Yom Kippur under corona

The coronavirus pandemic was certainly going to make a very different Yom Kippur for me and probably every other Jew on the globe.

Jewish worshipers perform the ‘tashlich’ ceremony, whereby they symbolically cast away their sins, in Tel Aviv (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Jewish worshipers perform the ‘tashlich’ ceremony, whereby they symbolically cast away their sins, in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Like many ex-South African Jews, Yom Kippur meant fasting and visiting shul for various periods of time. In Johannesburg, this was the light Orthodox English-influenced model, with strict dress codes and three Gabers in top hats sitting in front of the bimah. It also meant a new suit for the boys (or like me, wearing my elder brother’s hand-me-down) and a new dress for the girls.
During my years in Israel following aliyah in the 1960s, the scene changed to the American Conservative Jewry model, with casual dress and strong involvement of women in all aspects of the service, including a period with a charismatic rabba.
The coronavirus pandemic was certainly going to make a very different Yom Kippur for me and probably every other Jew on the globe. Following my traditional pre-fast meal, my wife and I set out to find a Kol Nidre service in the area of our home in Tel Aviv. We wandered into the Conservative “Chavura” at the school nearby where services in years past had been a classroom.
White plastic chairs were arranged in an incomplete circle, and I found a place in my designated area. I then realized I had missed Kol Nidre and one of the congregants was moving along with the Mincha service. In the open air it was difficult to hear him, especially with children on scooters circling the synagogue area. The congregants sat together, men in T-shirts and shorts, most with sandals. The women also looking a trifle shlumperdik for the occasion, some with scarves covering their heads.
After a short while of straining my ears to hear the prayer leader and my eyes to see the pages of those around me who were succeeding in following, I decided it was time to explore other praying communities. At Kikar Hamedina, the Chabad movement had established a more Orthodox environment. Under the few remaining trees in the circle (which was being excavated for building a bunch of high-rise buildings), were rows of the white plastic chairs, separated into male and female areas.
The rabbi, in full Yom Kippur garb with white kittel and tallit, was at the corner of the men’s area leading the service. But the center of the action was the hordes of young families on bicycles conducting a Jewish Tour de France around the circle, with accompanying shouts of support for the young children having their first opportunity to ride the circle at speed with no vehicles to disturb or kill them.
I retreated home early, deciding to continue my personal contemplation of my sins in the quiet atmosphere of my living room. The following morning, my wife and I decided to continue to seek out places of worship. As happens much too frequently, the temperature on Yom Kippur day was in the “severe-to-extreme” range, as reported by the weather bureau, and most of the outdoor shtiebele scattered around Tel Aviv had large fans attempting to move the humid air, to help the sweating, thirsty faithful forced to pray and fast in the outdoors. The logistics were further complicated by the need for social distancing, with spare seats between every congregant. So I spent the eight remaining hours of my fast listening to my stomach rumblings and nursing my headache in my cool shady apartment.
Yom Kippur is always a challenge, with multiple decisions required throughout – when to have the last drink of water, whether to brush teeth before bed, when to head for shul and what is the best reading matter that maintains attention while not using too much of the depleted glucose in the brain. But 2020 in Israel will be remembered as the day when the challenge was multiplied by a heat wave and the virus. This year’s individual contemplation must have involved for most some thoughts on COVID-19 – a 21st century version of the great flood as punishment for destroying so much of the world’s resources? A heavenly reminder that world wars can be carried out without the sounds of gunfire and air raid sirens? That the battlefield scenario can move to hospitals, with the soldiers challenging the enemy with pulse oximeters monitoring oxygen supply and ventilators ready to support failing lungs? Or maybe the true moment of realization is that, in the words of Socrates, “All I know is that I know nothing.” We have our routines, get up in the morning, send children to school, go to work, go to see a movie, plan a trip overseas and invite friends for dinner. We need to hug each other, either as a sign of true affinity for each other, or as a sign of social recognition. Families like to get together, to talk and laugh, often to argue, and frequently to fight over major existential issues like possessions and money. We see things as we want to see them.
Maybe after 24 hours of reflection and fasting on the day of atonement, I will be better able to deal with a post-coronavirus world. Some simple lessons like, “Never say it can’t be.” And, “Always try to question the certain.” And realize that plans are always plans, and that nothing has happened until it happens. And don’t take for granted a hug, a good movie, or a new day. 

The writer is a semi-retired pediatrician who was part of the founding faculty of the medical school in Beersheba and still works part-time as a child development specialist