Creating a sometimes tolerable, occasionally rich life during the pandemic has been an ongoing challenge. While many opportunities are presented daily for online learning, for me the more interesting encounter at times has been with my past.
With too much time on my hands during the lockdown, I decided to cull some of my accumulated folders that go back decades. The culling became a meeting with my personal history, a reminder of things that have mattered to me over the years.
One project in particular caught my attention. A cherished piece of my activist life, one I hadn’t thought about for some time, grew from a concept brought to the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism when I was its Chair in the early 1990s. The idea was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Danish rescue of its Jewish population.
The commemoration was inspired by Judy Miesel, a member of Congregation B’nai B’rith. Judy was one of those who owed her life to the Danish rescue of its Jewish residents during World War II. Judy, ever the teacher (she was a beloved director at Beit HaYeladim) wished both to thank the Danish people and to teach children what it is to take a stand against evil.
Judy suggested to the Commission on Social Action that we involve Reform religious school students around North America in the remembrance, which we called “The Miracle of Denmark.” Curricula for various grade levels were written by Jewish educators, then distributed to religious schools in the United States and Canada. First students learned about this remarkable piece of history involving Jews and Danes; next they were encouraged to consider the importance of taking steps in their own lives to protect those who are vulnerable.
The lesson culminated in letters of gratitude from the religious school children to the Danish people. Some 15,000 letters, addressed to the Queen of Denmark, were generated. The Queen let us know of her delight in the letters, which she arranged to have placed in the Danish Resistance Museum in Copenhagen. This was quite a tribute, I thought, to the actions of the Jewish schoolchildren.
Finding and savoring the descriptions of “The Miracle of Denmark” made my paper culling a particular blessing, perhaps all the more so due to the fright so many of us have been experiencing during the pandemic. We need strands of hope, reminders that there have been times in our lives when we’ve been part of things that have mattered deeply. Those memories can become cornerstones as even in times of darkness we build for the future.
I am thankful to be reminded that thousands of Jewish children learned of a time when people of different faiths took the risk of protecting Jews whose lives were in danger. Surely there is no better time than this one to imagine how we might extend ourselves to offer protection to others.
Early in the current era of lock-downs, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin suggested that American Judaism was having a Yavneh moment. Yavneh, a small town not far from what is now Tel Aviv, was where the rabbis gathered in the late first century C.E after the Romans destroyed the Temple and expelled them from Jerusalem. Their immediate challenge was defining a format for Jewish worship now that temple sacrifice was no longer possible, which created a crisis that threatened to destroy the Jewish community. In their new Jewish expression, prayer, study and doing good deeds superseded slaughtering animals; and synagogues replaced the Jerusalem temple. Their vision re-shaped Judaism into a form that has endured for more than two millennia.
Rabbi Salkin’s point is that we’re undergoing a similar process today. Attendance at his synagogue’s on-line Shabbat services and, especially, its adult education classes was skyrocketing. Folks who had resisted driving to synagogue were enthusiastic about participating at home. This is also the case here at Congregation B’nai B’rith. Rabbi Cohen’s (in person) Shabbat morning Torah study had been attracting 40-50 people—a very impressive number for a congregation of its size and demographics. But via Zoom, weekly attendance approaches triple digits. In fact, this is a national phenomenon. Prof. Steven Windmueller, a leading expert in Jewish communal affairs, recently observed that more Jews are currently engaged in Jewish learning than at any other time in history.
It’s too early to assess the role cyberspace will have in post-pandemic Judaism. Right now, the primary issues facing synagogue leadership are when and how to return to what might be called the “old normal”. Happily, CBB has enlisted an outstanding group to make these decisions.
But once the immediate challenges are met, it will be time to consider what we’ve learned during the pandemic, and apply these lessons in building a “new normal”. These months have fostered a cornucopia of webinars featuring outstanding Jewish political leaders and scholars from around the world. On any given day, one can learn from Israeli journalists debating annexation in the morning; European leaders discussing anti-Semitism in the afternoon; and American scholars teaching Torah in the late afternoon and evening. Properly presented, these newly accessible opportunities need not compete with synagogue programming. To the contrary, they could enhance and expand it. For example, Prof. Daniel Matt, who taught us Kabbalah as a Reiger Scholar-in-Residence, offers an on-line course for folks interested in diving more deeply into the subject. There are others and the list is growing. And it’s exciting to contemplate a group of CBB members learning from a scholar’s Zoom presentation either at home or in the synagogue, and then participating in a discussion led by one of our own clergy. Distance learning enables this and every other congregation to have a global Beit Midrash.
