The first semester of the 2020 school year at Michlalah Jerusalem College began and ended predictably. A small creative writing class taught by English department head Dr. Emmy Leah Zitter worked in traditional poetic genres: haiku, sonnets, dramatic monologues, memory poems.
Second semester, students would expand their imaginative range by writing fictional short stories – until real life became stranger than fiction and the unimaginable happened: corona.
Scholastic routine ground to a halt. The campus closed down. A whole new way of teaching and learning was launched. With that new online pedagogical medium emerged a new topic on the syllabus. Instead of short stories, the class would write narrative nonfiction – the genre in which the writer tells a nonfictional story using techniques of fiction.
Many famous writers have kept journals, recording thoughts and impressions for use in their writing. But this is the 21st century with distance teaching, so the class launched an online blog in which the budding writers wrote brief entries chronicling what they saw, heard, smelled and felt during these unprecedented times.
As Zitter sees it, “Corona masks muffle our voices. For glasses wearers, they fog and blur our vision. That’s the physical, literal side of masks. But looking at those masks metaphorically opens up creative new opportunities for voice and for vision.”
The students rose to the challenge. Below is a sampling from the blog: talented young women coping, hoping ־ and writing. Vision and voice from beyond the mask.
May all our writers and readers stay well, and may all our corona nonfiction stories have a happy ending.
Day one of self-isolation
11 a.m. – It’s two hours since we arrived at the house and 16 hours since we left the comfort of our home. It could have been a lifetime. Is havaya (an experience) the right word to describe what we’ve just been through?
Hushed voices, masked faces, fearful eyes and sad smiles as they wish us “mazal tov,” wondering what we think we’re doing flying overseas carrying a wedding dress, heading to South Africa, a country that would be announcing a lockdown in the next few days.
I used to feel like I was coming home as I disembarked from the El Al plane. The old and familiar scent of pup (cornmeal) and meat, mixed with the smell of disinfectant and soap used to clean floors that always seem dirty. It still looks, sounds and even smells familiar – the South Africa I remember.
But now home is the Land of Israel. I miss the streets of Beit Shemesh. I’d hop on a bus and arrive a short time later at those cobbled stones of Jerusalem. The aroma of fresh coffee, the smells of falafel and shwarma perfuming the streets, the shouts and exclamations of the shuk merchants. I love and miss the sound of angry Israelis shouting in the streets.
11:30 a.m. – I guess I’m lucky. If we must be locked down, better stuck in this spacious golden cage than in a three-room apartment. A Golden Cage – that’s home in the old country. A beautiful house surrounded by high walls, security gates, electric fences, cameras and security guards. A massive property with vines and bougainvillea creeping up the walls. Tall trees looming ominously over the perfectly manicured garden.
Thick clouds threaten, but the sun shines, birds chirp and the pool glistens a brilliant blue.
11:55 a.m. – Only five minutes to go. Did I really just sit here for almost an hour?
11:57 a.m. – Thunder rumbles. Lightning strikes and the heavens open. I smile.
11:59 a.m. – He’s just on time. I run out to him into the pouring rain.
Gabriella Stamelman, March 30
Gabriella, from South Africa, is newly married, living in Jerusalem, enjoying the vibe and relishing the Israel air.
I step outside as the breeze picks up, coaxing the flowers into a rhythmic sway. Soon it will be springtime; the garden will be full of purple and yellow pansies dancing to the wind.
Nature seems unaffected by these times. Every blade of grass and sapling knows it has one job – to grow. Despite what is going on in the realm of people, nature goes on. It gives me hope. Like the rebirth of spring, humanity will come through with new life.
For now, being apart from others is refreshing. I saunter along the narrow moss-covered trails, breathing in sweet, clean air. I glance up at the sky, covered by an array of tree branches. This moment feels perfect. I feel at one with the earth.
Then I remember how my brothers and sisters are suffering across the globe, while I am here, safe within the canopy of trees.
I sit down and I pray.
Rena Perl, April 1
Originally from L.A., Rena recently made aliya on her own
Keep your N-95s and your overpriced Chinese models. I’m wearing old tichels (headscarves) from when I got married as masks on my 100-meter early morning walks. Colorful squares of protection decorated in polka dots and stripes.
I haven’t used them for decades. I kept them stuffed in back of a drawer and found them, providentially, as I cleaned for Passover. Tying them around my face, feeling like a fashionable bank robber, I move back in time.
The mask fogs my glasses, making it tricky to see the 100 meters of street I know by heart, but it brings back clear memories of me as a newlywed, stabbing my head with bobby pins to keep the silky material from slipping. A newlywed who would never have imagined a pandemic where a neighbor’s breath is a threat, his sneeze or cough a weapon, a pandemic that could separate her from her children and grandchildren.
