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Pandemic photos

Temple Emeth’s members pose on their porches for its photographer

Photographer Barbara Balkin and Bill Helfman. (All photos by Barbara Balkin)
Photographer Barbara Balkin and Bill Helfman. (All photos by Barbara Balkin)

One of the most striking things about the pandemic was the loneliness.

Some people — large numbers of people, horrifying large numbers of people — had to deal with grief and fear, but even those who didn’t suffer through the deaths of family and friends, or the immediate and long-term effects of having covid, had to come to terms with being alone.

Even people who were married, with children at home, had their human contacts curtailed hugely, and the one who lived alone were entirely alone, day after day after unchanging day.

But people still are people, with faces, and bodies, and the need to be creative, and the need to be seen.

So if you’re a photographer — if, to be specific, you’re a longtime photography teacher in the New York City public school system (where, to be even more specific, you work with special needs students), and you are your synagogue’s volunteer-but-still-official photographer — you take pictures.

You take pictures of the people in your synagogue — Temple Emeth in Teaneck. You ask those people to write a short description of what they’ve experienced during the pandemic. You put them in a book.

Because your synagogue might need money — it’s the beginning of the pandemic, and you’ve no idea what’s coming — you make it a fundraiser. But because you’re a member of an inclusive shul, not a big-money one, you set the price at $25.

The result is “Pandemic Porch Portraits.” It’s a series of photographs of people on their porches — some couples, some of one or two parents with a child or children, some of larger families, some of friends. The relationships aren’t explained by captions, which list only names; some of the accompanying text spells out what you’re seeing, some does not.

Most of the photos were taken at the beginning of the pandemic, but most of the texts were written months later. The faces looking out at us — smiling or not — look so very innocent as we look at them today. The world has changed so much since they were taken, as the accompanying texts sometimes make clear. Or sometimes not.

Rabbis Steven and Rebecca Sirbu, their daughter, Talia, and their dog, Sparky.

Because this is all very individual.

“Once our activities at the temple changed to Zoom and livestream, I thought that it would be a good way of connecting with the members,” the photographer who created the project, Barbara Balkin of New Milford, said. “I wanted to use my skills as a photographer. I needed to do it. And when you are quarantined, you are limited as to what you can do.”

She knew about covid firsthand. “I had gotten sick, back a year ago, with what I thought was just the flu but turned out to be covid.” When it was over, “I just needed to get out of the house and take pictures again.”

She took photos standing far away from the porch; she was masked at all times. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and no one knew how the then-novel coronavirus spread, how airborne it was, or what danger surfaces, like, say, stoop railings or doorknobs, might pose. But the subjects were free not to wear masks, and to dress as they chose. It was a means of self-expression for them as well as for her, Ms. Balkin said.

“People wanted to chat, and they enjoyed the experience of having a formal portrait taken,” she said. They also got to keep copies of the images that Ms. Balkin captured.

Ms. Balkin is in the last photo in the book; she took it herself, using a tripod and a self-timer. In the photo, she and her partner, Bill Helfman, hold a sign that reads “GET VACCINATED.” They each wrote a few paragraphs; hers has hope in it, but his is a fairly unvarnished account of a hard year.

Nickie Falk of Glen Rock is the president of Temple Emeth; she and her husband, Doug, dressed up for the photo — they’re wearing what they wore for Rosh Hashanah — and look out at us seriously. “When Barbara took that photo, last spring, it was in the beginning of the pandemic,” Ms. Falk said. “We were still pretty isolated. There was no end in sight then. Sadly, two of the people who were pictured in the book have since passed away.”

But having the photo taken was an unambivalently good thing, she said. It was pure pleasure to be able to see Ms. Balkin.

Doug and Nickie Falk

“In my capacity as president, I felt that the project was a way for us to unite without being together,” she said. “It really did bring us together. Like many of us at that time, I was unsure of what would happen.

“My husband and I both had covid, and we both recovered from it. We were so grateful, and it was so sad.” She had to stop talking for a minute or two as she fought and lost to tears. “We did lose members of the congregation to covid, and that was the most heartbreaking thing. To not be able to be there for their families, in person, at shiva. It’s really heartbreaking.”

The photos and the texts were raw and honest, and Ms. Falk reacted to it. “Seeing the finished project was so touching,” she said. “It was so emotional. It grabbed me in the kishkas to really hear what people were going through.”

That’s because Zoom, as miraculous as it is, has its limitation. “When we see people on the screen, everyone is smiling,” she said. “This is a glimpse of what they really were going through, and how they were adjusting.”

She’s grateful for the honesty.

But if she had known then what she knows now, she would have done one thing differently in her own photo. “I would have smiled,” she said.

Steven Sirbu is Temple Emeth’s rabbi; he, his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, and their daughter, Talia, are in the book together. They’re beaming and he’s holding an adorable, serious-looking dog.

“Pandemic Porch Portraits” is “a tremendous outlet for creativity,” Steven Sirbu said. “It obviously was a chance for Barbara to do something creative, but you also see creativity in people’s poses and their wardrobe choices and the signs they hold. Picture by picture, it was a chance for our temple members to show their creativity too.”

He sees the book as a perfect opportunity to kvell about his congregant. “It’s a great time for me to say what a wonderful volunteer Barbara Balkin is,” he said. “She photographs everything that we have done. She really is a chronicler of temple life. That got so much more difficult during the pandemic but she rose to the challenge.”

He was moved by the groups that he saw in the book. “We have several pictures of friend groups standing together in the photos,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “They wanted to tell the stories of their quarantines, and they wanted to do it together.

“This book really captures a. moment in time,” he said. “It shows both the angst and the hope of what it means to be quarantined.”

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