Tag Archives: Covid-19

The Shabbatniks

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

Covid-19 brought the life I knew skidding to a halt and no amount of phone calls, long walks, or scarfing down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Brownie could soothe my fears about it. But when my older daughter Rhonda, an occupational therapist in a rehab facility, became a front line worker, and my younger, Leslie, had to go through rounds of treatment for stage 4 breast cancer, my worries took on new meaning. My girls’ lives were at risk. Beside myself with worry, I didn’t know where to turn. And then for some reason, I turned to candles. 

When my mother died, I had been a twice a year Jew, showing up at temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But I wanted to honor her with the kaddish prayer, so I started going every day. I found comfort in that ancient ritual and a connection to my people who for centuries had recited those very same words in their own grief. Maybe candle-lighting, my mother’s ritual, would help ground me now.

I dug up her Lenox candlesticks and dusted them off, remembering my mother, her arms stretched out over the flickering lights, the circular motion of her hands toward her face as she recited the prayer. That Friday night when I lit the candles, to my surprise, I also remembered the blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”  Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot [blessings], commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat. It had lived in me. I had learned the prayer without knowing I had. 

The following week, I posed the question to my daughters: What do you say we all light candles via Facetime this Friday? (God bless technology!) Sure, they said. We came up with a time that would work for all of us.

My mother’s candlesticks at the ready, I made the call from Queens to Staten Island and then to Seattle. My daughters gathered their families around their screens. “Why are we doing this?!” said my grandson, as only a 16-year-old torn from his video game can ask.

“Because we’re Jewish. And that’s what Jews do!” said Rhonda, working her mom mojo.

We lit the candles and said the blessing; then, we blessed the wine: “…borei p’ri hagafen.” Rhonda had bought a challah, or what passes for challah in their Washington town with only two Jewish families, and we said the motzi: “…haMotzi lechem min haaretz.” Behind the burning flames, our FaceTime images smiled; we wished one another a Shabbat Shalom. My daughters and I remained on our phones while the rest of the family drifted away to their own interests.

          Work, friends, the dreaded virus, the minutiae of our lives — our talk was the same as our regular, day-to-day conversations. Yet there was something different. Something special had been added to our post candle-lighting chat. A kind of peace? A sense of hope? An overall feeling that it was going to be okay? (The it being Rhonda’s safety; Leslie’s health.) I can’t put a finger on it, but whatever it was, they must have felt it, too. Because when it was time to say goodbye, Leslie offered, “Let’s do this again next week.”

As the weeks went by, my sons-in-law, Andrew and Larry, remained on the call commenting here and there on the past week’s events, their thoughts about them, and whatever else came to mind. I was getting to know them in a way I hadn’t known them before. Friday night candle-lighting became an event we all looked forward to. Even my grandson came to the table sans gripe (well, most of the time).

I decided to download Zoom so we wouldn’t be confined to little squares on our phones. Big screen here we come. I opted for the free 40 minute deal and with a little help (a lot of help actually) from online tutorials I managed to set it up and send my daughters the link. 

The thick of Covid thinned in the rehab facility where Rhonda worked. Leslie was responding to her new treatment. My anxiety dimmed, but not my enthusiasm for our candle-lighting — or my daughters’ interest in it. “What time is Shabbat?” they texted me each Friday. It made me smile: I loved how religious they sounded, even though they were anything but.

Two months into our new tradition, I suggested we ask my brother, their Uncle Steven in Puerto Rico, to be our guest that Friday night. Sure, they said. 

My brother seemed not to know what to make of our get-together, the joking around we did, the talk of food and recipes after the prayers. He watched rather than join in, but his smile showed he was happy to be included. We asked him to be a regular. He was “honored.” Thinking he didn’t have candlesticks, I sent him a traveling set via Amazon. Now he was a full participant. That Friday he asked us a riddle: “How do they throw a party at NASA? They plan it and rent out a space.” Baddaboom! He fit right in. Our Shabbat candle-lighting had become a true pleasure, just as the Jewish elders wanted it.

