We are barraged with incessant news, and we are terrified. We try to stay positive, we share humor in our WhatsApp groups and talk about how lucky we are that we are not foraging rodents in the Polish forests but are merely barricaded in our homes. I try to work, I try to organize food and create meals, I try to count my blessings.
Four years ago when I buried a son to suicide I was strengthened and motivated by the larger horror of the Holocaust: If my father could survive that, then I can survive this. And in the early days of COVID-19, unimaginably only a few weeks ago, I drew comfort again from my Holocaust legacy and let it inform my every maneuver. I was strategizing for survival, planning for the days ahead when I would need to go into hiding. In mid-February as we were all mesmerized by the passengers stuck on cruise ships, I was ordering mountains of canned tuna and Tylenol and yes toilet paper. Prepping for the Pandemic I that already felt palpable.
But as the long hours and standstill days and widening weeks unfurl, neither my overstocked larder nor the emotional ammunition in my war-chest, allow me to feel safe. I am sick with worry. I live in the New Jersey epicenter of this contagion, in suburban Teaneck. On my block alone seven homes have battled this virus with at least one household I know still hospitalized. The schools and Shuls and community bulletin boards send multiple daily death notifications alerting us to the private funerals and the zoom shivas. This is very very real.
And here is where my expertise comes in. The sagacious rabbis and experienced doctors may be our generals in the fight for our lives, and they are all asking us, telling us, begging us, mandating, that we all stay put for this holiday. But I am the parent who knows the terror of losing a child. Who is now preaching and screeching from the proverbial rooftop, or at least on social media, to stay home. Even if it means staying home alone. Even if it means making everyone around me crazy. Because it is better to be unfriended than to lose a friend to death.
Family members who have been completely quarantined should not integrate at all with the other similarly contained silos. We still know next to nothing about this disease. So many of us have someone stepping out to work on the front medical line; and even seemingly hermetically-sealed homes are receiving endless packages from Amazon, FedEx, the US Postal Service and local grocery stores. We place books in shopping bags to leave on our front step for a neighbor, we drop off a corrugated carton of milk for somebody who has run out. And we take walks around the block, 6 feet apart, 8 feet apart, 10 feet apart, but who knows what jogger just went by with a dangling toxic particle, who knows what the stepped-in dog poop radiates, who knows what hides in the grass the landscaper just mowed.
I always wanted to believe that I would have been the person yanking everybody I know out of Berlin in 1938, forcing them to leave their art and businesses behind in order to move to safer shores. In this case all we need relinquish is the opportunity to sit in person with family members over this holiday. Just this one single year.
So one last plea: your adult single daughter will survive by reading the Haggadah to herself and schmearing cream cheese on Matzah, your 91-year-old mother can survive sitting quietly with her aide. But they may not survive opening the same refrigerator, pouring the same container of juice, reading the same newspaper as you are touching.
And so with apologies for offending the people who know me and even those that don’t, please understand that in this time of swirling uncertainty, I know just one thing with absolute clarity—that nothing nothing nothing is worth the risk of anyone anywhere joining the ranks of being a parent who buries a child. This will be a year that we will never forget. Our own stories can still have good endings. And as the Hagaddah tells us: let’s look forward to gathering in a better place next year. In the meantime, thank God, we have our wine.