the main course. It could very well land me in the hospital, and I choose not to take that chance. Digestion issues.
By rights, I should probably have scurvy by now, but I have thankfully dodged that bullet. To get some colour in my food, I put steamed or roasted carrots in everything. Sometimes, I even eat broccoli. Is my diet restrictive? Sure. Am I relatively healthy, nonetheless? Yes – the operative word being relatively. My body happens to do well on protein. Lots and lots of protein. Animal protein. I’ll own it: I’m a card-carrying carnivore. Don’t judge me. In case you care, I used to switch things up with more varied restaurant food before COVID-19 came calling. But now that I’m relegated to my own culinary wits, things have gotten kind of serious. And not in a good way.
I am jonesing pretty bad for some agedashi tofu and salmon sashimi, but I don’t dare eat that now. I heard that, if you get takeout food, the first thing you should do is transfer it to your own dishes and reheat it in the microwave to kill off any viruses or bacteria. That’s fine for cooked food, but I believe that eating sashimi during a COVID-19 pandemic is like sticking a hand grenade in your mouth and hoping to have a pleasant day.
Desperate for some variety, I dug through my recipes and came across one for Jerusalem kugel. It still counts as pasta, but I view it as a more cultured, genteel pasta. Usually a side dish, I knew I could convince Harvey that it’s a main (especially if I served him enough of it). I figure I’ll follow it up with a roasted carrot/yam chaser. This particular kugel is satisfyingly savoury and sweet, and the recipe is by Jamie Geller.
SWEET AND PEPPERY JERUSALEM KUGEL
1 (12 ounce) package thin egg noodles
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup oil
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp to 1 tsp ground pepper
- Preheat oven to 350˚F.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook noodles according to package instructions. Strain and set aside.
- Add the sugar and oil to a large pot on low heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved and a deep golden caramel colour, but not burnt. This can take 20 minutes or more.
- Turn off the heat and add the noodles into the pot of sugar. Immediately stir with a big spoon until the noodles are coated in the caramel. Don’t worry if the sugar hardens into blobs – it will melt in the oven.
- Allow the mixture to cool for about 10 minutes. Mix in the eggs, salt and pepper. (Make sure it’s cool so the eggs don’t cook.)
- Pour the mixture into a greased springform pan or baking dish. Bake for one hour.
May this COVID-19 pandemic be over with soon. In the meantime, as Dr. Bonnie Henry says: “Be kind. Be Calm. Stay safe.” As for the Accidental Balabusta, figuring out what to cook every night should be my worst problem. Ever.
Shelley Civkin, aka the Accidental Balabusta, is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.
We have two Jewish dogs. When we sing Shabbat blessings, our dogs come over, sit politely, and wait until we’re done with the Hamotzi, the blessing over the bread. Then, they each get a small chunk of challah. This is the only people food they get. We don’t feed them while we eat and they don’t beg. However, when they hear us start to sing blessings, they know what to do!
On Chanukah or Passover, we are ready with alternative treats. Every night after we light Chanukah candles, they get dog biscuits. On Passover, they get matzah.
Our lab/pointer mix, Sally, who is more than 15 years old, has been doing poorly. Bigger dogs don’t usually live this long. She’s had a good life. We love her dearly. When she started having trouble eating, despite pandemic vet visits and several medicines, we were ready to try anything. She vomited and would eat only sparingly.
Then I had an idea. We had leftover homemade challah after Shabbat ended last week. I took out a piece, broke it into smaller bits, and started reciting brachot (blessings). I sang the Hamotzi. She moved her sore joints and sat near me. She ate challah. I did it again. She ate a little more challah. I kept going. In my happy blessing voice, I sang the Shehecheyanu (“Who has given us life”) blessing, feeling grateful for having reached this moment. Challah eaten. I thanked the Almighty for making me in the divine image. Challah eaten. I sang the blessing about giving tired people the strength to go on, from the morning blessings. She ate more challah.
My husband had small luck with this approach. In the end, she ate more for me. Was it my singing? My happy fake-out training technique, after 15 years of dog training to sit for blessings? We don’t know why it worked. After a day or two, we ran out of challah and switched to dog biscuits. Now, she is eating a weird mixture of special canned dog food diet, chicken and kibble again. Things are better, for now.