Weeks later we asked my nephew Gary, Steven’s son in Brooklyn, to our little band of candle-lighters. He often logs-in bucking traffic on the LIE (Long Island Expressway) but he has not missed a Friday night.  

When Thanksgiving came, we decided to have a virtual holiday so we could all be together. We Zoomed about the dinners we’d had—food again, a biggie with us. Steven had sent a group text about gratitude and each of us spoke, not only about what we were grateful for, but what gratitude meant to us. A more introspective and serious conversation than our usual lighthearted chats followed, deepening our awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings. 

We decided to name our group and had a rousing time one Friday night coming up with a proper appellation that expressed who we were. Nudnik, interrupternik—we’re always talking over each other (we’re Jewish aren’t we?)—and Shabbatnik were in the running. We decided on Shabbatniks, since it was Shabbat that had brought us together. 

On Chanukah we had a Latke Throwdown—Bobby Flay has nothing on us. We made latkes in all their permutations—sweet potato, zucchini, from a mix and from scratch—took a photo, sent it to all, and discussed our creations that Friday. 

We love the deep bond we have found in being together for 40 minutes every Friday night. Forty minutes that makes us feel good all week. What better way to celebrate that feeling than with a song. Homework: come up with a theme song for next week that typifies us. 

Mid-week I sent out an email reminding everyone that we would be having an awards night to pick the winner. Rhonda and Andrew dressed to the nines in evening gown and black tie. What a group! And their submission was a winner as well, done to the theme song of the Addams Family. All together now: “The Shabbatnicks’ family started/when writer Rita wanted/the children to be part of/the Shabbatnick Family.” Snap, snap.

We have come late to the ancient custom of candle-lighting, but that tradition has had an impact on my family that is beyond anything we could ever have imagined. Could Covid and the isolation and worry it has thrown us into have made our connection so sweet and meaningful? Probably, now that I think about it. But rediscovering my family has more to do with finding new meaning in lighting two candles on a Friday night than any virus could ever bring. 

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, and are forthcoming in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, and Avalon Literary Review. http://www.ritaplush.com

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A Moment of Truth

by Susan Rudnick (Pleasantville, NY)

      Just days after they had become available, I had snagged an appointment early in January for my first vaccine. I did a little dance in front of the computer to celebrate. The night before I had stayed up till after 1 AM and then had gotten up before 7 to go on both the New York state and city websites, as well as my local Westchester county medical provider’s site. I had stayed with it through the mire of questions and red tape. It had paid off.  Caremount, my medical provider, came through. 

     But the next day a text message abruptly canceled it.

     Caremount was no longer able to provide the shots.  

     My vaccine rollercoaster rolled off the rails. I felt vulnerable, jealous of the friends who had already gotten their vaccines, and ashamed. 

     How come I couldn’t make it happen? What lead hadn’t I followed? Why me? I’m a first-generation child of Holocaust survivors, and that night I woke up shivering from a nightmare about the visa I had which was no longer valid. I was trapped in Germany while others were able to leave. 

     Around 7:30 AM,  the day of my canceled appointment, I woke up to a phone call. Nope, it wasn’t a last-minute call for the vaccine.

     In a supposedly unrelated matter a few weeks ago I had received an e-mail from a second cousin I had never met who lived in Israel. Her sister, Ruth, and I had visited each other several times, both in Israel and NY, and we had become close. A year ago I had mourned her death from breast cancer. But Nomi lived on a kibbutz in the south and for a combination of reasons we had never met.

     Now in her eighties, Nomi was looking to connect with me. Her daughter, living in California, had found me. She mentioned that her mother had health problems and, realizing her time was short, wanted to meet me, and also learn what I could share about our family. We had all gone back and forth a few times about using What’s App and how to meet. But nothing had been settled.

     When I picked up the phone on that morning, I heard a voice that sounded familiar. It was Nomi. Her voice was comforting, and sounded a lot like her sister’s. Her English was not the best, but we managed a lovely back-and-forth conversation about our family. She had met both my parents on their trips to Israel.

