Twelve weeks into the Covid-19 pandemic in Connecticut, USA. A few hours from dawn. My hands squeeze white soapy water through the hand knit blue and white Ethiopian yarmulke I’d been wearing, trying to get it clean. I’ve just returned from the lab where my blood was drawn. Not to test for The Virus, thank God. A standard blood test ordered by my doctor.
Scenes from my first venture out of the house in weeks push through into consciousness, like fistfuls of cloudy water. What truly are the messages that the God of my understanding sent me so early this morning?
Sitting behind the wheel of my dark gray 2013 Toyota Prius, dusty from disuse, I pull up to the lab office deep in an ugly office complex. Placing the strings of my blue and white mask carefully around my ears, I dodge away from the nervously waiting woman on her cell phone at the door and step into the lab, my eyes adjusting to the white glare of ceiling fluorescents.
I’m annoyed as I take in the crowd of waiting patients. Twenty-somethings on their laptops. Middle aged men and women in suburban appropriate monogrammed sport shirts staring blankly into space. All have their faces masked. I notice how close the chairs that hold these people are for a state like mine that’s seen so many deaths. Supposed to be seniors only at this hour and I feel scared observing the crush.
Per usual for the upscale Connecticut enclave this New York City boy from 14th Street and Avenue A chooses to live in, we are all of similar skin color. White. Something I’m so accustomed to, I don’t ordinarily notice. But today, at a time where uniformed white policeman beat Black bodies on television and computer screens across America, the sight of my segregated surroundings almost takes my breath away.
The prospect of fainting and falling to a floor that’s been trampled by my fellow citizens is not an option and I gather myself for action. Eyebrows raised above my mask, I give a quizzical look to the blue and white masked lab receptionist sitting behind a heavy glass partition. “Didn’t the website say seniors only between seven and eight?“ As I spit these words into the interior of my mask, an 80-something man stumbles by me, too close for comfort, his white mask hanging ajar below nose level.
“Please not so close” I say.
Then I notice something. The staffer, she’s of a different skin color from the people she serves today. I think to myself, African-American? Caribbean-American? And I think of the statistics on how hard the Virus hit communities of color here in the States. I think of the risk this woman takes to serve us, the white-privileged, who can afford to live in an area like this.
Although I look like I fit in, my genes have me acting a little rebellious lately. Filling out the “race” question on standard medical forms, I know I should check off the “White” box. Lately, my ancient middle eastern roots have been haunting me. My skin, as a kid in New York City, before the melanin faded away with age, was a lot darker.I remember how the parochial school kids used to chase us, the kids from the progressive school around the corner, yelling “Dirty Jews” as they tried to catch and beat us up. Born less than ten years from the liberation of the death camps in the Holocaust, I liked the idea that I might seem a little dangerous. Today, this Jew in America reads too many anti-Semitic incidents in the news. My pen updating personal information on the brown medical office clipboard, strays away from the “White” box more and more to check me out of the race I can pass for, to the race I am increasingly selecting as a Jew in 21st Century split-screen America. I choose ‘Other.”
The lab staffer silently surveys me, an old guy with a black and white beard wearing a matching blue yarmulke and blue mask. I want to project confidence and the authority that’s supposed to come with age, an authority that could, with a little added dose of White Jewish Chutzpah help get me the hell out of this place. While behind the mask I wear, my face is falling, realizing I probably look like some derelict who’s washed up at the feet of the single individual who could save me today.
Out of sight of the waiting room around the corner, the receptionist quietly speaks unexpected and welcome words. “I’ll take you now.” Motioning me into a brown swivel chair in the adjoining patient examining room, I suddenly realize she is everything here, receptionist, lab tech, and clearly a good soul. She’s quick, deft and 90 seconds later it’s done. With blue gloved hands, she places a chunk of white cotton on my forearm and pulls just enough white tape from a roll to secure the gauzy stuff to my skin.
She looks up from my bandaged arm to the colorful yarmulke on my head and nods.
“Shalom,” she says. My eyes widen. “Thank you,” I say.
“Sabat Shalom.” she says. “We all need that now. Peace, I mean…in these times.”
My eyes feel like they’re about to pop out of my head.
My mouth forms words, a part of me knowing deep inside that some pretty wild movie script is playing out between us. “That’s the Ethiopian way of saying it. Sabat, I mean.”
“I know,” she says. “I was in Israel, a few months ago.”
What this kind woman doesn’t know is that I’m spending half my time as a family therapist here in the green lands of Connecticut while my other half fights for the remaining Jewish children and families in Ethiopia. Thousands of souls yearning to join their brethren in Israel. A dream that has survived for a thousand years and more, threatened as the pandemic descends on the horn of Africa.
But not enough time to converse further. The angel placed before me today to ease my journey needs to get back to her full waiting room. As I walk by holding my arm, she’s again on duty at her desk.
I open the office door into the white light of a misty gray morning.
Driving home, I remove my mask and breathe in the fresh air of the new day. Arriving, my wife’s got the news on. Pandemic still raging. So, I hit the shower, wishing to wash away any potential trace of virus. And I remember the words spoken each day by Rabbi Mira Rivera as she leads Romemu Manhattan’s morning minyan on Zoom in prayer for the wellbeing of Health Care Workers and Healers. “Bless the sacred work of their hands and may this plague pass from among us speedily and in our days.”
I squeeze white soapy water through the colors of the yarmulke I brought from Ethiopia to Israel and back to the shores of America last summer. Placing it to air out in the sun. Holding onto the message I’ve been given that while we are called to do the footwork, something higher guides our steps.