My family and I just finished our personal Coronavirus episode, after seven out of eight of us tested positive two months ago. On Purim, which now seems like a lifetime ago, some of us came into contact with people who did not know that they were infected yet, and within two weeks we were sick as dogs in bed.
I have spent the last few weeks thinking about the miracles and tragedies, the ironies and hilarities, the heroics and hysteria, nobility and kindnesses, and just the peculiarities and bizarreness of it all.
Before I tell our story and what I have learned from it all, here’s an irony for you: Israel is always considered by most of the world to be a dangerous country to visit or live in, but in the current pandemic, it is considered one of the safest! And, the whole world is actually listening to and duplicating our behavior!
I have to admit that we were utterly clueless going into this, and I hate to say this, but so was most of the world – except for Bill Gates! I sincerely hope that the world learns many lessons from this, such as: honesty – we wouldn’t be in this mess if there wasn’t so much corruption and dishonesty; total international cooperation and information sharing in real time; creating medical, technological and welfare systems to deal with epidemics; and most importantly – valuing EVERY human life, regardless of age, medical background, nationality, mental capabilities, race, or religion!
We had already gone into isolation on March 18 – the day we discovered that we had been exposed to COVID-19. It was a week after Purim, and the week before we actually got sick. Thank God, we are all proud to be able to say that we did not infect anyone else. We traced every single person that we had come into contact with – so they too could isolate themselves – and in the end, not one of them got it! We easily could have infected many people in the week before we went into isolation, but everyone had already begun to be somewhat cautious soon after Purim. Nothing can be truer than the saying: “Oh what a difference a day makes,” when you look at how we all behaved on Purim vs. just two days later – when schools closed and everything began to shut down.
I had thought that my friend Ilana, who stocked up with several months’ worth of food, was out of her mind and hysterical, until we were trapped in our own house with no food. Then, I wasn’t laughing anymore. It’s such a fine line between being “paranoid” and being prepared!
We had an additional problem to deal with during that week after Purim: our twenty year old daughter was stuck in Chile and the skies were closing. My nephew, Akiva, called her up and said: “Dassi, you have to get out of there… come home now!” He had just returned to Israel from his own trek in the East, which he quickly cut short. When she saw the supermarkets and drugstores emptying of supplies, and all of the tourist sites shutting down, she realized he was right. She caught a 10 hour bus ride from Pucon, where she was climbing volcano Villarrica, back to Santiago. In Santiago, they rushed to the airport, where they discovered that their friend in Israel had booked them a ticket from San Diego not Santiago. At this point, the last flight out of Santiago that evening – and as it turned out the last flight before they closed the airport completely – was flying to Rio de Janeiro with a connecting flight to Madrid. They got the last tickets on the flight. The Israelis on line behind them bought tickets to NY for the next morning, and ended up being stuck in Chile.
By the time they got to Madrid it was mayhem. Their luggage had been locked away and the airport was closed, but after many hours of craziness, they managed to catch the last flight out – which was flying to London. They figured they might have a shot at getting back to Israel from there. In London, they could not believe their eyes – everything in the airport was carrying on (cafes and shops), business as usual, while the rest of the world was closing down. They contacted an expert here in Israel, who told them that Amsterdam had the last flight to Israel in all of Europe. They managed to get a flight from London to Amsterdam, with a connecting flight to Israel. When they reached Amsterdam, the airport was closed without a soul – other than policemen. They checked the departure board, and next to every flight of the dozens that were there, was the word “cancelled” in big letters. The only flight still scheduled to depart, was an Easy Jet to Tel Aviv!!!
It was 9:00 at night, and the flight was not scheduled to leave until seven in the morning – another ten hours. At that point, a policeman told them to “go home”. They told him that they needed to sleep in the airport to wait for their flight. He told them it would most likely be cancelled anyway. I happened to agree with the policeman – who would fly an entire plane for a few Israeli girls?! I did not sleep the whole night waiting to see what would happen.
They were the only humans in the airport, and the only living things they saw were rats scurrying around their newfound territory. So, they did the only thing that sensible Israelis do, they sat down with their guitar and sang the whole night away! In the morning, a few dozen more Israelis joined them…and the flight took off! This whole saga of Dassi’s – one bus and five flights around the world – took 4 whole days, in which she hardly slept or ate.
Here’s another irony. When they arrived back in Israel, after having flown through some of the world’s biggest Corona hotspots, Dassi was afraid to come home for her two week isolation. She was worried that she would give Corona to us, so she decided to rent a cottage not far from our house. In the meantime, we were all already infected and we would have given it to her instead! She never did get Corona, thank God, because by the time she came home, we were not contagious anymore. The major frustration was that we could not help her and she could not help us – because by now it was Thursday (March 19), and we were also in isolation!
This is one of the toughest and most frustrating things about being in total isolation. Aside from the social aspect of isolation – the loneliness and boredom many people feel (which we personally did not experience since we were all together in the house) – there is the technical side of isolation. That is to say, that you simply cannot do any of the things that we normally take for granted. We could not: go grocery shopping – really bad timing with Pesach, since you can’t just use what you’ve got (not that it lasts that long anyway with seven people); go to the doctor; take out our garbage; buy medicine etc.