For that matter, a newlywed who never imagined growing up and becoming a mother and grandmother.
Bits of material, some a little frayed: yesterday’s memories ־ today’s protection.
Dr. Emmy Leah Zitter, April 23
I’ve always dreamt of quiet streets, but it never happened; of family time but rarely got to it.
I’ve always dreamt of baking pitas but never did it; of sleeping till noon but got up early.
I’ve always dreamt of homeschooling, but it never happened; of praying with a minyan, but shul was too far.
I’ve always dreamt of dressing up like a surgeon, but I was too shy.
I’ve always dreamt of spring vacation but constantly postponed it to the summer.
I’ve always cherished so many dreams.
Then why do I pray they should end when these dreams have finally come true?
Shoshy Cohen, April 23
A native Israeli Hebrew speaker, Shoshy loves to write in both languages.
Today, following my infrequent trips to the grocery store, a girl who lives in the dorm two doors down stopped to talk to me. She said she thought no one lived in my dorm. I explained to her that my whole family lived in the United States, and that she probably never saw me because I seldom leave the safety of my abode.
I suddenly realize how isolated I’ve become. My father would always say that he never saw me during the week; my busy schedule caused me to evade even the casual “good morning” to my parents. And now, far from home, that’s repeated itself. Many people know of my existence but never actually see me in the flesh.
Of course, with today’s technology, no one is truly alone. Zoom meetings and WhatsApp calls give me more social interaction than during my pre-pandemic life. However, I’ve been going weeks without leaving the blank white walls of my apartment. The closest thing I see to a living face is the pigeon on my windowsill.
I hear the noises of voices every day; children playing, parents urging them to come inside, the cry of a fallen toddler. But what is so odd, surreal, is that not one of these people ever actually comes into my view. This pandemic has created an almost ghostlike existence. I know that people still exist, yet, glancing outside, I’d never guess that civilization is still thriving.
I don’t brood over my lack of human interaction. I wake up, get dressed, daven, and open my connection to the wider world – the Internet. I can almost forget that I haven’t seen an actual human form in two weeks. I’m so focused on my schoolwork and the goings-on in my faraway family that the thought that I am so profoundly alone here never crosses my mind.
This assignment, writing a blog entry, brings me back to reality: a sparse dorm bedroom with a chair, a bed, a desk and a few already read books lining the shelves. My big outing for the day consists of climbing up the stairs to take out trash, or an excursion to the laundry room.
Although COVID-19 has made me a productive hermit, I’m glad it hasn’t taken away anything truly important in my life. I still spend my days getting lost in the adventures of the March sisters, listening to the incredible tales of my grandfather evading capture by the Nazis. I learn new things and hone my writing skills.
I believe one reason for humanity’s existence is to help others. Although the pandemic has separated us, it’s also brought us together. More than ever, people are working to help one another. Packages of food are being dropped off for those in need, Torah is studied enthusiastically, hours of conversations are taking place, all without people coming into contact with one another. We have truly become like ghosts – but friendly ghosts, leaving traces of ourselves behind without ever being seen.
Rena Perl, April 26
The topic at my Shabbat table has finally shifted. We no longer discuss the coronavirus, how scary it is and what the latest trends are (no more gloves, apparently). We no longer discuss how long this situation will last and how we can’t wait for it to be over.
We now talk about our newest fears – that when all of this really is over, a vaccine is invented and the curve has been flattened, life will continue as usual. Children will learn about COVID-19 in history lessons and the world will return to normal. Schools will reopen, men and woman will go back to work, and the hustle and bustle of normal life will resume. Parents will once again be too busy for their children. Prayers will no longer be as personal, as leisurely, and real quality family time will once again be a thing of the past.
Gabriella Stamelman, April 27
Most girls, starting from a young age, picture their wedding day, the most special day of their life.
Nowadays a wedding fantasy doesn’t exist anymore; no matter how willing you are to spend on this special day, you just can’t.
My cousin got engaged yesterday. The excitement has reached a fever pitch, but because of this pandemic, problems arise. How many people can be invited? Who gets chosen?
Standards are simpler now. An engagement party at home with only the ones closest to you. No more fancy clothing: the stores are closed. Just wear whatever you have in your closet.
No matter how much you fantasize or dream about a perfect ceremony or how much you can spend on such a wonderful occasion, it doesn’t matter anymore. Everyone is equal now. It’s not about how much you spend or how much you fantasized, because when it comes down to it, only family is left to make you happy in a time like this.
