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Yom Kippur

‘Who By Fire’ Has an Awful New Meaning on the West Coast Right Now

Last week, as we have done every year since my first child was born in 2009, my husband and I took a Rosh Hashanah family photo with apples and honey bears as props. The location is always outdoors, in order to reflect the beautiful nature found in Washington state: We’ve done the Seattle Arboretum, city parks, the West Seattle boardwalk, and various friends’ backyards or porches.

This year, like so many things for so many people during the pandemic, we had to make some adjustments. Instead of asking a friend to take the picture, we made use of a new tripod. The setting was our backyard, rather than a public place. And the kids, sweetly meeting the moment, offered to make little cloth masks for the honey bears. It felt wonderful to be able to partake in a normal family ritual, something from the before-times that gave us a feeling of comfort, connection, and control.

Actually, scratch that last word: control. Mere hours after our outdoor photo session, toxic smoke rolled into Seattle, thanks to the unprecedented number of wildfires currently raging from northwest Oregon to eastern Washington.

For almost two weeks, my kids and I were stuck inside our home, running an air filter all day, watching the air quality index creep higher and higher, becoming armchair meteorologists. Mornings here looked exactly the same as evening: ashen, bleary, hellish. When the sun did appear, it had the unnatural orange hue of a bag of Cheetos. I saw a warning on Facebook that wildlife might be fleeing their homes — mountain lions and coyotes, elk, deer, and bears all searching for safety and water in urban areas. A local TV station reported that the acrid smoke is so bad for us because it actually contains particles of tar from partially burned trees, which can cause all kinds of short- and long-term health effects.

Tracking reports of horrific, historic fires along the entire West Coast is not quite what I imagined doing in the early days of September 2020. After a stressful, camp-free pandemic summer at home, I envisioned spending this month finally getting into a routine of remote learning for my grade-school boys. My daughter was supposed to attend preschool in-person, but one of the school’s coronavirus mitigation tactics is to keep windows open for better ventilation, and, well, you can’t do that when the AQI outside is literally among the worst in the world. So instead of learning where her shoes go and how to unpack her lunchbox, my 3-year-old learned the different meanings of blue, purple, and red on the home air quality detector.

The overall feeling — plagues of ashes falling down on cities, distressed animals, unbreathable air, mysterious illness — feels far more Apocalyptic Passover than the Days of Awe. Dayenu, amirite?

Yet somehow, we on the West Coast are trying to manage smoke-induced physical and emotional strain during a pandemic, while also trying to attend to the spiritual requirements of this crucial time in the Jewish calendar. The Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most psychologically demanding of the year. Now is the exact moment for teshuvah, the process of “turning and returning” to the best version of ourselves in order to start the New Year off on the right foot. Surveying the vast environmental destruction, social unrest, racial injustice, economic devastation, and other anguish enveloping our lives in 2020, there are days I want to turn . . . and just run in the other direction.

The poem Unatenah Tokef, written in the Middle Ages, is one of the most memorable parts of the High Holiday prayer service. Famous as part of a song by Leonard Cohen, the verses force us to reckon directly with the Day of Judgment. The prayer begins,

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed — how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…”

Reciting “who by fire” strikes me as especially challenging right now, as people and wildlife all along the West Coast are dying, thousands more are being displaced, and farmlands, property, and entire towns are being obliterated amidst what will likely go down as the worst fire season in history. (That is, until the next one.) It’s another brutal blow in a year of brutal blows — “So much pain on top of so much pain,” as a friend recently put it.

Facing the sheer numbers of fires and acreage burned, I suspect a kind of numbness sets in for folks who don’t live out here — perhaps similar to the phenomenon of people not being able to comprehend the massive scale of Covid-19 deaths. The result is a feeling of, “Oh, it’s another bad fire season on the West Coast.” But I’m here to tell you, this one is different. And by “different” I mean that it’s markedly worse.

I realize how hard it is to convey the severity of the situation on the ground, when all of us are already operating at the limits of our human “surge capacity.” Our brains can’t even manage what’s already distressing them, let alone a bonafide natural disaster that is a perfect storm of climate change, harmful policies, and systemic neglect. Combined with incidents of arson (yes, really: some of these fires were intentionally set) and accidents created by stir-crazy folks escaping lockdown, the fire season is threatening to max out the resources of already-strained and underfunded parks and firefighters.

Without a doubt, this Jewish new year is taking place in a brave new world. Or a world that is requiring us to be brave.

I am very thankful that my family is doing OK (pu pu pu). Our house has air conditioning, a functioning air filter, and a well-stocked pantry; hunkering down and staying inside is a skill we’ve honed during the last few months of quaran-times. While taking shelter from the smoke, we are helping those less fortunate by donating to some of the organizations here, here, and here. We are trying to stay calm, recognizing that people in our region are experiencing life-altering losses of property and livelihoods. Others, like farmworkers, continue to work in extremely dangerous conditions.

As the New Year turns and Yom Kippur arrives, please keep the Jewish communities of the West Coast in your thoughts. Many of us were planning to go outside to hear the shofar and attend outdoor services that accommodate social distancing. This option might not be feasible if the smoke lingers, so we may need to share in the virtual High Holiday celebrations you’re planning. Or just call your friends in California, Oregon, and Washington state and ask how they’re doing. (Fact: Phone calls feel refreshingly quaint in the Zoom era.)

The Oakland-based writer Kailyn McCord recently framed the wildfire situation on the West Coast in a way that resonated with me. As she watched ash falling from the orange California sky and packed a go-bag, McCord wrote, “I will never be comfortable with what is happening. This is my home; these are the people I love best in the world, and not a single thing I know about normalcy, or narrative, applies to us now.” It is heartbreaking when a place you love especially for its natural beauty is so threatened, when forests that should be standing tall for future generations become blackened cinders. Seattle is my home, and the earth is our home. And as much as we may want to turn and run in the other direction, the unambiguous catastrophe of these fires is sounding its own shofar call. We can’t pull a Jonah and hide in the belly of a giant fish anymore.

During the Days of Awe and ending on Yom Kippur, we communally mark the Jewish season of “who by water and who by fire.” This year, let us feel compassion towards those in discomfort and distress — physical, emotional, and spiritual. Let us remind ourselves that our planet is incredibly precious, and humans — who are all connected by virtue of living here — can help to preserve it. Let us be humble, and let us be vigilant. May we strive together to write our earth into the Book of Life.

Header Image by JINGXUAN JI/ Getty Images

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