      At one point I asked if she knew my parents’ refugee story: how they escaped Germany, made it to Brazil and then to New York while my mother was pregnant with me.

     “Yes” she said, “and how your mother lied about the pregnancy because for some reason at the time you were not supposed to fly if you were.”

     My heart missed a beat.  As a child, and, even now, I loved telling friends how I was conceived in Brazil but born here. But my mother had never told me about the lie. Nomi didn’t remember where she had heard it, but she knew it was true.

     My brave mother! She had lied to get us here. I literally wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t. She desperately wanted a better life for us in the United States.  My parents had risked everything several times.  On this very last leg of their journey, I imagine them standing on an airport line together, and my mother not hesitating for a second to omit the truth about me in her belly.  

     In that moment I could feel my mother’s strength and wily wisdom coming to me through this fragile phone connection with someone I had never met.

     If I had been driving to get my shot I could not have picked up the call that held this vital fragment, a glorious puzzle-piece of my story that I would certainly enjoy sharing with friends.  

      I didn’t get the vaccine that day.

      But I was gifted with another kind of boost: a testament to the resiliency and creativity of my parents in a far more complex situation than my current one. I would surely find my way through the miasma of hotlines and websites to get my vaccine. 

Susan Rudnick is the author of the memoir: Edna’s Gift: How My Broken Sister Taught Me To Be Whole. It is the story of how her differently abled sister has been her greatest teacher. Susan is a published haiku poet and maintains a psychotherapy practice in Westchester NY. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website: susanrudnick.com

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Honoring your mother and father in lockdown

by Jay Prosser (London, England)

‘How about salmon stir-fry?’

‘Yes, weather warm and dry.’

I realise my parents are once again having a parallel-universe conversation.  This is the result of mutual increasing deafness, not helped by the depressing news virus updates at more-than-background volume.

Sitting between them at breakfast every morning, I’m often required also to translate between them.  The experience is similar to watching a movie with them.  ‘What are they saying?’  ‘I haven’t seen her before.’  I’m tempted to do sign language on the movie.

It would be one thing if I was 16, or 21, or even 30.  But it’s quite another if you’re a man in your 50s — with your life, job, and partner left behind in another city — to spend the lockdown months with parents in their 80s.  Neighbors have been very kind, and my parents relied on them before we could get online groceries.  But this is not The Graduate, and I’m definitely not Dustin Hoffman.  The neighbor’s wife is charming, but we bond only over tomato plants and coordinated deliveries.

Eleven weeks ago, my catastrophic worrying – the world is going to end – for once, proved the wise response. Just before lockdown, I packed my car with jars of halech (Iraqi Jewish date syrup), fermented beetroot and horseradish (it was just before Pesach, can you believe), piles of books so I could continue to teach, albeit remotely, at my university, and drove the 200 miles to be with my parents.

This week’s parashah includes the mitzvah about honoring your father and mother, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the extraordinary relevance of the 5th  commandment in lockdown.

The Hebrew word, kavod, translates as ‘honor’ or ‘respect,’ but its root, kved, carries the sense of heaviness, of a burden.  Our ensoncement has definitely not been easy.  We’ve had a series of domestic catastrophes.  The washing machine broke the day I arrived, releasing a flood that would have drowned Pharaoh’s horses.  Then the dishwasher broke.  The vacuum cleaner. The internet.  The landline.  It felt like a trial by ordeal.  I missed my partner.  My friends.  My ordered, other life.

The verse in Exodus, ‘Honor your father and mother and I will arrange your days on the land which your God gave you,’ is about commitment to your parents and their home, clearly meant to be Israel.  But returning to maintain my childhood home for my parents, the mitzvah has a different resonance right now.  My parents are fit for their age and definitely more social than me.  Their week is normally a cheerful merry-go-round of ballet and golf; French and tai chi; croissants and coffee; and, ever more occasionally, synagogue.  But since they’ve not been outside for ten weeks, I’ve been their lifeline. I’m living in the studio in the loft and admiring my parents’ resourcefulness and stoicism – really respecting them — as they do their 50 circuits daily around the 100-foot garden (about 1.5 miles), weaving in and out of each other’s way, as if performing a coded bee dance.

