As more and more of us have started working from home and leaving the house minimally if at all because of shelter-in-place orders to attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I have heard many people say that it’s becoming harder and harder to know what day of the week it is. Monday feels surprisingly like Wednesday. I have been deeply grateful that I have a bit less of the blur-of-days, as a result of Shabbat and the Jewish calendar as a whole. By Friday, I need to think about what to cook for Shabbat dinner and lunch. And almost as importantly, what reading or other activities will fill my time when I put down my iPhone, laptop, and Kindle? Additionally, while weeks are now seeming to bleed into each other, my weeks are punctuated in two special ways: the weeks of my pregnancy and the preparation for, and now, celebration of Passover (Pesach). In the midst of chaos, I find myself eternally appreciative of this annual cycle of holidays and the weekly rituals of Shabbat. They have kept me sane.
Several Shabbatot ago, due to being unplugged from devices and with no Shabbat meals to attend (shelter-in-place), I found myself talking to my baby-to-be more than ever before. I was about 10 weeks from my due date and the world felt like it’s spinning off of its axis. And yet, miraculously, my body seems to keep moving along, continuing to do its work in growing a new human life.
Here are some of the words that I spoke that Shabbat to the emerging life growing in my belly:
- I have no idea what sort of world you will be born into – will more and more people have COVID-19? Will I be able to give birth in the hospital as I planned? Will the rest of my prenatal appointments happen in person or over video? Who will be there for your birth and your first days, now that we’re living with so much uncertainty? But I promise you this: you will be loved. You are already loved and cared about by so many people.
- I am sorry that no one else can see or feel when you kick or punch right now. I am grateful for every last movement, though. Thank you for each of them, especially those Shabbat afternoon stabs in which you made my masechet (tractate) of Talmud jump off my belly.
- I am sorry for my moments of anxiety and my occasional nights of minimal sleep because of what’s happening – I hope it doesn’t affect you.
- I pray that I can keep us both healthy, and that if anything happens, we get the healthcare that we need. I am trying not to be too scared or too overwhelmed by the news. But somewhere in all this, and in becoming a parent more generally, I am slowly learning that I don’t have nearly as much control as I’d like. I refuse to be terrified about everything you do or don’t do. I want to trust you. I want to trust myself. I want to trust, again, that I can interact with people and feel safe – hug them, let them ultrasound my belly, share meals and seder, and let them into my home to help me build furniture for you or hold you, but the truth is that I am too scared right now. But one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, I will trust again. Let me be clear: I trust people. I am indebted to the faces on my screen and to the people who have showed up. I have a doctor who responds to my 4 million worries. I have family and friends who go above and beyond. But I can’t trust people face-to-face right now – the COVID-19 virus has taken away that part of humanity for now.
- People are dying and suffering at an incredibly awful scale right now. I cannot even begin to explain to you how heartbreaking it is. As a rabbi, I cannot imagine people dying alone and their families mourning alone. I am sure that you feel all this somehow, even on the inside. I hope, though, that it builds resilience, strength, and empathy in you instead of fear.
- Maybe, in some way, being (God willing) born during or just after a pandemic will make you someone who wants to heal and care for others. Just this weekend, a team of UCSF physicians and nurses flew to New York, the eye of the storm, to help for a month. They are role models for us both, while I stay here, focused on keeping you and me safe.
- I hope this is nothing more than a chapter in your life story that you just hear about as you grow. And at the same time, I hope that it does shape you for the better in some unforeseen way.
- You may come home to a messy home and a lot more chaos than I’d hoped since these coming weeks and months will not be what I’d planned. We will have to improvise. And for that too, I am sorry. Please forgive me, but also know that it’s the love that matters. I will do everything I can to make sure that you have everything you need.
- We are incredibly lucky. Even with this physical isolation, I continue to feel surrounded and held by family, friends, and Jewish community. People have done grocery runs and taken me to appointments. I hope that you will feel that too, whether it’s in person or virtual in your first days. As the weeks have now gone by, it tears me apart to think that you might not be welcomed into the Jewish community with a festive ceremony surrounded by tons of family and friends. But we’ll survive. And even if we are alone physically, we will not be alone in terms of those who are rallying for us, there to help us, there to listen to us when the end of the rope might seem very close.
- Shabbat – and our whole calendar – is an incredible gift. More about that below.
I have found that I am able to think and breathe and sleep much better on Shabbat than on other days in this new normal of sheltering-in-place. For twenty-five hours, I have not seen any new statistics on how many people have tested positive for or died from COVID-19. I have not seen any more discussion of how airborne the virus might be, and how long it might live on the cardboard boxes that are sitting in my entryway or the groceries in my kitchen. I can only worry so much before it starts to eat at me and my sleep. For twenty-five hours, I haven’t found any new concerns with what might or might happen as planned when I go into labor. For twenty-five hours and beyond, I wish for healing for those outside my walls and for continued health and safety for me and my family.
When Shabbat ends, though, reconnecting with the world has become both a blessing and a curse for me. I shared a lovely havdalah over Zoom with my independent minyan, and then jumped to a Google hangout with others who were in my childbirth class to process our fears, realities, and practical ideas for the months ahead. The latter left me more anxious than I was before, even if it felt calming to see the faces of people on a parallel journey. Earlier in the week, friends sent me op-eds written by other pregnant women in the face of their changing expectations, given this pandemic. I cried through reading each of them. In the scheme of things, I am healthy and able to stay home and this pregnancy has been going well, while people are getting sick and dying in catastrophic numbers and healthcare workers are on the front-lines without protective gear. At the same time, I needed to allow myself to feel my own sense of panic. I have never given birth before; this was always going to be an intense and transformational time in my life. I just had no idea how intense it would be and how little control I would have over even the smallest things. No one saw this coming.
To the others who are pregnant in this time of anxiety and uncertainty, the traditional reply when you find out that someone is pregnant is not mazel tov – we don’t congratulate one another, but instead b’sha’ah tovah – literally “in a good hour.” We cannot know that everything will turn out perfectly well while still pregnant, so we hope for one another that we deliver in a fortuitous time. Many of us refrain from having baby showers for the same reason – we just don’t know with certainty how things will turn out. As a former hospital chaplain, I’ve sat with families who were devastated by stillbirths. We don’t know what the coming days and weeks of our pregnancies may bring, but we hope, in the deepest depths of our souls, that we will be able to hold healthy, happy babies in our arms soon enough.
Jill Cozen-Harel is a rabbi in the San Francisco Bay Area, a senior cloud content analyst at the University of California San Francisco, and (hopefully, God wiling) soon to be a single mom by choice.