“Blessed are you Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”
Shivering in the parking lot of New City Jewish Center, I thought for sure I’d feel something a bit more than cold when we said the shechecheyanu. The prayer is a regular blessing that marks our holidays and simchas. It notes the time of year when you say it biting into that first fruit of the season.
It’s the one we say whenever we do anything for the first time within a year.
And we had just been through an entire cycle of the Jewish calendar within the parameters of coronavirus. The last time we really gathered for a “normal” synagogue event was the previous Purim. The virus was just taking hold. A synagogue in New Rochelle was a hot spot, and Purim events across New York were about to become, unbeknownst to us, superspreader events.
But that was when covid was going to “disappear like a miracle.” Last Purim’s not very funny joke, right?
I say “normal” because already things were becoming anything but. Hardly anyone showed up to shul last year for the evening Megillah reading. We were still indoors, wearing costumes and making noise, but the seats were mostly empty compared to Purims past. We were on edge, and nothing felt quite good or right.
And then came the shut downs.
No shul. No JCC. And a year so remarkably challenging for everything — especially Jewish observance, which requires the very opposite of social distancing. Our shul complied with restrictions. Most did. But many across the region did not.
Since then, we have figured out ways to have school, services, and events, even exercise, without actually being around anyone. The tutoring I do through the local library, like everything else these days, takes place through the confines of a computer screen. A word I once used to equate with the earworm theme song from a PBS television show of my childhood, Zoom, has become the operating system of our daily lives.
I don’t really need to go through all the ways we’ve been challenged or have changed our Jewish practice since then.
In this country alone, there have been 28.6 million cases of the virus, with 513,000 deaths, 20 percent of the mortality worldwide. There were lockdowns, followed by a summer of racial protests. An election like no other, and a storming of our nation’s Capitol that I never could have imagined (though it did provide inspiration for this year’s Purim costume). Somehow the social unrest feels related to and exacerbated by our invisible enemy, coronavirus.
Purim arrived once again. And here we were, in the parking lot of New City Jewish Center, watching a selection of pre-filmed shpiels (one of them a parody of a Zoom session between endearing congregation yentas) broadcast onto the side of the synagogue. We remained in our cars. The readers approached the Megillah one by one at the top of the parking lot, their voices coming to us live through 90.9 FM on our car radios. We honked our displeasure at the mention of Haman, although only in the first chapter in which he is mentioned. After all, as the rabbi reminded us, we wanted to be kind to the neighbors. Subsequent mentions of the enemy of the Jews were relegated to polite groggering within the confines of our vehicles.
I read the ninth chapter of Esther’s story each year. I’ve been doing so probably for nearly as many years as I have belonged to this congregation. It’s the chapter in which the Jews rise up against their oppressors and kill them, impale the sons of Haman on stakes and codify the celebration of Purim. It’s a holiday that celebrates chance and luck as much as it does anything, as the day marked for Jewish destruction becomes one instead in which they vanquish their foes. As it is written in the Megillah, transforming the time “for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.”
I was back again the next morning, though not in costume. Instead, I had tried to come up with the warmest thing I could wear that would accommodate rolling up a sleeve for tefillin. Standing outside in the 28-degreee weather davening Shacharit, participating in a Torah service and reading Megillah while freezing, made me feel done. I had come thinking I’d feel good about gathering once again in person and instead I was just tired of all the compromise.
It’s been one year. There are vaccines — though not yet for the unqualified me. We are all ready for this to be over and disappointed that it’s not. At a holiday when I readily wear a mask, I was more than ready for mine to come off.
The earth has circled the sun. We have marked its passing with difficulty through Jewish observance.
And so it’s time to say the shechecheyanu again.
Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.