I want to tell one of our relatives, Ann, in New York City, about this success – about our old Jewish dog, her many blessings and the challah – but I can’t call her. She died May 3rd from a blood disorder. Once she was admitted to the hospital in New York, she was alone. Although she didn’t die from COVID-19, she died alone because of it. Ann, may her memory be a blessing, loved dogs and Jewish tradition. She would have laughed to hear about how Sally regained her appetite because of those blessings and challah.
It feels right now like we’re wandering in the wilderness. There’s so much uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day, things change. Many news sources refer to this virus as “the novel coronavirus.” Yes, it’s new, unlike all the other coronaviruses. Yet, in some ways, this situation, where we’re faced by terrible illness or challenge, arises repeatedly throughout the Torah, rabbinic texts and our history. It may be new to us, but it’s the same old story. How do we face these challenges? How can we behave in Jewish ways when the challenges seem so huge? We study what worked in the past – our history and traditions can help.
How do we make Shabbat (or make anything special) in a time when all the days seem hard and the same? In the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 69, “Rav Huna said: ‘If someone was walking on the road or in the desert and he does not know when Shabbat is, he counts six days and then keeps Shabbat for one day.’ Hiya the son of Rav said: ‘He keeps one day and counts six.’ What is this dispute really about? One bases his opinion on the creation of the world, and one bases his opinion on Adam.”
The rabbis discuss whether we celebrate Shabbat after the six days of creation so, when we don’t know which day is Shabbat, we count six days and then observe one. But Rav Hiya starts with Adam, the first person, and recognizes that one starts with our creation story. Without humans, there would be no way to make Shabbat, so we celebrate first, and then we count six until the next Shabbat.
Rav Hiya’s approach reminds us that we humans are central to this Jewish observance narrative. Our family had to remember that, even if burials and shivah aren’t done normally now, Zoom memorial services and shivahs are for us, the living, to help us navigate through this uncertainty.
Sally the dog is still with us for now, thank goodness. She reminds me, every day, to keep counting (and reciting!) my blessings. Whether you count six days and then celebrate, or celebrate and then count six days, we have these very human routines to help in navigating the unknown – the road, the desert, or a global pandemic.
So, please, grab some challah, say a brachah and train your Jewish dog. Somehow, I can still hear Ann (z”l) laughing as I tell this story. Ahad Ha’am said, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Our dog Sally has reminded us, too, that, once we say those blessings, a delicious treat always follows. It’s up to us to keep making the blessings and finding those Shabbat treats.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
This article was posted on medium.com on May 20 with the title “Bouncing from a COVID funeral,” and is reprinted with permission.
I had a loss in my family this weekend. It was not related to COVID. Nonetheless, it has been an exceptionally challenging time to lose a loved one. There are no mourning rituals, or figurative closures or moments to console the ones who are hurting the most. There are no hugs or shmoozing or recounting memories or poring over old picture albums around a coffee cake and a cup of tea (you get the idea: insert any of your traditions or rituals here).
Loss and death are concepts I struggle with, like most people. I always feel like I cannot say the right thing and feel awkward in the presence of those hurting the most. I am not “good” at funerals or mourning phases. I generally show up, pay my respects, and bounce.
What makes losing life during this unique time in history so hard is that we are mandated to be socially distant. However, when death hits the one we know and love, it is so heartbreaking, I want to so badly be socially closer, more than ever before. I would not have bounced. I would have stayed and been present.
Today, at 2 p.m., I will sit on a Zoom call to pay my respects. I will send a meal to the homes of the mourners. My father will be one of 10 that is allowed at the graveside service. He will wear his masks and gloves and stand six feet apart from his sister and nieces.
This seems grossly unfair, for a person whose funeral would have attracted people counting in the hundreds.
I cannot show up at this funeral even if I wanted to. I can sit in my house and watch it all go down on a live stream. It feels so cheap and lame and gross. Not the tribute that this person deserves.
The learning for me – as we sit together, alone, living a socially dis-social lifestyle for the foreseeable future, what small acts of kindness, generosity, pay it forward, TLC and tenderness can I express to just one other person to enrich their lives?
When I close my eyes and I imagine the eulogy recited at the end of my time on this earth, I wonder, what will I be remembered for?
I challenge you: what will you be remembered for?
Are you proud of the life you have lived?
How would you want to go down in the books?
What is your legacy, big or small?