We did not step foot out of our front door for five full weeks. You really begin to feel helpless, but thank God for all the wonderful people of Alon Shevut who helped us! We would not have survived without them! There is of course the third problem with total isolation, the financial side. We have been out of work for two and a half months now, with no way to make up the lost income, and no jobs in sight. But, we are grateful to be alive and slowly returning to our full strength.
Back to what happened next. My husband and I actually only got sick 13 days after initial contact with the people who had it. It was March 22, the day before we were meant to get out of isolation, and we were already counting down the hours – making plans and lists of things to do. During that first week of isolation – before the two of us got sick – some of our kids had the sniffles, mild coughs, loss of taste, and what we thought were allergies, but back then who knew? It seemed to be typical mid-season reactions. We were told that Corona meant you had to have high fever, severe coughs and trouble breathing. Were it not for the fact that the two of us got extremely sick, none of us would have been tested.
Another frustrating thing about getting Corona is that since you cannot leave your house, you have to wait for the medics to come to you. This can take what feels like forever, since the system is so inundated, and it requires special equipment, personnel and transport. In our case we “only” waited two days, since there were seven of us.
So the men in white suits came, stuck a Q-tip down all seven of our throats and up our noses, and we waited another two days. When we got positive results for everyone, we were quite surprised, considering half of us were feeling fine. Only now, a month and a half later, have they added many of our symptoms to the official list.
And since many people have asked me what it felt like, and just what those symptoms were, I’ll tell you. I had fever, a burning throat, my stomach was very sick with tremendous nausea and diarrhea – I could not eat or drink for two weeks, my muscles and bones felt like they were ripping in half, I nearly blacked out and fainted every time I stood up, I could not taste or smell for a little while, and I had a really bad headache. I did not have a cough, although my husband did, and I did not have trouble breathing.
Aside from being extremely sick, we now had another problem to deal with: they lost our 16 year old’s test – to this day we don’t know whether she had Corona or not (my money is on a yes). We spent days trying to track it down, to no avail. She stayed in isolation with us the whole time anyway, to be safe, even though according to the authorities she did not have to. This underscores the principle of personal and communal responsibility – it really is up to each person on this earth to care about everyone else. That is the only way to stop this pandemic, and so many other tragedies on this earth.
Speaking of caring, we received our test results on March 26, with Pesach just a week and a half away! I was really sick and I remember sitting on the couch and crying, wondering how we would ever manage. We were completely unprepared, both in the cleaning and the food department. We could not get any cleaning help since no one could enter our house, but our wonderful children managed to pull through at the last minute, when they were mostly better. Our friends and neighbors put together a fund and shopped and cooked for us for the whole of Pesach! They delivered everything outside our door with lovely notes and good wishes. Just writing this brings tears to my eyes.
We got so many calls and messages that simply warmed our hearts. One person, who we don’t even know very well, called us up in the beginning and said he would buy us whatever we needed, for as long as we needed. And he did, he spent hours in lines shopping for us, even taking pictures and asking us about each item!
Even the nurses of our health care called all the time to make sure we were ok.
And, the school where my son teaches sent us an amazing puzzle, to keep us busy.
Which brings me to how important it is for anyone who is going through this – whether they are sick, in isolation, or just plain terrified – to have a support system, or even just a sympathetic ear. I cannot imagine what all of this must be like for someone who is all alone in the world.
Aside from us feeling like all of this help and support was a total miracle, I had my own personal miracle on Seder night, I was able to eat the Matza and drink the four cups of wine – something I did not think was possible! There was something else really magical in all of this – what we call the minyan mirpasot – the patio shuls that sprung up in our front yards, all over the country and the world. We personally had a real morale boost (especially during Pesach), when our block put together a minyan so that we could join for the entire time we were in isolation. We stood on our patio overlooking the street (but far enough away from everyone), and our neighbors stood on their roofs or on the street. We sang and danced together, far yet close, through all of the holidays and Shabbatot. At the end of each service, we wished each other Chag Sameach or Shabbat Shalom, and joked around to raise the morale. At one stage, towards the end of our isolation when we were going through our final Corona tests, our 23 year old neighbor said to us: “You are such positive people, but this time I bless you that you will all be ‘negative’!”
Little by little, we all got better. Then we had to deal with what I’ll call the “exit strategy”. This is undoubtedly one of the most nerve-racking and frustrating parts of having Coronavirus – trying to get out of it (unless you live in England, in which case I’m told that if you feel better you just get up and walk away)! Here in Israel, you must test negative two consecutive times in order to leave isolation. And yes, the police came by several times to make sure that we were all at home and staying put. We each had to come to the window and say our names.
Once again, the problem is that you have to wait for someone to come to you. After many phone calls, we got them to come for the first of the two tests, on April 14. I was sure it would not work for me as I was still feeling sick, but the results on April 17 said that we all came out negative. We actually have friends and family who came out negative and then positive several times in a row (one even had to do the test 12 times!), so we were still nervous. We also had to push for our 16 year old to be able to do the final tests with us, since she wasn’t on the record, but we didn’t want to let her out otherwise.
