Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem

The men in the white suits

This insidious fear for myself and my loved ones is unrelenting, and the people who don't take social distancing seriously are making it much worse
Magen David Adom workers, who wear protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, arrive to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19, in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Magen David Adom workers, who wear protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, arrive to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19, in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I wanted to show you what it looks like when the men in the white suits arrive at your doorstep, when they come to swab your youngest son, just 22, an officer in the IDF, who shares an apartment with another officer, also 22, who just tested positive for COVID-19.

But they wouldn’t let me photograph. And there was actually only one of them, accompanied by a soldier in a green uniform. He didn’t get into his full hazmat regalia until he was right at our door. He didn’t walk through my neighborhood in his eerie, apocalyptic attire, lest he spread panic. But perhaps he should have.

I wanted to tell you what it’s like to fear for your husband, who sets out every morning to work in a hospital, while you work from home (or try to work from home) in your protected ark. He’s a doctor, responsible for 30 children on ventilators, who have respiratory conditions that put them at high risk for the coronavirus.

But it’s impossible to convey the sheer terror of my thoughts. What will happen if his patients catch this devastating blight? What if it happens to them suddenly, all simultaneously? Will my husband have to play God, like the doctors in Italy? What will that do to his soul? Will he have to fight to save each and every one of them and confront his failures? What could that do to his heart? And will he have to treat them while not adequately protected? What might that do to his body?

Could he, a ventilation specialist, find himself in need of ventilation, in a special kind of hell — on a ventilator in a ward where the medical staff does not have time to adjust the parameters of his machine properly, or where his respiration is being supervised by a gynecologist suddenly cast as a pulmonary specialist? Could he find himself lying there, knowing what needs to be done but unable to tell the practitioners who are treating him because he has a tube down his throat? How could he survive that kind of torment?

I wanted to describe what it’s like to greet your partner the essential medical worker when he comes home every day, knowing the pressure that he is under in his medical capacity, knowing that he needs your embrace, while knowing that he might be exposing you to whatever he has been exposed to during the course of the day. But there are no words for the tension caused by that ambivalence.

I wanted to tell you what it’s like to worry about your daughter-in-law the nurse, who comes home from the hospital after tending to patients, and lovingly tends to your firstborn grandson, who is teaching himself to walk while confined to home. What would happen if she were to get sick? But I simply can’t allow my thoughts to go there.

Close to 30 years ago, I sat in a sealed room on the second night of the Gulf War with a 2-week-old baby, who screamed in a protective plastic tent for what seemed to be an eternity until I broke down and took him out in order to nurse him. But the filter of my gas mask blocked me from seeing him as I looked down. Quaking, I took off my mask, and with tears streaming down my face, I let him nurse.

Some 20 years ago, I was jumped in my kitchen by a workman who left me beaten and bound, wondering if I would ever see my children again, as he made off with whatever he could take from our home saying that he would return and kill me if I called the police.

But this constant, insidious, unrelenting fear is unlike anything I have ever experienced.

So I beg you, some of my ultra-Orthodox brothers, who do not defend our country other than by learning Torah, and who are now actively threatening the lives of all those around you. Please stay home! Learn from the experience of your brothers and sisters in New York and New Jersey. Abandon your prayer quorums; have only the minimum necessary number of people at your weddings and funerals. Adhere to the recommendations of the health ministry as rigorously as you would to the rulings of the sages. When the members of your community fill our ICU’s because you took unnecessary risks, there will be no beds and ventilators for the members of mine. For Heaven’s sake, and for the sake of all the people of Israel, stop your desecration of God’s name and stay home.

And I beg you, my young, healthy countrymen and countrywomen, those of you who feel that the regulations are unnecessarily harsh, those of you who are taking advantage of ambiguities and utilizing loopholes so as to cavalierly continue gathering and living life as usual. In the name of those of us who are over 50, who are immune suppressed, who suffer from asthma or diabetes, in the name of our medical personnel and of my husband’s ventilated patients, and for your own sakes, I implore you: Please stay home.

Because when the men in the white suits come, they may very well be coming for you. And even if you come through fine, many of those around you may suffer a different fate.

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator who works as the coordinator of the Mandel Foundation–Israel's websites. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three fine young men and two daughters-in-law, and is the happy grandma of one. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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