Earlier this week, I received my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine in the nearby small Arab city of Shefa-Amer (Shefaram in Hebrew). It was once a mixed city with Jews, Muslims and Christians (although with a very small minority of Jews — fewer than one hundred families — and a large majority of Christians). Now there are no more Jews there — although the synagogue still stands — and there is a large majority of Muslims. In some ways, it is like a smaller version of Nazareth.
When I arrived at the clinic, there stood an automatic digital thermometer where the large Christmas tree stood last time I was there, which was for the first dose of the vaccine, three weeks before. I have been coming to this medical clinic for over ten years — since I moved to the area from Jerusalem — for whatever medical services I cannot get in the smaller village of Kufr Manda across the road from Kibbutz Hannaton, where I live. For services I cannot get in Shefa-Amer, I go to Nazareth (an-Nasira) or Haifa (Hayfa).
They know me in this clinic. To them, I assume, I am that soft-spoken yet friendly woman with the seven kids and a muscular disease who says she’s a rabbi — not married to a rabbi, but an actual rabbi — and does spiritual work, writes books in English, keeps inviting us to come to immerse in her kibbutz’s mikveh and has been studying Arabic for years but is improving very, very slowly, if at all.
As usual, the nurse started by speaking to me in very slow Arabic but ended up switching to mostly Hebrew. Arabic is hard enough for me to understand, but even more so when the speaker is wearing a mask! Still, she commended me on my effort, smiled behind her mask — which I could tell from her eyes — and congratulated me on receiving my tatim’ein (two vaccines). This is one of the things I love about Arabic — that two of anything has its own special suffix — “ein” — which is only for certain words in Hebrew and not at all in English (the only other two languages I know, although those I can actually speak, whereas Arabic is more of a hobby on a good day, and an uphill battle on a bad day).
There was a definite feeling of elation, of lightness, in the air, as one after another, we received our second doses of the vaccine: an older couple — the woman in hijab, the man in a kaffiye; a middle aged woman in jeans and a sweater with a cross pendant around her neck; a younger man with a hipster beard and black-framed glasses; a man from the Anthroposophic (Waldorf) kibbutz of Harduf across the road cracking jokes as we waited. I was the only one there with teenage children (I was there with two of my kids who have the same degenerative genetic type of muscular dystrophy I do, FSHD, and therefore were also eligible to receive the vaccine at this stage).
After receiving the vaccine, my son, of course, wanted to stop to buy k’nafe — that sweet cheesy dessert with the orange bird-nest type topping (I don’t know how else to describe it). He’s a foodie, and for him, it wouldn’t be a successful trip to Shefa-Amer if he didn’t get k’nafe.
I arrived home just in time for my weekly online Arabic class. Since the pandemic started, I had to give up my in-person weekly Arabic course in Sawaid al-Hamira, the Bedouin village next to Harduf and across from Shefa-Amer, but thankfully was able to join an online course hosted by Givat Haviva: The Center for a Shared Society, and subsidized by Hand-in-Hand (the organization that supports a chain of Arab-Jewish bi-lingual schools in Israel, including the Galil School, where my younger children went/go to school).
Unfortunately, I learned these new words in class that night:
yaladat = gave birth
hilik = was born
mayit = dead
At the beginning of class, my Arabic teacher shared that a friend of hers was infected with Covid-19 in her last month of pregnancy, and while she survived, she gave birth to a dead fetus two weeks before her due date. It seems the new British strain of the virus, which is more contagious, is especially dangerous for pregnant women, which is why the Health Ministry is now advising pregnant women to be vaccinated.
I awoke the next morning to more sad news. Yehudah Meshi Zahav — founder of Zak”ah, the ultra-Orthodox emergency community response team — who has spent countless hours at the bedsides of Corona ward patients, just lost both his mother and brother to Corona. He is angry at the religious leaders in his ultra-Orthodox sector, where there is outright flouting of the government lockdown restrictions.
In some such neighborhoods, many educational institutions are remaining open, synagogue worship continues as usual, and weddings and other gatherings are still being held. In fact, Meshi Zahav says his mother and many other family members were infected at a Hanukkah party during the previous lockdown. Rabbis, who should be moral examples and preach saving lives as a paramount value, are instructing their community members not to abide by the government restrictions, and are therefore causing death rather than preserving life.
