Notes from the coronavirus underground

Some excerpts from my journal during the past month, and some reflections:

March 2. “Back from a visit to Israel. We had a great week there … but we canceled plans to go on to Barcelona.”

Although the coronavirus had struck China, my husband and I were not concerned about traveling or catching it. There had been no cases in Israel and a relatively small number in the United States. We reluctantly canceled our planned trip to Barcelona only because we worried we might get stuck in some kind of lockdown there. A week after our return we attended Purim services at our synagogue, and watched the Purim spiel with dozens of other congregants.

March 12: “Just got word that all theaters in New York are closing. And we have tickets for ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ tonight; when will we see it now? Suddenly all the events we were supposed to go to have been canceled, even the Jewish Book Awards.”

In less than a week everything had changed. The virus swamped New York, the stock market went crazy and fear began to gnaw at our hearts, especially among those of us labeled  “most vulnerable” because of our age. We shouldn’t have been at that Purim spiel with all those people, I muttered again and again. What if we get sick? My daughter and her family came to our home for dinner the following Friday night, as they have done every Shabbat through the years, calming and comforting us with their presence. Yet the world seemed darker and more ominous than we had known it.   

March 18. “The coronavirus has been labeled a pandemic. ‘Social distancing’ is the order of the day.”

Golda Meir and her friends, who had all recovered from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, lightheartedly referred to it as the “fashionable disease.” Will we ever be able to look back that way at our current pandemic? Now my daughter and family can no longer visit — any contact is too dangerous. These days if I happen to pass another person in the street, I move far to the side and so does that person, each of us eyeing the other almost suspiciously. Is he a carrier of the virus? Has she sneezed or coughed, polluting the air? How lonely our existence has become.

March 23. “We’re told to stay home all the time now — I’m not even sure we should take walks any more. It’s so scary.”

The Outside has become distant, even mysterious. When I look out the window I see trees in bloom and daffodils on the ground. When did that happen? The world moving on without us. There are moments when I become paralyzed with fear, but I try to remind myself that this will pass, as have other bad times we’ve lived through. All sorts of experts appear on online with conflicting advice. I like the physician who said simply that if you keep your hands clean at all times and away from your face, you will not get the virus. My hands are red and rough from scrubbing, but are they ever clean!

March 26. “Finally notified everybody that the Passover seders are cancelled. We will have both seders with just the two of us.”

I put off canceling our seders for as long as I could, because I so didn’t want to. I’ve been thinking with more sympathy than ever about the Egyptians suffering the Ten Plagues. They would not have had to suffer so much if their Pharaoh had given in to Moses. But he was an egotistical ruler who cared more about winning than about his people. (Hmm. Sounds familiar.) While we read the Haggadah, I will think this year about the Egyptians and how horrible it is to suffer plagues. 

March 31. “All set. The Passover dishes are ready, Passover food is ordered and I’m actually looking forward to our seders for two.”

Getting food has been a hassle. People are hoarding and stores are short-staffed. Luckily, I bought the matzahs in advance — everything else, as they say, is commentary.

The Haggadah speaks of plagues, but it also speaks of miracles — the miracle of Israel’s flight from Egypt; of crossing the Red Sea; of a band of slaves becoming a nation. I don’t expect a miracle to rescue us from the coronavirus. It will have to run its course. But in some ways we have also experienced miracles — the miracle of doctors and nurses risking their lives to treat virus victims; of musicians bringing music to the Internet to ease our pain; of organizations posting podcasts to engage us, of humorists making us laugh with cartoons and anecdotes.

People have come together to help one another. That is the miracle of humanity in this plague-ridden time. It is not a small thing.

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.
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