A spirit of wars and Passovers past in the fight against coronavirus

This – unconventional – war will eventually be over and disputes will be renewed, but there have definitely been changes, different priorities and a chance for new alliances.

15,000 families receive Kimcha D’pischa Passover food bundles (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
15,000 families receive Kimcha D’pischa Passover food bundles
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Having an enemy too small to see makes this an unusual war. And that’s not the only thing that’s different about the current battle. Passing through a deserted street this week I noticed a colorful banner hanging on a balcony. “We’ll get through this together,” read the text, in handwritten Hebrew.
It was encouraging, as it was meant to be, and it was also thought-provoking. None of us is quite sure what “this” actually is, even though by now we’re all familiar with the names coronavirus and COVID-19. Nor do we really know what getting through it entails. The regulations on “social isolation” are so frequently updated, that it’s hard to keep up and stay sane.
The following day, further down the street, residents gathered on their balconies for a communal sing-along. Communal singing, exercise classes, musical performances, prayers and applause for medical teams have moved to windows and balconies in homes around the world. Giving a new meaning to “going viral,” the videos of opera being performed on Italian porches have entered our collective memory. Aware that footage is being shared via news services and social media, many people have hung national flags from their windows.
With friends in Asia, Australia, America and Europe sharing their experiences and fears, I realized that the “together” part of the slogan is truly global. And that also makes this “war” different from any other I have experienced. Sadly, the country has been through many wars, rounds of combat and waves of terrorism in the 40-plus years I have lived here, but usually the rest of the world is either against us in the battle or indifferent at best. This is the first time the “united we stand” type of wartime mantras included Israel with the rest of the global village.
I don’t kid myself that the world will all be united in harmony – or balcony performances – forever. This – unconventional – war will eventually be over and disputes will be renewed, but there have definitely been changes, different priorities and a chance for new alliances.
One casualty appears to be the European Union. Already suffering in the wake of Brexit, the EU has proven unable to meet even low expectations. The “we’re in this together” message didn’t break through the lockdown in Brussels, and the EU notably left Italy to struggle on its own. Or not quite on its own: The Italians began receiving aid from China, Russia and Cuba before Germany kicked in.
This strange disease has shown more than anything else how small the world is and how globalized our lives have become. Yet it has also caused people to look inward. The ubiquitous “#StayHome” hashtag could refer to nations and not just individuals, to peoples rather than people. Air traffic is virtually grounded and borders are closed – even within the EU and between the US and Canada. After the desperate rush of travelers to return home, people are staying there. This, too, has caused this extraordinary mix of national pride and global empathy. When the Olympic Games finally do take place, this will serve competitors and spectators well.
THE CURRENT situation reminds me more than anything else of the 1991 Gulf War. Then, we covered our windows with plastic sheeting  – ostensibly in the hope of reducing the possible harm in the event that a Scud missile was carrying chemical weapons.
The sound of an air-raid siren is stomach-churning, but it serves its purpose to force you into fight or flight mode, to take action. The “enemy” we currently face is invisible and unannounced, but we know that it’s there. As a friend put it: “I hate being scared of my groceries.” The main action we’re being asked to take is to stay home, frequently wash our hands well with soap, and wear masks when we have to go out.
The masks also brought the Gulf War back to my mind. At some point, The Jerusalem Post produced its own covers for gas masks kits, selling them to raise money for charities sponsored by the paper. The cloth covers, with a design of press clippings, were attractive as well as practical. Staff members were given one each. I traveled to Tel Aviv with my Post-decorated kit to interview singer Yehuda Poliker, who refused to leave the city despite the rockets. I was surprised when strangers came up and begged to buy the cover from me. It’s the only time I have ever felt fashionable in Tel Aviv. More than anything else, I miss the days when strangers could approach and I didn’t feel afraid.
As the battle against corona continues, I have noticed that gradually the standard white masks are being replaced by personalized accessory versions. (My mum sewed me a nice check-patterned one.) We’re in this together, but we’d hate to lose our individualism.
We also can’t afford to lose our sense of humor. No wonder TV satire shows are thriving. Laughing at ourselves and the situation is a survival technique. Eretz Nehederet produced a hilarious skit of “Fauda vs. corona,” tackling a quarantine violator in a Herzliya shopping mall, a danger not to be sneezed at. Kan 11 revived Zehu Zeh!, the series whose Baba Buba character entered our hearts and local cultural history during the war in 1991.
The Gulf War lasted six weeks and ended just in time for the country to burst out of sealed rooms and celebrate Purim, the holiday marking the frustration of the plans to destroy all the Jews in Persia in ancient times.
This year, with its very different type of enemy, the ongoing war will overshadow the Passover holiday when Jews everywhere celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” we ask at the Seder table and this year we’ll all be thinking of a modern plague.
Coronavirus is separating families and breaking normally large Seders into small – even solo – units. I’d take a deep breath, but I’d probably just worry about what I had inhaled, so I’ll just battle on, like everyone else, finding comfort in the thought that “we’ll get through this together,” even if we’re apart. Shared traditions and memories always allow even those long departed to join in the celebrations. In that sense, this year will be no different. Those who can’t physically be with us will be together with us in spirit.
Every Seder table this year will host absent friends and relatives. For some grieving families, those missing will never come back, but they’ll never be forgotten. And life will go on. Babies will be born. There’s always a baby boom after a war, let alone a war in which couples are shut in their homes. (The indomitable Dr. Ruth became a legend during the Gulf War for her suggestions on what to do behind sealed doors.) The babies will bring hope and consolation. And as they grow up, every Seder night they will be told of the year when a lethal pandemic didn’t stop in time for Passover. They’ll be bored with the stories of how we coped with corona, but we will look back and feel proud.
After all, even in the days of compulsory social isolation, we got through it together.
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