The internet also enables the Jewish people to move closer to truly being a world-wide extended family. There’s no question that American Jews and Israelis are drifting apart, partly because we have little opportunity to talk with one another. Some years ago, CBB attempted to have an on-going Skype dialogue with students and faculty of the Leo Baeck School in Haifa, one of our Israel movement’s leading institutions. Despite heroic efforts by Ellen Raede, the project was defeated by the inadequate technology available at the time. Although Zoom is far from perfect, facilitating a conversation is much more feasible now.
I close with a personal note. I’ve participated in Rabbi Cohen’s Shabbat morning Torah class for more than a decade. And while his teaching and the class’ discussion is always rewarding, nothing comes close to matching the joy I’ve experienced every week since we went on-line, enabling my two grown children who live on the East Coast to join. Learning Torah with ones children who live three thousand miles away is an incredibly joyous experience made possible by the Yavneh moment that is reshaping Jewish life…hopefully, for the better.
A balabusta is a Yiddish word that refers to a Jewish homemaker of the finest quality – a person who loves to bring family together, to cook for them, and create a warm and comforting home. I come from a long line of balabustas and grew up surrounded by these types of woman – my own mother, my bubbe, and my Israeli aunts. For these women, cooking is their way of expressing love. Their “love language” as the millennials like to say.
Becoming a balabusta is not a natural succession when your mother is a balabusta. At least not in my family. As a child, the kitchen was my mom’s domain and she had a lot of rules when it came to food. I avoided the kitchen, lest I make some horrific mistake, like (chas v’shalom) double dipping or forgetting to wash the banana before peeling it!
The first time I attempted to bake was in college. I brought my homemade oatmeal raisin cookies to a college party and watched anxiously as a guy stumbled over to my plate and took the first nosh. “Disgusting! Murder cookies!” he yelled, as he tossed the plate of cookies to the floor. At that moment I realized two things: 1) while drunk college guys will eat almost anything, even the most savage and desperate palate can detect when something is unsuitable for human consumption; and 2) apparently my cookies fell into the unsuitable for human consumption category. “I wonder who is trying to kill us” I muttered, looking down at my red plastic cup.
After that night, I stayed away from flour, measuring cups, and spatulas for many years. I became a lawyer (arguably the antithesis of a balabusta) and earned a salary that could accommodate take-out meals. But then I had kids, and I wanted to create a warm home for them filled with the delicious scents of the Jewish homes that I remember from my childhood – the smell of warm challah, burekas, and matzah ball soup. But after a long and stressful day at work, the last thing I wanted to do was a prepare a meal that I would later have to clean up. And truthfully, I just didn’t feel that I was capable of preparing a meal that anyone would enjoy eating.
Then, Covid-19 hit.
As the outside world came to a stop and we all retreated inside, our homes have become redefined and, in many ways, have presented new opportunities. If there is one thing that Covid-19 has given us, it’s time – time to reconnect to our living spaces and to our families. Also, time to take out those old kitchen gadgets that have been collecting dust since they were gifted to us at our wedding nearly ten years ago.
For those of you rolling your eyes at yet another “silver-lining” story, let me just say that I see you and I hear you. This is hard, not everyone is in the same boat, and not everyone has unexpected “silver linings,” and that’s okay.
Like many other parents, I began my journey into pandemic parenting with color-coded schedules, healthy meal plans, fun learning projects, etc. The kids were exploring the backyard like it was uncharted territory, and using their newfound freedom in creative ways. They collected rollie pollies from the yard and built an amazing rollie pollie farm. Things were looking good. But alas, the honeymoon phase did not last long. By the second week, boredom and Zoom fatigue had set in, my kids were eating goldfish for lunch, and there was only one surviving rollie pollie left on the farm. The house was a complete disaster and cleaning it felt as pointless as brushing your teeth knowing that you’re about to eat an entire box of Milk Duds (one of several bad habits I picked up during quarantine).
There was a tremendous sense of panic realizing that our lives would be filled with this mess and utter chaos for the indefinite future. But I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t also an equal sense of relief in temporarily retiring our calendar of endless of commitments and just living in the moment, day-to-day (albeit groundhog day).