It’s a morbid thought – not a place I often go but feel compelled to address, given the nature of the planet and the nature of my family’s pain.
My heart aches for anyone who has lost anyone during this truly f*cked up moment in time.
May your memory be a blessing.
Alana Kayfetz Kantor is founder and chief executive officer at MomsTO and MOMFEST, and co-host of Moms That Say F*ck the Podcast.
When someone suggested this as the title of an article I should write, I roared with laughter. Me, who has been climbing the walls, thinking of taking to drink, or killing myself or others. But, after all, I pride myself on being creative, so I decided to have a stab at it.
I am very communal-minded, so I thought I should entertain the neighbours. I don’t play any instrument, but I know hundreds of songs dating back to the 1940s. In my imagination, I saw all my Jerusalem neighbours coming out to join in, sending their children to the street below to dance, keeping their social distance, of course. Well, that’s not exactly what happened. After I began singing – I chose my favourite aria from Madame Butterfly, “One Fine Day” – what I heard was doors being closed with great force and windows being slammed down. But, I persevered, until all the birds in the trees outside my balcony decided to migrate early this year and flew off to Australia or Siberia (whichever was the furthest), and even the cats that hang around our building also disappeared.
I next decided I could keep busy by tidying up my office. I know I have a very nice writing desk. I haven’t actually seen it for a few years because my printer sits on it, plus a pile of ideas for articles and stories that I intend to use one day. I decided to be ruthless and get rid of them, but then I thought I should read them first, after which I decided maybe to keep them for happier times. At least, this activity kept me busy for a couple of hours.
By then, it was lunch time, and I decided to use my creativity to prepare a gourmet meal for my husband from the ingredients I could find, after not having gone shopping for about five weeks. I put things on the kitchen counter and looked at them: one sad-looking turnip, some potatoes, three packets of desiccated coconut (where did they come from?), a tin of chickpeas and a packet of potato flour left over from Pesach. This assortment really taxed my imagination, especially as my husband, these last few days, has been giving me looks that say, “You don’t really expect me to eat this!” I haven’t done violence to him yet, which is a tribute to my self-restraint. Oh, I’ve thought about it, and I think a good lawyer could get me acquitted if I did – I’m sure there’s something called “justifiable homicide.”
I did the laundry, and then made the mistake of looking in the mirror. My hair hasn’t had the tender ministrations of a hairdresser for more than a month. I’m reminded of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from the musical Oklahoma. I now have a fringe – or “bangs,” as I think North Americans say – and a strange triangle of hair that sticks out on the side. It is very depressing, but, if I put on my facemask and use the elastic to push it away, it doesn’t look too bad. In fact, when I wear the facemask, I look quite good.
So, I guess I am keeping busy under lockdown after all. I would like to say that I keep a balanced diet – a block of dark chocolate in one hand and a block of milk chocolate in the other – but I don’t actually have any chocolate. I like the story of a doctor who told his elderly patient that it would be a good idea if she put a bar in her shower, and she did – with bottles of whiskey, brandy, wine and vodka. I can’t do it though, because my soap holder won’t support even a bottle of wine.
Nonetheless, I hope I’ve given readers some ideas of how to keep busy under the restrictions that COVID-19 requires. It’s just a matter of initiative and creativity, and the time will pass constructively. I wish everyone good health until this traumatic time comes to an end.
Dvora Waysman is a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
Without interpretation, the world’s greatest art is little more than a lot of pretty pictures. Similarly, absent interpretation and thoughtful reflection, history is not much more than a litany of names and dates.
This month, we are marking many anniversaries. The end of the Second World War in Europe. The liberation of the last Nazi concentration camps. The beginning of Soviet-versus-Western tensions and proxy wars that lasted decades.
In some ways, we cannot begin to comprehend the Holocaust, or the world’s reaction to it, without reflecting on a different anniversary we mark this month. It was 60 years ago this week – May 11, 1960 – that Mossad operatives captured Adolf Eichmann, a prime architect of the Holocaust. The astonishing operation, which amazes observers even today with its bizarre twists and chutzpah on an international scale, stands out as a turning point in the way the world – Jews especially – view Holocaust history.