Then we hit a hitch – our area stopped doing home tests, because our municipality’s special car broke down. On April 20, after a tremendous amount of effort on both our part and the wonderful lady from the special Corona department in our area, we got them to send a medic in an ambulance. The medic agreed to come after she finished her day shift in Jerusalem. We happen to be friendly people, and so each time a medic would come, we would ask them their name and where they were from – since you can’t see who they are in their full garb. It just so happens that the first medic they sent, in the very beginning, was in a boy’s choir with our two sons. The last medic they sent turned out to have been a high school classmate of our daughter, Dassi. What a small world, and what amazing people our MDA are!
Five weeks to the day from when we entered “bidud” (isolation) – although it felt like an eternity, on April 22, we called our family doctor to see if the results were in. We all held our breath as she called each name, and every time she said the word “negative”, we all let out yelps, screams and cheers! She was laughing, and she said that we made her day!
We then had to inform our entire town that it was safe for us to leave the house. Going out the front door was surreal, after it had been something so forbidden and dangerous, but we decided to do it in style. Our neighbors had said to let them know when we got out, and I had replied that they needn’t worry because they would hear all about it. And that is exactly what we did – we blasted music and ran out of the house screaming and dancing into the street. It was quite a spectacle – considering that at that time no one was allowed past their front yard! Everyone came to their front yards and windows to see.
We were like celebs, and everywhere we went people stopped to say “Baruch Rofei Cholim” – “Blessed is God who heals the sick.”
When you are completely cut off physically from the outside world, it takes a little while to readjust; especially to a world covered in masks, social distancing, and supermarket lines around the block at 11:30 at night.
But you also begin to look at things differently; you appreciate life, people and nature so much more. Our first day out, we went for a walk to the outskirts of our town, which was blooming with poppies everywhere. Suddenly, everything looked so much more beautiful and exciting.
One thing I have definitely learned from this experience is that it really is the “little things” in life that make all the difference. As the famous saying goes: “The best things in life are free: family and friends; hugs and kisses; smiles and laughter; breathing and sleep; love and good memories.” Or as Art Buchwald put it: “The best things in life aren’t things.” I’d add music and singing to the list above, and it definitely helped us get through the hard times. To boost morale, our town had a convoy of cars with huge speakers blasting music through the streets, every now and again.
Humor played a huge role in boosting our spirits. There were the funny videos going around the web of how people passed the time in isolation, or took out their garbage. There were the toilet paper jokes.
There were the creative and comic ways people decorated their masks.
One non-religious taxi driver even used his mask as a kippah on his head, so that he could be the tenth man in our minyan, for kaddish at the cemetery!
There were the fireworks that lit up our yishuv’s sky on Yom Ha’atzma’ut; the white and blue balloons that the teenagers tied to every car in town; and a creative zoom ceremony that everyone took part in.
There were even halachic jokes deliberating why we still needed to wear masks – even though we had just had Corona. One woman said it was because of “marit ayin” – the term for misleading others into doing something wrong. Another friend said it was like being an Israeli Jew outside the Land of Israel on “Yom Tov Sheini Shel Galuyot”– you still need to go through the motions, even though it’s not your holiday.
I even used humor when we were all sick, to try and get my kids to help clean up our disaster of a kitchen. I sent them an SMS that read: “Help! This is your kitchen speaking. I am so filthy that I feel like I have Corona too! Please clean me now!” And when they finally did, I sent them a text that said: “Hi, this is your kitchen saying thank you, I feel better now.” My son Yitzchak even wrote back to say: “Baruch Rofei Cholim – hahaha.” And look at the sweet cookies our daughter Shira made for us, when we were really sick in bed:
And while it was truly sad to see the two shuls/synagogues across the road from us completely dark and deserted, people still managed to find the humor in davening/praying outside. There were minyan jokes during a heat wave like: “Can someone please turn up the air-conditioning?” Or, in the pouring rain the Rabbi of our shul joked: “Who would have believed that we would be standing right outside our big beautiful shul/synagogue getting soaked?!”
I recently read one Rabbi’s description of these past few months as a “nightmare”. He bemoaned the fact that he was not able to work, that everyone was cooped up together, unproductive and agitated etc. He disliked the fact that everyone was painting idyllic, “rosy” pictures of this time period. While it is true that there were terrible tragedies which were a nightmare for some, for most people it was neither heaven nor hell. It was not “all or nothing”. Meaning, it was a growing experience that had its wonderful moments and its challenges – like life itself!
People really did their best to stay positive, stay connected, to care about others and give of themselves – and that more than anything else, kept Corona from taking over. All I can say is that I pray that the words of Hanan Ben Ari’s Corona song come true: “Soon this will all be over, but I’m asking you please, that the morning after you (Corona) leave, don’t let us be the same as before.” May we all take these “Corona Times” and grow from strength to strength!