Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

2020 Visions: Documenting My Pandemic Experience

In the wake of the pandemic: a closed elementary school. (courtesy)

Given my lifelong passion for documentation, I’m creating a record of my experiences in the pandemic.  My collection of impressions and scenes should give future generations a glimpse into this plague year that has now spilled over into 2021, and Judaism’s role in helping me cope with the isolation.

The multimedia effort includes blog posts, open mic performances and photos of closed stores, empty supermarket shelves,  pandemic masks, warnings posted on doors and retailers scrambling to set up curbside delivery. Together, these materials create one individual’s ongoing story.

Day of the Dead art.

My pandemic narrative begins with the last weekend in February, when I visited my son in the Boston area. We had a great time seeing a play that spoofed Shakespeare, strolling the Museum of Fine Arts, observing a Bernie Sanders rally at Boston Common and, on March 1, attending the PAX East video game conference at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. While the COVID-19 virus was making news, it had not yet altered Americans’ behavior; most of the masks I saw at PAX East were part of costumes, although some plain ones suggested pandemic precautions. Crowds on the show floor jostled to view the huge display booths promoting games with ominous titles such as Partisans, Iron Harvest 1920+, Disintegration, and Destroy All Humans! (exclamation point being part of the title).

Only later did I learn that, at the same time I was in Boston, a superspreader event happened at an international biotechnology conference on Feb. 26-27. Researchers linked it to 330,000 infections. How close did my son and I come to brushing up against the invisible menace?

The days after March 1 tumbled over one another like boulders starting an avalanche. Something was moving closer to mass consciousness. Looking back, the hinge of pandemic history came on Saturday, March 7. That was what I call the last normal day. A sequence of unforgettable moments crowded that day, from morning into night:

  • 10 a.m., Shabbat service at Chabad of Bedford, NY, with the Torah reading being Parshat Tetzevah from Exodus.

  • 3 p.m., an art exhibition opening at the Katonah Village Library, photography by Sara Bennett of women in prison and women released from prison.

  • 4 p.m., my open mic gig at the Katonah Village Library, talking about podcasts.

  • 8 p.m., a packed gala held at a country club in Stamford, Conn., by the local Jewish Community Center in honor of a couple I know.

Pandemic awareness was forcing itself on attendees at the JCC gala. People talked and even nervously joked about it, favoring fist bumps rather than hand shakes or hugs. Still, by today’s standards, the gala went as planned. Groups posed for photos with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, one of the night’s speakers, and sat together in tight groups for dinner. In an expansive mood, I bought a necklace for my partner Naomi at a silent auction.

Sign of the times.

I didn’t know that COVID-19 was at that very moment spreading fast all around Stamford, with New Rochelle, NY a hot spot. As CNN reported on March 24, “The first known case in New Rochelle was discovered March 2. By March 10, that number had shot up to 108 coronavirus cases, evidence of exponential growth. The containment zone was established two days later.”

Even closer to Stamford, a superspreader event on March 5 in Westport, Conn., became known as “party zero.” A Fox News story on March 24 said the party took place when Connecticut had no cases, but “as of Tuesday, the state is now dealing with 415 cases, 270 of which are in Fairfield County, where Westport is located.”

Did anybody from New Rochelle or Westport attend the JCC gala? I don’t know. I never heard of anybody at the gala getting sick. But it could have easily happened. Hundreds of people, many of them elderly, packed the country club, and the presence of a viral carrier could have caused a disaster. Hindsight is always 20/20 in 2020 but, looking back, we were skating on very thin ice that night, and it’s a miracle the ice didn’t crack under our feet.

The week starting March 8 marked the start of pandemic turmoil in the US. On a personal level, the week mattered to me because March 11 would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. Shirley Lissner Wallach was born in Del Rio in 1920. As a result, her centennial will always be entangled in my mind with the pandemic.

From the first days, I knew I was living through a historic time, end point unknown. Train station parking lots, usually packed, immediately became weekend-empty as commuters began working at home. Schools closed. The library sealed up its outside return box until further notice. As a result, I had to keep the last book I checked out, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, about a rabbi and his scribe, a young woman, in 17th century London (with a storyline involving the plague).

Blocked-off elementary school.

As the pandemic swept along, the Katonah Village Library started sending out a Saturday email weekly with open mic performances taped by contributors. This substituted for the library’s on-site monthly open mic event. I felt challenged and energized by this chance to  talk about the pandemic and other topics every week. The format also freed me from the confines of the library, letting me record my five minutes of monologue wherever I wanted to go.

