It was Friday, March 13. That was the day our lives took an alternate course; one I would never have imagined. That was the day the stay-at-home order began in our house. That was the day after the last day I would hug my grandchildren without giving it another thought. That was the day after my last trip to the market or to a movie or to a concert or to a restaurant or to my synagogue for services or to work in my office or to.…well, you can fill in the blanks. That was the day all of my appointments in my calendar were crossed off and a new form of life began on the screen of my computer. Now I was in Zoomland. This too shall pass, one of my Dad’s favorite phrases, was the mantra for several months, too many months, but now it’s almost a year since that fateful day and that phrase rings hollow. When will this end? How will we get through it? From where will we get our strength? How many more people will fall sick and not survive? What will be the long-term effects on our children? So many unanswerable questions.
After we cleaned out our closets and garages and washed our windows and re-organized every drawer in the house, and baked another loaf of bread, a sort of paralysis set in. How long will this go on? I must say that on a professional level I am so indebted to PJ Library for providing us with a roadmap forward into this changing world! The Annual PJ Library Conference scheduled for March in person in Springfield, Massachusetts went virtual and the paralysis turned to action. The challenges became new adventures into an unknown, untapped but not impenetrable universe. The creativity began to flow and the most amazing brand-new ways of reaching our families took form in the shape of take-home kits and online concerts and card exchanges and scavenger hunts and story times and family challenges and more, much, much more. Many of us met weekly to problem solve new ailments like Zoom fatigue. The comradery alone was uplifting and validating. We were doing something positive to help our families cope and carry on.
As Jews we are fortunate to have a well-marked roadmap to help guide us through challenging times. We have our calendar which guides the rhythm of our lives. Holidays and celebrations and life cycle events are the signposts marking the way. Traditions old and new are stitched together to form the patchwork quilt that provides warmth and comfort in a most colorful combination of unique patterns and shapes. Besides Shabbat, Passover was the first milestone celebrated during Covid. Families created unique ways to still have a seder with their loved ones, even if they were on line. Briskets still got made and delivered. Matza ball soup flowed between homes. New questions were added to the four originals. Family members who would not normally participate from distant locations, showed up on screen. Added to the traditional concluding declaration “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we included the fervent hope, “Next Year Together Again!”
Each and every holiday that followed was newly constructed to meet our stay-at-home needs. B’nai Mitzvah and weddings are still being celebrated in new albeit limited fashion. Babies are being welcomed into the community and, of course, we continue to bury our dead.
The rhythm of our lives continues. And besides the calendar and traditions the current state of our lives is impacted by the teachings of our ancestors which resonate even more clearly in troubled times. When we remember that there are those who are not just inconvenienced but whose very existence is at stake, we honor our values. I sit on the board of a local non-profit which serves the homeless and at-risk populations in our community. We have been overwhelmed with donations of food, money and goods to help the needy survive. These acts of tzedakah, or charity, should be ongoing, of course and not just in troublesome times, but they are impactful, nevertheless. Acts of loving kindness, g’milut hasadim, involve the more direct act of caring for people and we have seen many examples during these times as well. There are those who are making phone calls to check up on people living alone, there are those who shop for and deliver food to people who cannot go to the market themselves, there are those who drive by to visit homebound friends. My son’s family has a cooler on their front porch filled with drinks for the delivery folks who come to their house. The note just says, “Help yourself and thank you.” And we now have the ultimate example of a caring act that cannot be reciprocated, there are health care workers in the hospital who lovingly hold the hand of a patient who is about to die alone.
We need to remember to be grateful. Most of us have a roof over our heads. Most of us have access to food and water. Most of us have others in our lives who care about us. Most of us have our health. Our skies are definitely clearer and bluer. The traffic is a little lighter. The vaccine is closer, and we can look to the future with hope. “Who is rich? The saying goes, “The one who is happy with what they have.”
My friend and teacher Dr. Ron Wolfson wrote a little book called G-d’s To-Do List. It was written in pre Covid times, but its message clearly applies to today. Another of my teachers and friends Danny Siegel, a noted poet and writer himself, said this book “…combines Jewish text, real-life stories, and practical suggestions to the ultimate end that we should consider our place in life and mold that life with an element of holiness.” Among its chapters the book includes Comfort, Care and Repair, pages replete with ideas about how to make this world a better place. In Wolfson’s words:
“G-d performs acts of loving kindness. The Bible is filled with the stories of how G-d cares. In Jewish tradition, the morning prayers include these words from the Bible:”
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy…You shall not insult the deaf
Or put a stumbling block before the blind. You shall not render an unjust decision;
Do not be partial to the poor or show deference to the rich: judge your neighbor
Fairly. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate your
Brother in your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.—Leviticus 19:2, 14-18
Wolfson continues: “You can care, too. By doing acts of goodness every day. By making a difference to just one person. Who knows? Perhaps you can do something today that the world-your world-may talk about for years to come.”
These are challenging times for sure, but we are fortunate to have a lifeline of Jewish traditions and teachings and a community to cling to as we make our way through the haze into the bright sunlight once more. If you are in need of help or support please contact the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel & Pomona Valleys, 626-445-0810.
Debby Singer is Jewish Federation’s PJ Library Program Director, and a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.