A wandering Jew amid the COVID-19 pandemic - opinion

When the opportunity arose to accompany my almost-90-year-old mother on her annual winter pilgrimage to Florida, I did not hesitate.

Airplane [illustrative] (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Airplane [illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man. I love to travel; I live to travel. Once the basics of a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food in my tummy are covered, there is little else I need money for (besides tzedakah, charity, of course) except to explore our big, beautiful world. The pandemic forced me to cancel two trips I had long planned and anticipated, one to Vancouver/Seattle and the other a more ambitious three-week tour of India.
So when the opportunity arose to accompany my almost-90-year-old mother on her annual winter pilgrimage to Florida, I did not hesitate. Besides giving us both the opportunity to escape to warmer climes (she’s from Rochester, New York; I’m from Toronto), it would give me a legitimate and somewhat guilt-free opportunity to take a road trip. While she flew – the presumed lesser of two evils to spending four days in a car – I’d be driving, giving me the opportunity to explore a little bit of small-town America on my way down.
But first I had to overcome the hurdle of crossing the US border. Although I am a dual citizen, I was still nervous that the closures and restrictions put into place might mean I would get turned away, or at the very least, made to quarantine, which would throw my mother’s travel plans out the window. As I tossed and turned the night before my departure, I was reminded of the journey to Vietnam a friend of mine from Toronto had just completed in order to start a new job there.
He had to “pass” a COVID test before being allowed to board a flight to Dubai, where he had to take another test and self-isolate in a hotel for five days until results came back. Only then was he allowed to continue on to Hanoi.
As soon as he cleared customs, he was met by a team in hazmat suits who escorted him to a government-run hotel, where he had to quarantine for two weeks. Each day, three meals and eight bottles of water were left outside his door. He was not allowed to leave his room until the “all clear” was given.
This scenario reverberated in my head as I drove up to the border control near Buffalo.
“What’s your citizenship?” demanded the agent, staring me down.
“US,” I replied meekly, trying not to sweat for fear he might diagnose this as a sign of infection.
“What was the purpose of your stay in Canada?” he barked.
“I live there now,” I croaked (oh oh, sore throat, another symptom?!).
“And what are you bringing into the US with you?” he asked, to which I too quickly replied, “Just my personal belongings.”
“OK” he said, handing me back my passport. “Have a good stay.”
That was it. The entire process took less than a minute. Not a single question about my purpose of visit, length of stay, where I’d be visiting. Not the slightest concern about how I was feeling, or comment about how I was to behave after crossing the border. I had been asked more questions a week earlier before being allowed to enter a neighborhood store to buy a pair of socks.
“No wonder Vietnam has basically zero cases of COVID-19, while the United States just surpassed more than 15 million confirmed infections,” I thought to myself as I drove past a Hummer on the NY Thruway with a bumper sticker that read, “Stand for the Flag, Kneel for the Cross.” God Bless America!
AND SO BEGAN my road trip. First stop, back “home” in Rochester, reuniting with my mother and two brothers just in time for a socially-distanced Shabbat. Truly a day of rest, with no synagogue services to go to or friends who wanted visitors. Masks on, except while eating chicken soup.
After Shabbat – armed with my tub of Lysol wipes, jug of hand sanitizer and suitcase of disposable masks – I hit the road in earnest. Though I usually prefer to be spontaneous on these drives down to Florida, which I’ve been doing for years, this time would be different, as advice came from all corners to “plan for safety.” This meant determining in advance what pockets of the country had lower infection rates and then researching what hotels in the area had enhanced/specialized cleaning procedures. (I did feel very safe at each hotel, from check-ins at the Plexiglas-shielded front desks through check-outs with brown-bagged breakfasts in hand, and every room displayed a note or card from the general manager outlining the “elevated health and safety protocols.”)
I zeroed in on three towns to visit that looked both historic and quaint, each spaced around a five-hour drive apart. As I always do wherever I travel, my intention was to seek out the “Jewish content” in each destination. Previous drives to Florida unearthed a treasure trove in this regard, from Savannah to Asheville, Richmond to Greenville (special mention to this gorgeous little town in South Carolina, as it turns out they have an entire square dedicated to Max Heller: mayor, Holocaust survivor and “patron saint of the city’s downtown renaissance”).
But it appeared that my luck had finally run out. All I could discover during my first stop, in “Hip and Historic” Frederick, Maryland, was a very nondescript Chabad Center, well off the main drag. The situation was even more glum in beautiful Hillsborough, North Carolina, which unearthed nary a halla crumb. Could it possibly be that Jews really aren’t everywhere, as I was always led to believe? My last chance was in Brunswick, Georgia, a stunningly beautiful village with a population of next-to-nothing, yet a church on literally every corner.
And there it happened. As I was walking along the deserted streets early in the morning with not another soul in sight, what looked like a mirage came hazily into view a few blocks away, heading toward me. As it came closer, I was sure I was hallucinating. It was a couple straight out of Lakewood: she with a snood and skirt down to her ankles, he with a long gray beard, white shirt, black pants and tzitzit flapping in the wind.
Unbelievable story short: They were indeed “The Jews” in town, transplanted from NY/NJ – via Nashville – who had moved to this idyllic community for business opportunities. They spent the next half hour telling me about the Jewish origins of the town, and directed me to the Christian cemetery a mile away, which contained a “Jewish Section” – three nondedscript graves from the 1800s in a remote corner, one bearing a Hebrew name faintly edged at the bottom.
As I write this, now happily ensconced on my mother’s Hallandale balcony, Hanukkah is far behind us. But I heard a nice little word of Torah this year about how the real miracle of the holiday was not that one day’s oil lasted for eight days, but that after everything the Jews had been through, their near destruction, they still had the strength, perseverance and hope to find and light even a single vial of oil. That message resonated even more after bumping into Bill and Heddy Greenberg. It is indeed wonderful that large communities of Jews have established themselves in major urban centers throughout the world. But to find a frumma Yid (religious Jew) keeping it alive in Brunswick, Georgia? As the letters on dreidels proclaim: Nes Gadol Haya Sham, a great miracle happened there.
The writer is a Toronto-based writer and can be reached at [email protected] gmail.com