Letter from Israel: In solitary confinement together

Letter from Israel: In solitary confinement together

Idan Raichel sings from his home as about 400,000 people around the world watch from theirs. (JNF)
Idan Raichel sings from his home as about 400,000 people around the world watch from theirs. (JNF)

I’ve learned hundreds of useful Hebrew words over the course of 12 1/2 years in Israel. (Shoutout to my teachers at Ulpan Morasha and Citizen Café!)

Now, the coronavirus crisis has brought some new words into our everyday vocabulary.

A couple of weeks ago, my “Daily Dose of Hebrew” email from Ulpan La-Inyan in Jerusalem presented 10 epidemic-related words and terms to “help you understand what they’re talking about on the Israeli news.” (Find it here: ulpan.com/10-words-for-coronavirus)

“Machalah medabeket” means “infectious disease” — literally, a disease that “sticks” like glue (“devek” is glue and “madbeka” is sticker).

“Yihiyeh b’seder” (it will be fine) is the Israeli default response to any sticky situation. That is not strictly true, of course; wars and pandemics and other disasters do cause grievous permanent damage. But having survived as a people through all of that and more, Israelis know that at some point the current crisis will pass. We will lick our wounds and move on.

Without a doubt, the key word of the epidemic is “bidud” (pronounced “bee-DOOD,”) isolation or quarantine.

It’s not a new concept; quarantine was prescribed even in biblical times to curb contagion. But the word in this form is found only in modern Hebrew.

Whenever disaster strikes, Israelis automatically do two things: (1) find humor in the situation — because laughter is the best medicine for stress; and (2) rush to help one another.

In my city, Ma’aleh Adumim, a kind soul started a WhatsApp group that matches the needs of people in bidud with volunteers able and willing to fill them. The requests so far have run the gamut from picking up medicine at the pharmacy to picking up used board games that one family collected to donate to another in greater need of them.

Now this local initiative is expanding to include a phone squad of residents who can call a person in bidud daily to lend a friendly ear.

These types of activities are happening across Israel, as they do every time we are under attack.

But this time, something is strikingly different. Israel is not “badad” (alone), as we are when facing national enemies. This time, we are facing an invisible viral enemy that is causing misery indiscriminately across the planet.

This we are not used to.

In Bemidbar (Numbers) 23, the gentile prophet Bilaam describes the Children of Israel as “am l’vadad yishkon” — a people that shall dwell alone.

And so, it’s a very odd sensation when our friends and relatives in the United States and other countries aren’t simply sympathizing with our troubles but are experiencing the very same troubles. It’s weird that a mighty foe like Iran is suffering from the same plague that is plaguing us — and faring much worse.

Our grandchildren in Israel and our grandchild in Oregon are in the same boat, with their respective daycare, preschool, and elementary school closed for the time being. Nobody’s going to shul in Ma’aleh Adumim and nobody’s going to shul in Teaneck. People are hoarding toilet paper on both sides of the ocean.

And every person blessed with the miracle of connectivity — let us not take that for granted — is not completely in bidud no matter where they live. We have access to video calls, business meetings, webinars, fitness classes, educational and inspirational lectures, and no end of entertainment.

On Sunday night (Israel time), I was one of about 400,000 people across the world who tuned into a live performance that Israeli recording artist Idan Raichel gave in his Tel Aviv apartment, courtesy of the Jewish Agency and Facebook. Comments and “likes” poured in from all corners of the globe — New Zealand, Chile, Poland, Brazil… you name it.

This raw one-man show was nothing like the polished Raichel concerts I’ve enjoyed in venues filled with fans. And yet it deftly banished the feeling of loneliness this virus has foisted on everyone, whether or not we are officially in bidud.

Perhaps the most meaningful perspective I’ve seen was a Jewish Agency-produced video in which former Prisoner of Conscience Natan Sharansky offers five tips for surviving bidud. Mr. Sharansky spent half of his nine years as a Soviet political prisoner in bidud — aka solitary confinement — and still managed to keep both his sanity and his humanity.

“In prison I knew it didn’t depend on me when they would release me,” he said, comparing this to the current situation. “But I knew it depended on me to remain a free man.”

He advised us never to lose our sense of humor and to indulge in hobbies while in isolation. (His was playing chess in his mind.)

And finally, he said, “Always remember that we are one nation. Feel the connection.”

We don’t know how long this pandemic will last nor how many lives and livelihoods it will ruin. But at least we can take some comfort in knowing that even as we remain separate, we are in this together.

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