On April 8, I recorded my first pandemic-related open mic on my cell phone as I stood outside my local barber shop across from the Katonah train station. I chose that site because I had decided, after 18 years with a beard, to cut it off, just to see what I looked like with only smooth creamy cheeks (as creamy as can be expected from a 60-something). I reminisced about the sharp haircuts my Russian-Jewish barbers provided and how I looked forward to seeing them again. I started growing the beard back a few days later, after satisfying my curiosity and deciding I looked better with a beard.

A week later, I stood in front of the sealed-up library return box for an open mic titled “The Inventory of Last Things.” My list records the last time I had experiences that stretched back five years and included:

  • May 2015, my last in-person Princeton reunion, the 35th; my 40th in May 2020 was canceled, although the class organized a night of Zoom get-togethers.
  • June 2016, last reunion of the Mission High School class of 1976, the 40th, at South Padre Island, Texas. I doubt we will have an in-person 45th reunion in 2021.
  • August 2017, last visit to see family in Katy, Texas, including my brother Cooper and his twin grandkids. They were babies then, rambunctious kids now.

In the months that followed, the library recordings captured my thoughts at home and also at places my partner Naomi and I visited. For all the emphasis on quarantines and social distancing, we still managed to get around. In May I spoke from the Katonah Metro-North station, reflecting on my 22 years of commuting from the suburbs to Grand Central Station and back. On June 13, I spoke about attending Naomi’s daughter’s wedding that day in the Catskills region of New York. A few weeks later, I stood by the Hudson River to reflect on a “one day vacation” in Cold Spring, NY, with my videographer panning the camera to track a long freight train rumbling by on the west bank of the Hudson.

On Labor Day, I reported from the eerily quiet streets of Great Barrington, Mass., on the way home from an overnight trip. I felt the ongoing economic and social damage of business closings and restrictions in places like Great Barrington and Northampton, Mass., home of Smith College. Towns that should be bustling with tourists and students lacked that energy. The absence put me in a downbeat mood that shadowed what I said.

Last man standing, waiting for an almost-empty train, Katonah Metro-North station.

A later video captured the glorious moment when I could finally return The Weight of Ink to the library’s reopened drop box, performed with a flourish like dunking a basketball. “Nothing but net!” I exclaimed.

Recordings made at home, typically at the dining room table, covered other aspects of the pandemic, including risk tolerance, masks as fashion statements, the evolution of office attire from coats and ties all the way down to bathrobes, the necessity of thinking about burial arrangements (bottom line: finding a plot in a Jewish cemetery in Texas doesn’t make much sense for practical and religious reasons), and podcasts I listened to during my daily walks around Katonah (Kol Cambridge for Israeli music, The Latin Alternative for “the best new Latin rock, funk, hip-hop and electronic music”).

Beyond the creative project, Judaism has been a constant reassurance in the pandemic. I’ve tried to say the Sh’ma prayer in the morning, study chapters of the Tanach at the excellent site 929.org.il, and listen to “Take One,” a weekday podcast on the daily page of the Talmud, or Daf Yomi. My shul, Chabad of Bedford, stands as a bedrock of support. I’ve been going there regularly since I moved to Katonah in 2015. Following a fire that destroyed our rented building in February 2019, the congregation moved to space in an office park. That worked well until the pandemic hit and the last on-site service I attended was on that memorable March 7 I mentioned earlier. On-site services ended after the next Shabbat.

But by late May, on-site services resumed at an outdoor cafe patio of the office park. Services held in nature lent Shabbat an ancient, primal vibe. In the summer, we were sweating under the cafe’s umbrellas; come fall, we were cool and surrounded by the trees with leaves changing colors (with the drone of leaf blowers often accompanying the Torah readings). By late November, services moved back indoors, with all the proper safety precautions. We’re not touching the edge of a tallis or siddur to the Torah scrolls, and we’re not noshing at a post-service kiddush—and that’s the way it should be in a pandemic. The important point is our services are an oasis of Jewish solidarity, a statement of resiliency in the face of social upheaval and isolation.

As 2020 shuddered to a close, I looked backward to those fateful late-winter days at the hinge of history, titled “March 2020: Skating on Thinnest Ice,” The complete text and the video version can be found here.

The images continue to evolve. My camera roll brims with yard signs from the presidential campaign, scenes of flaming sunsets behind bare trees, the inspiring sidewalk drawings of the anonymous artist known as the Katonah Chalker, reopened stores, mask litter, empty train stations with year-old advertising posters, self-portraits in my Day of the Dead mask, anything that catches my attention. Whatever 2021 brings, for good or ill, I’ll speak my mind about it, complete with pictures.

The Katonah Chalker makes his point with a familiar figure and gesture.
About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.
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