A wedding doesn’t have to be a fairy tale in order to make a happy bride. I witnessed with my own eyes my cousin’s true happiness, despite (because of?) the simplicity and the lack of people. Having the people that care for you by your side is what really makes you happy.
Tehilla Sebag, April 27
Tehilla made aliyah 10 years ago from New Jersey.
It’s a word we will never overlook again. We’ll read it again and remember what it means to be really grateful.
I am grateful for the clothes in my closet, for the food on the table.
I am grateful for my family, for my friends.
I am grateful for Michlalah, for my health.
When people on ventilators are fighting for their lives, children have little to eat because their parents have lost their jobs, and people are desperately trying to find a way to pay their mortgage, you think, I need to be grateful for every single thing that is keeping me alive, for the simplest loaf of bread I have to eat.
Clothes, shoes, makeup – these things don’t matter anymore. Waking up, breathing on your own, having basic food to eat are things to be immensely grateful for. What this experience has taught me is the meaning of gratitude – for the simplest things we used to take for granted before.
I am grateful. Thank you, God.
Annael Sheetreet, April 29
Annael is a mother of a little girl. In addition to her studies, she teaches in the Jerusalem Post LiteTalk division.
Pretending quarantine isn’t affecting my mental health should be an Olympic sport.
The Rose bush in the front garden has been clipped down to the last stalks;
The Rose bush in the front garden has been clipped down to the last stalks;
I rearrange my bedroom furniture
Over and over again, hoping that if the sunlight falls exactly 45° south of my pillow, I
Can sleep well tonight. Is there any show left on Netflix that I haven’t watched? Is there
Room on my (color-coded, I finally found the time) bookshelf for the box of books I brought up from the basement?
Around me, my siblings grow restless, feral, hugging electronic devices to their chest as if the
Static shocks received from well-worn chargers is their life support. I pace the halls, a caged animal, which I’m
Thinking is a bitter twist of fate. I’m usually the first to stay in when I should be going out.
Icees are a favorite snack in this household. Sugar water paired with the inability to go to the park is proving to be a
Never-ending source of evening entertainment.
Alas, a saving grace: a phone call from my boss; I am to return to work on Sunday.
This time I’ll appreciate the long, dull bus rides (there’s less traffic, a nice bonus). While
I don’t think I’ll ever miss this total lockdown, I will miss the bonding moments shared with family.
Oh, there is something I’ve
Neglected to do in all of this “free” time: my schoolwork.
Hadassah Shein, April 30
Hadassah is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of her aliyah.
I woke up with my kids, imagining a day like an epic movie, but the sound was muted and we couldn’t find the remote. Independence Day at night in the center of town is usually a sleepless night of raves, laughter, screaming, fireworks concerts and meetups with friends.
The following morning, we would wake up with the sun way overhead and smile at our clocks that reminded us of our late-night fun. We would marvel at the airplane show from our porch and then head to Sacher Park, barbecue with friends and chill with the kids.
This year, I woke up before the sunrise like every other day. No roaring airplanes, no lively music, no chattering families. I taught my kids about the day, we made pizza, played games. I went to throw out my trash. Not a sign of life on the streets other than a black cat licking its paws, almost triumphantly. The epic film had turned into Apocolypse Now. I was the only one left in the world. The trash tumbled down the street and the streetlights flickered for no one.
Around noon, pizza in the oven, suddenly we hear noise outside. We hear groups of people singing. We follow the commotion to our porch door. We find our neighbors on their porches barbecuing, waving flags and dancing to the song “Hashem Melech” (God is King). We’re caught up in their happiness and put on our own music, too.
The rest of the afternoon we spend dancing and celebrating on our porches.
Aviva Safir, May 3
Aviva is the mother of two lively, happy kids, living in the center of Jerusalem.
I worked the day shift yesterday, something I hadn’t done in a while, and a customer came in with two kids. We got to discussing the state of things as I fit her kids into sandals. I noticed that her mask looked more comfortable than the one I was wearing (breathable, allegedly) and asked her where she’d gotten it.
That’s when it hit me.
We’d gone from never thinking about masks – or gloves or quarantine – to casually bringing them up in conversation. Suddenly, that’s all anyone ever talks about.
We ended laughing and agreed that, along with the heat wave (which I think is just that summer has started but nobody wants to admit it), these masks are unbearable.
All in all, it was a moment that brought a smile to my face – hidden by the mask, but still there. And I discovered that a local hardware/toy/crafts store has a half-hidden art section with good pricing, another plus.
It was a good day.
Hadassah Shein, May 18