Nahafoch hu — upside down
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Nahafoch hu — upside down

Nothing remains as it has been, as the need for community grows

Esther Kook stands on her porch in Teaneck.
Esther Kook stands on her porch in Teaneck.

Nahafoch hu — the upside down and mysterious qualities of Purim — took on a whole new meaning this year. The traditions, which usually are lighthearted fun, paled in comparison to the challenging events that soon would confront our communities.

Purim was the last time many of us were in shul, before the domino effect of the ensuing restrictions kept us away. Who could have anticipated the media’s incessant drumbeat of covid-19 news from out there suddenly would be right here?”

Covid-19 showed up right at our communal doorsteps. It all happened so quickly, it moved so fast, that it had us shaking our heads in disbelief and confusion.

Who ever could have believed that a normally popular and noisy Teaneck restaurant would be empty of customers at 6 p.m.? Apparently, my family hadn’t yet received the memo for our Purim seudah, because we were the only ones there — the whole time. The mood at the restaurant was dark and ominous, and the unusual quiet was distracting. I found it difficult to enjoy my Caesar salad while being front and center for all the remaining waiters.

Nahafoch hu took on a life of its own, careening right past Purim, and headed straight toward Pesach.

The memo came in loud and clear. Impossible to ignore. Schools closed, and then so did shuls. Some new terminology hit us. Words like quarantine, and social distancing, punctuated our sentences. Masks and gloves became the new norm in stores and everywhere. Our emotions also kicked into high gear, and they ranged from confusion, sadness, and loneliness, and then looped back to gratitude for what we have in our lives.

Now those dizzying weeks feel like years. Our schools and shuls still are closed. To curb and halt the spread of the virus, we still are mandated to stay home and refrain from being in groups. Instead of looking out toward being with our community, we look within.

Our worlds have shrunken beyond measure, beyond comprehension, and it’s surreal. As we look inward, many of us are asking why did this happen? What does this all mean? How do we cope with this unprecedented reality?

As always when I’m faced with challenges in my life, I turn to trusted friends and colleagues for support, advice, and words of hope. Karen Pruzansky is one of those people. She’s grounded and wise. She’s also the rebbetzin of my shul, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. Karen has been there for me, and for so many people, in so many ways.

“This is really hard, it’s life altering, and people are very anxious,” Karen said. “We’ve lived through really difficult times before, and God willing we will come out on the other side. People are really pulling together, following the restrictions, and doing what they can.”

“We can be grateful that we’re in our homes and are still a community, even though we can’t be physically together,” Karen continued. “This will pass. It will. We don’t know exactly when, but we’re going to pull through as a community. My heart breaks for people who are sick, have lost jobs, and are in deep financial trouble. After this is over, we’re all going to have to pitch in to help each other even more.”

My friend and teaching colleague Adrienne shared her feelings about her challenges as a teacher. “I feel fortunate to be working at a Jewish day school that is successfully transitioning the learning process using innovative technology, like Zoom,” she said. “Although it’s been personally stressful learning so many new applications in such a short period, I feel I’ve gained valuable knowledge.”

“Even though I’m a positive person by nature, this present situation is really testing me. Emotionally, I’m running from fearful to hopeful. My hobby of needlepointing has been keeping me grounded. Going out of the house for some fresh air is rejuvenating.”

“Isn’t it interesting how much we take for granted?” Adrienne asked.

Then Stacey spoke about how it is affecting her own family. “Someone in my family has the virus. So, since I was exposed, that means I’m strictly quarantined. Still, I thank God for my health. With all this free time now at home, I talk on the phone more, learn more, and FaceTime with my children and grandchildren.”

“For me the hardest part is not being with my children and grandchildren,” she continued. “I can’t do the activities that I enjoy with them. We enjoy flying kites, going to different lakes, and just spending quality time together.”

As for my own coping strategies, I continue to greet and see my students’ smiling faces. My work as a teacher helps me deal with my own emotions at this confusing and difficult time. In a very short time, we’ve been adjusting to teaching through Zoom. One of my students greeted me yesterday on Zoom with some important news. She pointed to her mouth and said, “Look! I lost another tooth!”

Opening my deck door, as I’m drinking my morning coffee, I breathe in the spring air. Birds are singing, and the squirrels are hopping from branch to branch with such carefree abandon. No thoughts of quarantine for those guys.

Dressing for the day, even though there is nowhere to go, except the four corners of my house, I heed my late mother’s advice. “You are too pale,” she’d say. “Go and put on some lipstick.”

And I write.

Since the age of 12, I’ve been writing to make sense of my inner and outer world. I write to alleviate life’s vicissitudes, the ups and downs. I also write to embed the sweet moments. One of the poignant moments that I’ll always want to remember is last Friday night. We came together outside — keeping our social distance — and sang Yedid Nefesh for Kabbalat Shabbat.

One thing never changes, and that is Shabbat. We can count on it.

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist and language arts teacher.

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