Holocaust survivors themselves understood the particularity of the Holocaust, while much of the world perceived the millions of Jewish lives lost as a part of the larger war casualties, not qualitatively different from the deaths of citizens of Dresden or Coventry or Stalingrad. It should need not be said that every human life lost is a tragedy. But, from the perspective of historical meaning, the murder of Jews, Roma, people with disabilities, homosexuals and others targeted for identities unrelated to the national conflicts, must be understood apart from the tragic consequences of war.
This is the consensus position today – that the Holocaust paralleled the Second World War but was substantively and morally different from broader contemporary events. This consensus emerged to a great extent from the Eichmann capture and trial.
Eichmann was living in Argentina, so confident in his security that, in retrospect, his subterfuge was minimal. Once tipped off, the Mossad had little trouble locating him.
Eichmann’s legendary defence, that he was merely following orders, was dismissed by the Israeli court. Whatever moral or military defence that argument posited was defied by the facts. Eichmann, according to eyewitnesses and documentary evidence, did far more than follow orders. He enthusiastically fulfilled directives beyond the letter or spirit of the command.
When the trial began, in 1961, it was said that one could walk through Tel Aviv and hear the proceedings on radio through every open window. The implications of the Eichmann trial for the world’s understanding of this history, and for Israeli and Jewish consciousness, was revolutionary.
Even among families that included survivors, or who had lost entire branches of the family tree, the historical context of the Holocaust was nebulous until this time. The small amount of survivor testimony that had emerged immediately after the war had largely dissipated, in part because the public did not want to face the most grotesque evidence of human depravity and because, in many cases, the survivors chose to sublimate their experiences and attempt to rebuild and move on with their lives.
It was only in the minutiae of the evidence at trial, the mind-boggling precision, industrial-style execution of diabolical plans and indescribable sadism of the Nazi war against Jews that people began to understand both the quantitative and the qualitative nature of the Shoah.
In addition to gaining insights into what their parents or other survivors might have experienced, younger Jews and Israelis intuited from the evidence a larger realization about their people. According to some historians, an idea persisted in the years after 1945 that the Jews of Europe had gone silently – “like sheep,” in the dehumanizing terminology too often employed – to their deaths.
Gaining an understanding of the inescapable precision and indefatigable determination of the Nazis to identify and murder every single Jew in their realm, younger Jews and Israelis came to know that their lost civilization did not go willingly. Indeed, among the earliest memorializations of the Holocaust – including here in Vancouver – were commemorations of the bravery and resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The nuances of the historical record were enriched by this knowledge, with implications for the self-identity of Jews everywhere. The extent of the cataclysm was a result of the homicidal tenacity of the Nazis and their collaborators, not of the responses of their victims.
The Eichmann trial opened a floodgate. The contemporary era of Holocaust history, including survivor memoirs and public discussion of that time, really began then. A decade later, this new understanding led to a backlash of Holocaust denial and revisionism which, in turn, inspired yet more survivors to speak out to correct and add to the record.
Today, we struggle to keep this history alive and to challenge its diminishment and misuse. Even among well-intentioned people who would never mean to belittle this history, there is a tendency to invoke it in situations that by no measure are comparable.
Additionally, especially in Europe, public opinion polls reveal that there is a fatigue around the subject. In many countries, pluralities or even majorities say that too much attention is paid to the Holocaust. Incongruously, the same polls indicate that it is in countries where ignorance of this history is most pronounced that citizens contend there is too much focus on it. Try to square those results.
We always view the past through the changing lens of the present. We have seen transformations in the understanding of and responses to Holocaust history for 75 years now. One of the challenges of our generation and successive ones is to be active in addressing these changing perceptions and interpretations. Our desire to continue to delve into this difficult experience and our people’s enduring trauma cannot depend on other people’s ignorance or assessment of what’s considered “too much” or “too in the past.” Our obligation, as carriers of this knowledge and witnesses to the survivors, is to glean the lessons of the past that improve the future and help strengthen our community and our societies. We will continue to do this work and to honour our ancestors. And we will continue to share what we know to be true, as we search for ways to make “Never again” a reality.
For some, this pandemic has been lonely. For families with children, like mine, it’s a lot of togetherness and work. The offer to listen to deep thinkers from three religious traditions by myself for an hour was a rare chance. I’m busy – homeschooling, working, cooking and constantly being “in community” with my twin 8-year-olds. We’re missing our relatives, school and social gatherings, but I’m working constantly. During this pandemic, I’m almost never physically alone.
