I prayed in a bubble on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. After months of not praying together, a limited number of worshipers, abiding by Health Ministry regulations, gathered in the school gym which serves as my usual synagogue.
We were seated in what Israelis call “capsulot” – “capsules” in Hebrew. In addition to the flimsy lace mehitza dividing the men’s and women’s sections, there were plastic sheets separating small groups – sitting well apart from each other on plastic chairs. Our Orthodox community, which is relaxed about what type of head covering married women choose to wear (if at all), was strict about everyone – including children – wearing face masks.
When my sister and I exchanged Rosh Hashanah greetings in a phone call ahead of the holiday, she noted that nowadays, when you visit people and places, you check the level of COVID-regulation compliance as much as kashrut standards. The hardest part of the corona pandemic for me, has been not knowing when I will next meet my brother and sister in person, spread out, as we are, on three different continents and having to endure an almost universal travel ban.
That phrase “I prayed in a bubble” would have been incomprehensible last Rosh Hashanah. The year 2020 has created its own time capsule and traditions. If Hebrew didn’t have the word “hazui” to describe something surreal, we would have had to come up with it this year. The Rosh Hashanah prayers, with no break for kiddush and a chat, were a reminder that life in the corona-era is fundamentally different from what it was just a year ago. Festive Jewish prayers without gathering for food, in itself, is peculiar.
No wonder that even those not directly affected by the virus or its economic repercussions are suffering from a lack of security. How long will it be before we learn to feel safe again after the pandemic is finally over? Even the most faithful have lost the sense of stability that we took for granted, just as we had taken for granted being able to gather for regular prayers in our usual places of worship.
As someone who considers prayer a form of creating positive energy, being with other people – even obscured by plastic sheets – and singing the familiar liturgical tunes provides solace.
For months now, I have met on Shabbatot for outdoor prayers in a local park with a group of neighbors. It demonstrates how adaptable and resilient people are. And how much we need one another.
One of the devastating things about the pandemic in Israel is how the country, which usually pulls together in emergencies, is being pulled apart. As I write these lines, it’s still not clear whether communal prayers will be permitted on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Part of the problem is the attempt at equivalence. Until now, demonstrations against the prime minister and the government’s disastrous handling of the corona crisis have been allowed with tens of thousands of people flocking to protests, while places of worship have been severely restricted. In order to balance the need to ban, or severely limit demonstrations, in order to stop the spread of the disease, there is a strong lobby in favor of banning all prayer gatherings.
But at least on Rosh Hashanah we were able to blow our own horn – the shofar. Shofar blowers walked through different neighborhoods throughout the country making sure that the housebound – the infirm, elderly, the quarantined, those at risk and those who simply did not have a place to go – could hear the sound of the ram’s horn. In the silence of a lockdown, the sound of the shofar was extra piercing and extra poignant – a comforting blast from the past.
APART FROM the religious association of “Yom Kippur” as the Day of Atonement, the term is used in Israel to describe a colossal failure caused by being unprepared. It seems particularly fitting this year.
It sometimes surprises outsiders that the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Israel ultimately won, could be considered such a failure in the Jewish state. But the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and the start of a bloody war in which more than 2,600 IDF soldiers fell, not only marked the end of the post-Six Day War euphoria, it was a reminder of the elusive nature of peace and security. For a very long time in the aftermath of that war, the country did not feel safe. It showed that bad things can and do happen, seemingly out of the blue.
Israelis are famous for their ability to improvise, pull together and overcome crises. Now, more than ever, it is clear that the country needs a huge paradigm switch: to be prepared in advance and think ahead. We’re far from being the only country that wasn’t prepared for the pandemic – despite warnings that such a scenario was possible. But the response was very Israeli.
Amid the divisive politicking that surrounded the three rounds of elections in quick succession, the government took relatively swift and firm action and instigated the first lockdown. It bought vast amounts of lifesaving equipment and above all, it bought time. Time that was wasted.
When we spent Passover unable to have the traditional Seder meal with family and friends, the public could be forgiven for believing that it would all be over by the High Holy Days, some six months hence. The government, on the other hand, should have been readying for the worst. There is no point in having ventilators and PPE kits if you don’t have enough medical staff to use them.
All parents of young children realized before the country’s leaders that there needed to be an exit strategy from the lockdown to safely resume school studies. Only now it has become apparent that even if you provide every child with their own laptop, if there’s no decent internet connection they won’t be able to use it for online lessons, and neither will their parents be able to work from home. Capsules aren’t sufficient on their own to tackle such a dastardly virus.
There is a crisis of faith in the leadership, but the last thing we need is to turn this into a political battle. Fighting and doing davka – being contrary – is disastrous. Now is the time to fear the spread of corona, not the Israeli fear of being considered a “freier,” a sucker.
Like it or not, we’re in this together. Unless everyone does their bit for the “war effort” – wearing a mask that covers nose and mouth; keeping spatially distanced; and providing a good example – we probably won’t lose the war, but we will lose far too many victims during the fight.
This is not the time for empty words. Here’s another Hebrew phrase that has become popular during the pandemic, moving from military jargon to outside the IDF’s bubble: “Lehikanes mitahat la’alunka” – to get under the stretcher. Everyone needs to pull their weight.
The most original word I learned this week doesn’t officially exist – yet. My former colleague Hilary Leila Krieger and her brother, Jonathan, have come up with a special way of commemorating their father, Neil Krieger, who died of COVID-19 in April. He coined the word “orbisculate” back in his college days to describe when you accidentally squirt citrus juice in your eye. The Kriegers are determined to get orbisculate recognized and accepted by dictionaries.
You can join and follow their efforts at orbisculate.com. (They are also raising money for charity in a more traditional form of commemoration.) Meantime, I am doing what I can to help to spread the word. And I’m waiting for my prayers to be answered – that by this time next year it will be safe to burst the prayer bubble, gather freely and begin the healing process together.