He says: “These rabbis are worse than Holocaust deniers. Holocaust deniers deny the past. These rabbis deny the present!” He adds: “These are people who are infecting their own community of followers… they are walking time bombs…”
How can we prevent the virus from spreading if people are not taking precautions? The national lockdown has been extended for another ten days, which is hard. Very hard. But, as Meshi Zahav suggests, it will be for naught if people do not follow the restrictions. Although about 25% of the population here in Israel has now received their first (and some their second) dose of the vaccine, we still have a long way to go before we can, if at all, put this behind us.
Infection rates are dropping slowly, and so are positive test results. But the vaccine and lockdown will only be effective and save lives — and remember, each life saved is a unique world, no matter if the person is old or young, able-bodied or physically challenged, healthy or with a pre-existing condition, rich or poor, religious or secular, of your own faith tradition or of another, with the same color skin and sexual orientation as yours or another, and so on — if people put differences and suspicions aside and cooperate.
Then I heard news of an acquaintance in Brooklyn, a Haba”dnik, who died yesterday at age 39 from Covid. He was the father of six young children. And that is just one face behind the numbers: so many people still sick and dying from this pandemic; others hungry; others worried about how to survive day to day; others terrified about their future.
I think of a spiritual direction client, a rabbi in the U.S. who works in an assisted living facility for the elderly. The residents, mostly 85 years and older, have been stuck alone in their rooms for the past year. This is so hard.
My elated balloon from receiving the vaccine is quickly deflating. It is premature to celebrate. People are still suffering from this virus – here in Israel and around the world; and new strains of the virus are proving more contagious and more dangerous. The pandemic is far from over.
I would say my short-lived bubble has burst, but that feels hopeless. A burst balloon cannot be blown up again. It’s torn pieces cannot be put back together.
I prefer the image of a hot-air balloon that has been punctured in multiple places, lost some air, and therefore has started to fall. Perhaps it can be repaired if we act quickly and skillfully enough, working together to find the right patches to mend the holes before the balloon crashes. On all levels, not just fighting this virus and its various strains, but also fighting against the viruses of divisiveness, segregation, prejudice and discrimination.
Yesterday, my friend Robby Berman launched his new book of Palestinian Arabic idioms, Min Taq Taq — literally by launching a copy of the book into the blue sky (after days and days of stormy rain) with helium balloons, from his apartment porch in Jewish West Jerusalem in the direction of Arab East Jerusalem. He did so as a gesture to promote better communication (and shared living) between Arabs and Jews in Israel, and a step towards peace and an end to the conflict, he said, as he served sadah (thick Arab coffee) and k’nafe to those who came to watch the book fly off.
On a Zoom launch event the day before, he had hosted an impressive panel of speakers who are dedicated to bringing Arabic to the Jewish-Israeli sector and encouraging and supporting them in studying Arabic. As one panelist, Gilad Sevitt who founded the website madrasafree.com, expressed: Many Hebrew speaking Israelis want to learn to communicate in Arabic as a living language, not just learn about Arabic from textbooks. They want to be able to speak to their neighbors, colleagues and friends in their own native language as well as most young Arab speakers today can speak Hebrew. Mutual respect for each other’s language and culture is a sign of mutual respect for each other’s narratives and humanity.
Robby — who knew as little Arabic as I did when he started studying the language, and is now fluent — and this panel inspired me to keep pushing ahead with my own attempts to learn Arabic, even if I feel I have no chance of ever being fluent. At least — especially after Israel’s “Nationality Law,” passed in 2018, removed Arabic as the second national language of Israel — it is a gesture towards a better future of shared living for Palestinian and Jewish Israelis in this country, and for all groups with a history of conflict throughout the world.
Listening to the words of U.S. Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at the Biden-Harris inauguration, I could not help but feel how so much of what she said applies to this country, too. Especially as both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples suffer trauma from the Shoah and the Nakba, both of which mean catastrophe:
“So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division.”
To order Robby’s book in English (there will also be a Hebrew version): https://www.selffitcards.com/p/Min_Taq_Taq__A_Collection_of_Arabic_Idioms_-_Palestinian_Dialect_-_Arabic_to_English