For an introvert like me, this has been hard. So, I jumped at the chance to cover a webinar with religious insights on the pandemic.
While we’re physically isolated, we’re also more connected by technology than ever before. This is how moderator Dr. Reinhard Krauss began a Zoom webinar, hosted by the American Jewish University, called “Muslims, Jews and Christians: Coming Together in Extraordinary Times.”
The three panelists were all distinguished educators who do interfaith dialogue. Each also offered their personal take on their religious traditions. Rabbi Dr. Elliot Dorff shared Jewish insights, Sister Deborah Lorentz, a member of Sisters of Social Justice, offered a Catholic perspective and Jihad Turk, the president and founder of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, spoke about Islam.
Much of the webinar highlighted our faith communities’ shared values, including strong support of science and medicine as a way forward. All three panelists, speaking from their faith traditions, pointed out the risky behaviour of extremists who have chosen to ignore medical advice around social distancing. Whether it’s ultra-Orthodox Charedim gathering illegally in Brooklyn or churches choosing to meet on Easter, the consensus was that these choices to disregard social distancing science were crazy. They were, according to Dorff, against Jewish law in terms of saving a life. Jewish teachings regarding social distancing, illness and separation go all the way back to Leviticus.
The need to stay put and social distance is in Islamic teachings, too. Turk quoted a 1,400-year-old hadith (saying of the prophet Mohammed) that said: “Usama b. Zaid said the Prophet said: ‘If you hear of a plague in a land do not enter it; and if it breaks out in the land where you stay, do not leave.’”
All three faith communities talked about the history of community and our traditional strengths in gathering together. Sister Deborah mentioned St. Benedict’s teachings about living in community together. This, she said, is a longstanding support system that we all need.
However, when we can’t gather, we must find other solutions. Catholics must look inward and find “the Jesus Christ within” to gain strength, she said.
Dorff talked about how, when we as Jews are isolated, we miss the most routine things, like going to a movie theatre or grocery store – and then we must innovate. He used a personal anecdote to explain a Jewish historic pattern, mentioning how, for the first time, he and his wife were using technology to chat virtually with all four of their adult children and their families at once. They’d replaced their usual Sunday afternoon movie outing with a virtual family gathering. This had never occurred to them before the pandemic. In isolation, they missed their routine and, therefore, innovated.
The most painful loss for many of us was not being able to gather physically for big holidays – Passover, Easter and, now, Ramadan. Ramadan is an intensely communal holiday, in which families join every evening for iftar to break their fast. Many Muslims also gather at mosques to break their daily fast, and to pray together. Yet, none of that can happen this year. Yes, there are virtual events, but it’s not the same as being together.
So, people must change their routines and pray at home. Turk spoke of “challenging people to work at home. Develop and refine the art of supplication, reaching out from your heart to G-d to what you are most in need of. Strengthen that muscle.”
All three panelists said almost in unison that things should not “return to normal” when it comes to our great societal inequities. Feeding, clothing and housing those in need were recurrent themes. Sister Deborah spoke about how, despite all the struggles that this experience might cause, it also might offer us great gifts. It’s up to us to do the work and find the gifts we’re being taught.
These reflections provided me with food for thought. I was struck by the notion that during this Ramadan, Muslims must work hard to pray at home and “strengthen that muscle when it comes to opening yourself up to G-d.” Often, when I pray in Jewish communities, we’re reciting the prayers but not doing that introspective work.
Sister Deborah’s notion that we must find the gifts in a challenging time was also a perspective that I struggled to find on my own. She encouraged everyone to use this to make change in the future – to envision the way we can take responsibility to right wrongs and inequities we all see in society.
The webinar ended with encouragements to show our love to our families, our friends and the world. We must return to society with, in Dorff’s words, “a greater appreciation for people who do service for us. Farmers, truckers, medical professionals, teachers – we need each other.”
The hour I spent alone listening to this panel discussion was precious. It’s rare indeed for parents to be alone at all during this pandemic! As a bonus, I also heard ideas common to all three faiths: science, work, social responsibility, community connection, and the need to love one another. All these are rooted in Jewish tradition. It’s well worth considering these common and important ideas as we face our lives in a new, post-pandemic landscape.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
It’s far too easy to think of all the hardships and sacrifices that have come with COVID-19. They’re ubiquitous and abundant. They’re in our face the second we step outside our front door, turn on the TV or go online. A barrage of bad news. A surfeit of sadness. A plethora of pathogens. A deluge of disease. Stop me anytime.
