I used to think it was the 9th of Av, aka Tisha B’Av, throughout all of August. Those were the long days we spent at our summer place in Parksville NY where the opportunity to swim was in the chilled fresh water of the falls. The water gushed, icy cold, clean and pure, endlessly, with the ancient rocks reflecting the summer sun. The falls could be reached from the top where nature had etched a wonderful seat where I could immerse in the water and dream, or the bottom which was a swimming hole, with deep water which came from above in never-ending torrents. Standing under the falls itself was the most breathtaking shower, with its frigid water pounding continuously until I could endure no more. Then I would climb onto the giant rock and bake in the brilliant sun. July was spent at the falls. And then came August. My mother closed down the falls, as did all the other mothers, for the season. It was not because of the Jewish day of mourning. It had nothing to do with the loss of the Temple. It was the scourge of polio and, somehow, our mothers knew that swimming in August was forbidden. Polio was lurking in the water. I used to wonder how my mother, and all the other mothers and fathers, survived that dreaded month, year in and year out. Would their children succumb? Would the dreaded disease surface in their home?
One summer my mother got a phone call from my aunt in Newark. That was, in itself, a rarity since we had one phone, a party line yet, that served as our connection to the world, and we shared it with at least 50 people at our place alone. A message that the call was for you was ominous. No one would spend the money and deal with the frustration of a call unless there was important news to share. And there was. My aunt phoned to say that my cousin Bobby, who had polished my nails the day before, had just been diagnosed with polio. Their neighbor Marjorie, had also just been diagnosed. This was a heads-up to my mother to be alert. As if she needed a heads-up! Unfathomably I did not come down with polio and Bobby made a swift uneventful recovery. Marjorie, however, was crippled her entire life and died as a young adult, a victim of the same seemingly random disease. She was a beautiful and brilliant girl, a tragic loss.
And so it was that my mother and her cohort would have been more prepared than I for the virus that stalks us today. She had been fearful always. Polio might have been more prevalent in August but there was no reason not to fear it constantly. And she did. As did all the mommas and poppas.
Pesachs were always a joyous, crowded and festive holiday. This year it is hard to reconcile the loneliness most of us will endure. Our lives are embargoed. Our Pesach is not our Pesach! Those who don’t fear the rabbis will ZOOM our seders……but it won’t be an adequate substitute. Not tactile. Not delicious. A mere reminder of what could have, would have been. For us it would have been a huge gathering in Arnona, Jerusalem. We would come from Massachusetts and Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Jerusalem itself. We would squeeze in and be brilliant for the economy! The overflow would fill numerous hotel rooms. All of us were convinced that our route would be the best. Some by way of Italy. Some via Moscow. Others from Spain. We oldsters were non-stop from Newark, our local airport. Who could even imagine what is. Who could imagine the 11th Plague, the Corona plague which seems headed for us instead of Pharaoh.
I am reminded of the miraculous seders prepared alone by the Big Bubbie, my husband’s grandmother, who at five feet tall was inches taller than the Little Bubbie. She started preparations with a carp swimming in her bathtub, innocent as to the slaughter that was being planned to transform him into gefilte fish. The entire meal was prepared by Big Bubbie alone, with her gnarled fingers and arthritic hands. No matter. This is how it was always done and even though, with thanks to God, the family grew and grew, there was always room around the table. Somehow. And when we sang “Next year in Jerusalem,” it was climactic and exciting and we believed it.
Can we still believe it? Will there be next year in Jerusalem? I think so! NO. I know so. This is an aberration which we will never forget. Just as we were spared annihilation from Pharoah, we will remember the plague this year which descended upon us, but the world will be saved and our people will yet again celebrate and rejoice in our freedom. It will truly be “l’ shana aba’a b Yerushalayim. Yes yes yes! Amen Sela!