The Talmud says that to honor your parents is like honoring God, because along with God you owe your existence to them.  We learn that there should be almost no limit to honoring one’s parents, so that if our father was sleeping and we needed the key from under his pillow to unlock the chest and sell the contents that would make us a large fortune, we nevertheless shouldn’t disturb him.  We hear of the rabbi who willingly bends low so that his elderly mother can use him as footstool to get into bed at night.  But we also learn that all such actions must be done with a good heart and the right sprit: that we can be punished if we serve our parents a ‘delectable fatty bird’ resentfully.  This latter, at least, is not my problem.  I find it truly heart-warming to see my parents tucking into my easy-peasy roast chicken dinner.

Honor, the Talmud says, includes making sure your parents have provisions.  I’ve summoned this to mind as I help my mother with her online grocery order, explaining that, yes, you do have to pay when you get to the checkout, because you’ll lose your slot if you don’t — not always succeeding at keeping my head out of my hands.  Honoring one’s parents also includes providing for other needs.  I’ve planted salad greens in their garden to encourage my father to move more often from his chair to water them.  I’ve been baking (no one appreciates my challah more).  I’ve accrued gadgets to make their life easier in the enforced absence of their home help.  A secret joy is watching my mother gently order and nudge the new Roomba as if it were a small dog.

Jewish law even has something to say about honoring and dementia:  that we should continue to care for our parents until we absolutely no longer can, and only then should we delegate.  We learn Kaddish in order to honor parents after their death.  And the greatest honor we give them is by continuing to perform good deeds even when they won’t be here to witness them. As I’ve adjusted to my parents’ rhythms, I’ve realised what an honor it is for me simply to be here:  listening to their stories; watching their favourite film . . . which leads to the story of how they met; and I’ve heard that story a thousand times.

But in the end, honoring your elderly parents by spending lockdown with them is — unlike the normal filial fleeting visit home — not about you.  It’s about them and seeing the changes they’ve really gone through – their ageing process. It’s about realising your parents are mortal, fragile, vulnerable, especially to this virus.  It’s about carrying on the story from generation to generation.  And it’s about honoring all those who’ve come before you, and thereby keeping traditions alive.

And, yes, it’s about translating at the breakfast table.

Jay Prosser, a reader in humanities at the University of Leeds, has published his Jewish-themed writings in Tablet, Jewish Renaissance, and elsewhere, and has written and edited several academic books on various subjects. At the moment he is working on a book about his Asian-Jewish family.  For more information about Jay and his work, visit: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/english/staff/1076/dr-jay-prosser

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“What do you want?”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)
Unscathed, I live comfortably in hibernation, 
my larder stocked, my outlook optimistic.
The morning air wafts through my open window,
and I can hear the call and response of birds
punctuated by the screams of ambulances.
Then there is a knock at my door.
It grows louder, and, finally, I say,
“What do you want?”
I peer out my window and go downstairs 
and see a strange man dressed all in black.
“I have some terrible news,
about your friend, Tony, I believe.”
“Tony?”
“Yes, I see you and Tony at the diner most days.
You often eat breakfast together. Is that not true?
And he’s a paramedic and loved by many?”
“He is a good friend. What’s wrong? Tell me!”
“He is in the hospital with Covid-19.”
“Oh, my God, Is he OK?”
“I’m sorry to say he’s on a ventilator.”
“Which hospital? Can I see him?”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. Can I come in?
Perhaps we can pray together.”
“No, no, go away. You’re scaring me.”
“But there is more.”
“Don’t tell me he’s gonna die.”
“Most probably, but there is even more.”
“Are you coming for me?”
“Yes, possibly, and quite soon, I might add.”
Panic-stricken, I double-lock the door and shut the window.
I collapse in a chair and start praying for my friend,
but, upon reflection, I begin to say Kaddish for myself,
somehow hoping these words might save me.

 

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. You can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss. If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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