It’s getting to be too much. But that’s beside the point. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau keeps telling us, “moistly,” and with practised gravitas, “We are all in this together.” Sadly, that is no consolation. There is one thing that does help though: making a habit of feeling grateful. While some of you will shut me down right now as being a cliché, that’s where I’m coming from.
Every day or two, when I go for a short walk in my neighbourhood, I look around and wonder when spring happened. How is it that I missed seeing the nascent buds on the magnolia trees, which are now strutting their huge pink flowers like botanical catcher’s mitts? When did the hydrangeas arrive at the party? And when did everyone start walking around the local park in facemasks and latex gloves?
Nothing I have experienced in my 64 years comes close to this COVID-19 pandemic. Same goes for most of us, I’m sure. There is nothing to compare it to, thank G-d. I am at a loss for synonyms. Only antonyms hit the mark: normal, regular, run-of-the-mill. We will likely never return to what we knew as normal ever again. At least not the same variety. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps we will come to redefine normal in an even better light. I know one thing: most people have become kinder, more thoughtful, more aware. This is huge.
In the face of the overwhelming upheaval, illness and sadness we’ve been witness to, I choose to feel grateful. Because there are always gems among the dross, moments of pure beauty and holiness. I assure you, I’m not some Pollyanna who views life through rose-coloured glasses all the time. However, challenged by what’s going on around us, I need to believe that there is still much to be thankful for in this COVID-19 world. For my part, that includes my health, my husband, my family. As well as these sunny days. The last remnants of snow on our pristine mountains. Less traffic. Clear skies. A shocking dearth of commerce. My pension. Food in the freezer and enough pasta to last until I’m 90. I feel luckier than most.
I can’t begin to comprehend the suffering that’s going on around me. Not only the illness and death that’s affecting families and communities all over the world, but the sheer panic and anxiety from loss of jobs, loss of homes, not enough to eat, wondering what’s next. But I’m shored up knowing that there are still people out there who are putting themselves at risk to help others, by delivering food, picking up medications and, of course, all those frontline workers who turn up every day.
For now, I take comfort in the little things, which, I’m realizing have become the big things. Like a walk in fresh air, and hearing good news of any sort. It doesn’t take much. The drugstore has facemasks and latex gloves in stock – woo hoo! I can finally buy Lysol wipes again – victory! Oh, how perception has shifted. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that this pandemic has taught us to reevaluate our priorities.
Time and a sense of accomplishment are a whole other story. At the beginning of the pandemic, the pattern of my days rotated around things instead of ideas and concepts. Back then, I thought a productive day was accomplishing this:
- Buying a box of disposable facemasks at Canadian Tire.
- Spending two hours and successfully finding a store that sells alcohol swabs.
- Making fried matzah with cinnamon and honey bananas for my husband.
- Ironing our laundry.
- Dusting (two rooms).
- Successfully (or not?) diagnosing myself with eczema from constant and somewhat obsessive handwashing.
Not much, but at least I did things instead of sitting around binge-watching Netflix all day. As the weeks passed, I began to tip the scales by attending online seminars throughout the day; some from the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, some from Chabad, and others.
Between running around doing, and sitting and learning, I struggle to distinguish between wasted time and purpose. It seems almost counterintuitive, even ridiculous, to call anything purposeful right now. I mean, how much purpose can we have during a pandemic? Who can we influence for the good? What kind of mitzvot can we do?
Believe me – or don’t – but the answers to those questions are: lots, many, and endless. It takes scant energy to say hello to a stranger on your daily walk and ask how they’re doing. People just need to experience or see one good deed to carry it forward. There are countless ways to do a mitzvah – phone an elderly relative or friend; buy a few extra groceries and give them to someone in need; make a meal for your neighbour and deliver it to their doorstep. Simple. Simple. And simple. Just get outside yourself.
The world, and we humans, are not that complicated. It doesn’t take Herculean effort or huge sums of money to pull someone out of an emotional hole. It simply takes an open heart. We spend countless hours building our bodies so they can withstand the weight of the world. Now it’s time to build our hearts. In fact, there is no better time than right now. So go forth and be your best self – for yourself, and for others.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.