Click, flash; click, flash goes the camera as my son, Asher, my husband, Jacob, and I sit in front of a festive dinosaur backdrop in a corner of our apartment. We’re desperately trying to recapture the essence of how I first envisioned my son’s first birthday party: I had planned a dinosaur-themed gathering with friends and family, replete with dinosaur decorations, a photo booth, pin-the-tail-on-the dinosaur, and a ball pit.
But now, due to coronavirus, the birthday gathering has been much diminished: It’s just the three of us, the dinosaur background, and some birthday cake. Jacob and I make funny facial expressions, silly noises — anything, really, to inspire laughs from our little birthday boy. And, honestly, we also did whatever it took to encourage joy from all of us, because deep inside behind my strained smile lies a deeper worry: On March 11th, a few days before my son’s birthday, the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the WHO, and on March 13, two days before my son’s birthday, a national emergency was declared in the United States.
Just one weekend prior, we’d attended our first Purim party at our family’s synagogue; everyone was dressed in their favorite costume, enjoying other families’ company in much-needed togetherness during an already worrisome season for American Jewry. The just barely quieted fears unleashed by the Tree of Life synagogue shooting was now joined by the first murmurs of the novel coronavirus’ relentless approach.
Even before Purim, my husband and I enjoyed how building a Jewish family also meant actively building and participating in a larger community in time and space; especially our knack for “Shabbat dinner at our place.” Held once or twice a month, these were inclusive, good-timey gatherings with friends and neighbors of all ages and families from different backgrounds. All took part in contributing to the delicious foods, prayers, conversations and cozy rounds of childhood board games. We sat around the table as if we’d known each other for years, discussing current events, the weekly Torah portion, our past Shabbat experiences and wisdom, or lack thereof.
Since moving into our new Chicago apartment nearly a year ago, we hosted these Shabbat dinners. My husband and I felt like we were not the generation of “bar stiffs” or “swiping left.” We felt less like creatures of social media and more social people like in the “bygone days.” As I would glance around the table, I’d become overpowered by joy and deeply grateful to see everyone’s faces completely absorbed in each other’s stories.
In these days of coronavirus, I find myself thinking of those Shabbat dinners often. I also reminisce about waking up on any given morning with what I now consider a trouble-free mind, no second thought of any kind as I looked over and saw the most beautiful little being sleeping soundly in his crib. I’d blink to assure myself he was actually lying there, while altogether embracing the wonderfully intense fact that he is our son, who holds a greater purpose and is my gift to the world.
At the present time, I awake to the same bliss — but now, as soon as my eyes follow the sunshine outside our bedroom window, that moment of simple rapture quickly disappears. Instead, I am filled with dread. I can hear the thudding of my heart as a reminder that something unidentifiable yet dangerous lurks beyond these four walls.
A daunting feeling overwhelms me every time I step foot outside the apartment, especially with Asher in tow. Are my antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, latex gloves, and extra face masks tucked inside the basket beneath the stroller? These questions are just part of my daily rituals, carrying these items meant to be my magical gadgets to ward off Covid-19. Sometimes I play it like I’m a spy in disguise, unrecognizable to myself, my son, and my neighbors: My only mission, for now, is to deliver us safely from the apartment to the car.
At one time, the woman down the hall was a warm, welcoming person who would always comment on how cute our son was and share her own motherly stories. But now, her warm presence has vanished; if we see one another, I feel as if we are intruders, a threat to her existence.
Actions that once were smooth are now a hundred staccato movements, decisions, tiny scenes. I peek out the door, look both ways down the hall, and after confirming that the coast is clear, with swift feet I scurry to the elevator, and with my new Nitrile glove I press the “down” button. As I wait, I notice a sheet of paper taped on the wall that reads “One Person to an Elevator” and “Please Wear your Mask for the Protection of Yourself and Others.” The bell chimes and the doors glide open. This time, a petite elderly woman stands in the corner. Our eyes slowly meet, I break the awkward silence with, “Good morning.”
“I’m sorry but I wish I could let you on with me,” she replies in a melancholy voice. The door closes and now I worry that I’ll have to add an extra 30 minutes to my schedule just to catch an elevator. I press the down button again and in seconds another arrives, empty.
I grip the handle of Asher’s stroller as the elevator comes to a complete stop at the parking level. I prepare myself for whatever lies on the outside. Once again I pop my head past the doors, surveilling the exterior: all clear.
Then I swing into action once again, swiveling the stroller around the corner and down the hall. Breathing heavily into my face mask, hot air shoots upward towards my eyes, instantly fogging the lens of my glasses. I take a quick look behind me and stroll Asher out the double doors leading to the garage. When I finally reach the car, I pull back the canopy to see Asher’s eyes smiling back at me. To him, it’s just another normal day. But to me it’s anything but normal.
I secure him into his car seat. I settle into the driver’s seat and strap myself in, snatching off my mask as fast as possible, taking a deep breath. A phantom lump swells inside my throat, my face warms up and tears fill the wells of my eyes. Despite my little sunshine in the backseat, I lean over the steering wheel and once again I feel trapped and all alone. My body is riddled with exhaustion and I feel weary thinking about my “destination processes” and the recap of all I went through just to leave the front door.
I close my eyes tightly as the tears roll down my cheeks. I am searching for a higher connection, to reach the creator of our universe, and I began to speak out: “HaShem where do I go from here? What shall I learn or seek out as a new mother, a new wife during these unpredictable times? Please guide us.” I lift my head, look once again in the rearview mirror at Asher’s darling face and catch glimpses of myself, my husband’s and my late sister’s faces.
I remind myself that our ancestors traversed the wilderness on uncharted lands. Their unwavering faith in HaShem guided them through, providing everything they needed and made a way when it seemed, to them, there wasn’t one. Therefore, HaShem has done it before. Surely he will do it again, for us.
I know that our emunah — our faith — and commitment to building Shalom ha-bayit (not just peace in the home but a home of peace) will transform the walls of our isolation and confinement into a crucible that will clarify all that I value most: the miracle of our family, the blessings of friendship and community, the sheer spirit of survival. Maybe it’s similar to how Noah felt after the world-engulfing flood, when God spared him, his family, and animals? Did he ask these same questions? Was their bond stronger?
One day the world will become normal again — maybe not the same normal we once knew but a new normal that we will grow to accept and maybe love. We’ll be able to rejoin our distant families, walk into our Jewish parent-tot classes, pray at community synagogues, and be grateful to see all the mothers who have gone through similar experiences. We will talk about our struggles and how we overcame them, what we’ve learned, and how we’ll use our new strength to rebuild the Jewish community.
I yearn for a shared space where we can heal one another in the timeless sorority of motherhood. Still, I am truly grateful that through this all, HaShem has kept our family close, wrapped us in a cloth of resilience, patience, and love, where we have no choice but to triumph through it all, carrying on the legacy of the uniqueness of our Jewish family, our people.
Header Image by Vitalii Barida/ Getty Images