Coronavirus and the Jewish space/time continuum

Coronavirus and the Jewish space/time continuum

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

…. and then the night pajamas became the day pajamas, which became the night pajamas, and then became the day pajamas yet again. It was morning and evening, the eighth week.”

We joke a lot now about day blending into day under the strain of coronavirus restrictions. How we’re living inside the film “Groundhog Day,” albeit with none of the good punchlines. How we have to be reminded that yes, it’s Monday yet again.

In our house, we measure weeks against the day we went to New York City to pick up our son, just as the city locked down. Since then, I’ve been running an ad hoc WeWork, keeping three people with outside employment stocked in coffee, snacks, and meals. The downstairs workstation has become my husband’s, where he works in administration for a local university. He had been using the desk in our son’s room but he turned over to our son, who is parsing unemployment data at a nonstop rate for his employer. And our daughter bought a small desk for her small room, so she could start her job as a software engineer at a social media company.

Who starts a first job from home?

We are healthy. We are employed. We are lucky.

And yet.

I miss the things that marked the rhythm of my days. I miss my daily visits to JCC Rockland, where I worked out. I miss the same people I’d see every day in the various classes I took there. We were the early crew, the ones who jump start our days with high-octane fitness, who got there in the dark when the parking lot was empty and the day was full of possibility.

I miss the minyan at the New City Jewish Center. I wasn’t a daily attendee, but I went every Thursday. I miss the ritual of tefillin, donning my tallit, sometimes filling in for the regular Torah reader. I miss that moment after the service when the regulars would gather with those who came to say kaddish to hear a few words about what made their loved ones special. I have tried joining for the daily davening on Zoom—is there anything that now cannot be done on Zoom? It’s not a minyan, since we aren’t really present together, but for many people it works. To me, it somehow manages to be both ridiculous and moving at the same time, which kind of sums up a lot of how I feel about things these days, like our family recently “hosting” the shul’s weekly Zoom Havdallah. Are those words you ever thought you’d see in print? It was nice, but it wasn’t exactly the Havdallah you remember from camp.

Mostly I miss Shabbat services. Those I do attend every week. I sit in the same spot, my makom, and all the people I know, from the friends I enjoy seeing each week, to the folks that maybe I’m kind of avoiding, all sit in their same spots. When a regular is missing, your antennae are up. Are they ill? Away at a bat mitzvah somewhere else? On vacation? You notice. On Shabbat I often lead davening or leyn Torah. I like to think of these things as tasks I do for my community, and I miss them. Truly.

My family pulled off Pesach and seder this year just fine. We’ve done it with just the four of us some years, and so this one didn’t seem that weird. But at the end of this month, I know that my annual Shavuot dessert party most likely will not take place. Ask my kids their favorite holiday — it’s Shavuot. It has little to do with the giving of the law and a lot to do with the ample number of dairy delicacies I make, and the 30 to 40 people who show up to eat them. Social distancing it’s not. And even if New York State begins to reopen on May 15, something that seems unlikely, Rockland County, where I live, has been one of the coronavirus hotspots. Like the city, it likely will open more slowly or later. Or both.

The lack of shul, of the JCC, of other Jewish agencies I’m connected to, have left holes in my life. Holes I fill with anxiety about grocery shopping and making double-sided fabric masks. And worry that Jewish space is imperiled. We have all read with alarm about the Reform movement opting to keep its overnight camps shuttered for the summer; that some of the Conservative movement camps have already followed suit, as well, perhaps to be joined by more closings. Israel trips and teen travel experiences are canceled. It’s as if someone hit an enormous pause button for Jewish life—well, all life—with no intention of releasing it any time soon.

These Jewish spaces are important. If you’ve worked or volunteered for any amount of time in the Jewish world, you know we spend a lot of time pondering the existential crises of Jewish life in North America of the 21st century. Whatever the buzzwords du jour—keeping people engaged, meeting them where they’re at, continuity—we worry a lot about being there for people and about our institutions’ viability. Coronavirus has given us a crash course in what a very grim future without them might look like.

What happens to our Jewish spaces in the fall, when three-time-a-year Jews cannot come to synagogue for the high holidays? Last year, we were worrying about how much we could charge for seats. Now we’re worried if we can even sell them at all. Or if we can, if anyone will want to sit in them.

I’m tired of hearing from thought leaders who expound on how coronavirus will make us rethink at long last our “edifice complex,” how pop-up Judaism will save us all. It won’t. Eventually you really need some place to be with people, panim el panim. Face to face.

The counterpoint to Jewish space is Jewish time, most famously described by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book “The Sabbath.” Heschel sees Jewish time as eternal, transcending the “things” and space, the mundane and the day-to-day. And it is true that even without my Jewish spaces, my family manages some semblance of Jewish time. That on Friday the frenzy comes to a stop. I prepare dinner and we mark the event with blessings. And, of course, we note, a little wearily, “What week is this we’re going into? Week nine?”

Heschel said that yearning for Shabbat marks the week. We literally tell time by noting other days in opposition to that sacred day. We don’t need Gov. Andrew Cuomo telling us that today is Saturday—even though it was kind of funny that he did. We need the profane to experience the holy.

“The Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity,” Heschel wrote. “It needs the companionship of all other days.” I would add that it also needs the companionship of those “profane” spaces. For Jewish spaces enrich our experience in ways we perhaps see most clearly when we do not have them. They are mundane, but only because we have been able to take them for granted.

I’m hoping that my Jewish spaces survive the coronavirus meltdown. It’s hard to look too far into the future—one that as yet offers vaccines or cures—without shuddering. But whatever comes next, let’s hope that it at least involves a change out of pajamas.