Fill the Communal Void While Flattening the Corona-Curve

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The Jerusalem Post  18/03/2020

Fill the Communal Void While Flattening the Corona-Curve

Going from mourning your mother for a week in Maryland to a two-week Corona-quarantine in Jerusalem, makes “shiva” – which means 7 – feel like “esrim-ve’echad,” 21-days.  The sense of loss, disorientation, brokenness, trepidation, flows from one experience to another, blurring personal pain with individual and communal worries. The differences are dramatic, of course. During shiva, family, friends, and community embraced us – although as our particular shiva progressed, the mood shifted. Day-by-day, our hugging-crying-praying-eating-reminiscing circle of love started feeling like one big germ-generating Petri Dish. The affection and comfort we were absorbing hungrily, gratefully, often tactiley, became menacing. Suddenly “community” meant communicable disease not communal values. Quarantine is quieter, lonelier, more sterile, physically and existentially. It’s actually more conducive to the contemplation the three-ring shiva circus often postpones.

When mourning, you toggle back and forth between smiling at fond memories and grieving that a vibrant three-dimensional life has abruptly been frozen into images, anecdotes, punchlines. In that juggling spirit, note all we’ve lost since the Corona-craze began – and some silver linings too.

Flying from Washington’s Dulles Airport to Tel Aviv on March 11 was surreal. Normally, breezing through an empty airport, discovering enough empty seats for each kid to sleep four-across, would delight us. This time, the void intensified our funereal mood, triggering this sense of dread. Landing at Ben-Gurion, looking out the huge plate-glass windows, I saw clear to the horizon. There was something off. Usually, dozens of planes sit there on the tarmac. Now, they were gone; who knows when they will return.

By Baggage Carousel 6, a spontaneous minyan – prayer quorum of ten – formed. Another man sporting a similar “shiva beard” led prayers. When we finished, we both thanked the other eight worshippers, saying “we don’t know the next time we will be able to say the Kaddish,” the mourning prayer which requires a “minyan” – community!

Every missing passenger, every absent plane, every abandoned café and customs desk, symbolized this Corona-virus’s invisible peril. We can’t see it. We can’t fight it. But we can feel its effects. The deathly silence on the plane and in the airports loudly broadcast the economic devastation so many people face.

Headlines emphasize teetering companies and the poor-poor, those losing jobs, potentially losing homes, due to this economic freeze.  We shouldn’t forget the lower-middle-class and middle-class workers, living from paycheck to paycheck, who cannot afford to miss their hard-earned wages for a week, let alone months.

During the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike, my teacher-parents didn’t work for two months.  Midway through the strike, the mother of Douglas, a kid we barely knew on our school-bus route, offered my mother $300 to support “the teachers” – and help pay our bills. My mother was gracious, grateful but too proud to accept this then-staggering sum from veritable strangers.

In memory of my mother Elaine Troy, I challenge us all. Start calculating how much money you’re saving by not going to movies, by skipping restaurants, bars, cafes, by not commuting, by staying home and keeping your “social distance.” If you need to live off that, live off that. But if you don’t, if you’re a “have” not a “have not,” a steady-eddy salaried worker, or a Corona-jackpot-winner, say, thanks to stock in Purell or rubber gloves or delivery services, calculate how much you’re making or saving – and share with others.

Massively overtip your next cab driver or waiter or service worker suffering from under-employment. Slip some money – or groceries – anonymously, with a nice note – under your suffering neighbor’s door. Don’t wait for the government to compensate or redistribute – do it yourself – if you can.

Here’s the crazy thing. This is not only the right thing to do. It’s the psychologically healthy move too. Just as when we face the fait accompli of death, this Coronavirus leaves us feeling overwhelmed, inept, paralyzed. Acting generously, creatively, flamboyantly, returns what academics call “agency” to our lives. It frees us from feeling like passive victims. It doesn’t fight the virus, just some of its most debilitating side effects.

In public health terms, we’re supposed to help “Flatten the Curve,” mitigate the devastation this terrifying virus might wreak. In communal terms, let’s Fill the Void, stepping up, contributing as much as we can, to whatever workers we know whose paychecks have vanished and whose safety cushions have lost air.

In Jewish terms, let’s not get too addicted to these emergency measures that put our lives online. Judaism is lived in plural, with others.  Jews without community are like baseball players without a team. We need one another to do it right – be it praying together, learning together, or just kvetching together. Hopefully, being deprived of community will enhance our appreciation and longing for us-ness, not accelerate our descent into individuation, fragmentation, self-imposed isolation.

Unfortunately, we’re already hearing the ugly stories that crises generate. A New York friend watched a shopper buy out every available box of rubber gloves. Others endured pre-emptive firings so the bosses could preserve profits. But we’re also hearing stories of generosity, nobility, and community-mindedness.

As this virus-crisis robs us of the joy of community, as we feel how alienating it is to live in isolation, let’s push back. Let’s invest in one another, helping out each other, until it hurts so much it helps us feel that we aren’t victims but communal superheroes, conquering this supervirus through superb acts of lovingkindness.

Let’s do it for others – and for ourselves.



Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .   



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