I’ve reconnected with my kids in ways that would not have been possible pre-Covid. And being with them 24/7 makes me think a lot about my own childhood. Judaism played a large role in my upbringing and some of my best and most vivid memories are derived from my Jewish identity – spending summers in Israel, the smell of burekas baking in the oven on Saturday mornings, spending Shabbat dinners with family, the sweet taste of Manischewitz wine during Passover.
Many of us have taken on “pandemic projects” or turned to creative outlets – like painting and writing – to combat the stress and boredom. Others are unearthing hidden talents. Since I have yet to discover any hidden talents of my own, I decided that becoming a balabusta would become my pandemic project.
For me, becoming a balabusta is not about cooking gourmet meals or having a clean and orderly house. It’s about having a home that is filled with warmth, laughter, and Jewishness. The balabusta’s of my childhood didn’t control the noise and the chaos, they embraced it! And giving up control is something I have mastered during this period of pandemic parenting. This part actually requires very little work – in the fact, the less you do, the more chaos will ensue!
As for the Jewish stuff, about a year ago we started practicing a Shabbat ritual at home. This ritual has given us a moment in our busy lives to take a pause and connect to our families, to Judaism, and to the ancient traditions of our ancestors. Post-Covid, everything has changed and time feels flat – like we are living in a real life version of the Groundhog Day movie. But Shabbat remains, steady and unscathed, and perhaps one of the few things still tethering us to the days.
The only problem is that my challah supplier, Coffee Bean, had closed. As such, baking a challah seemed like an appropriate and “on trend” pandemic project in my quest to become a balabusta. I used Linda Kaufman’s famous recipe and added some tips I picked up from my intense challah interrogation of Mariela Socolovsky. “Put your back into it!” she said. “Flour helps feed the yeast.” “Make sure your bowl has enough space for the dough to rise.” I also watched three YouTube tutorials on how to knead plus two on how to braid.
There are so many things that could have gone wrong, but by what must have been divine intervention (baruch hashem), my first challah turned out…edible! In fact, my husband, who is not one to mince words, went as far as to say that it was “pretty good” (read: delicious). Challahlujah!!
After my first successful challah I sent my sister a picture of my Shabbat table. This was our text exchange:
Me: I’m officially a balabusta! Check out my beautiful Shabbat table, tablecloth and all, with my very own homemade challah!
Sister: That’s nice. Have you made a brisket yet?
Me: No, I made challah. Why are you asking about brisket?
Sister: You can’t call yourself a balabusta until you’ve made a brisket.
….Is there a Yiddish word for “buzzkill”?.
Following this text exchange, I called my mother and asked her to send me her brisket recipe. “What for?” my mom asked. “If you want a brisket I’ll make you a brisket.” (As I said earlier, becoming a balabusta is not an easy succession).
I have yet to make a brisket, but I’m accepting recipes.
So while I may not be an “official” balabusta according to my sister, I do feel like my home has undergone a sort of spiritual transformation – a place where we endured 24/7 togetherness; where time stood still; where we learned that staying home was a sacrifice worth making to protect our vulnerable population. And on a personal level, it became a place where I gave up control and embraced the chaos; where I learned to bake challah and cook meals that my family actually wanted to eat; and where we found new ways to connect to Judaism and to each other.
Indulge me for a minute. Find a quiet place and read one of my favorite Walt Whitman poems — out loud:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
As the members of Congregation B’nai Brith’s Shir Chadash Adult Choir held the final chord of Adon Olam at Kabbalat Shabbat services on March 6th, with Cantor Mark beaming his pleasure at our joyful sound, none of us could have imagined that these would be the last notes we would sing together for many months.
As of the date I am writing this, “re-opening” has become the watchword of our economic and social lives. At bars and restaurants down State Street, groups of friends who haven’t been together for three months have stuffed their masks in their pockets and are sharing pizzas and pitchers of beer and pizza. The Family Y has announced that it will be resuming fitness classes; practitioners of Yoga, Pilates and Zumba will, once again sweat together in enclosed studios, subject to an array of social distancing measures that may or may not be observed. And last weekend, thousands of our neighbors marched in protest to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, the Shir Chadash Choir hasn’t sung a single note and, the magic of Zoom notwithstanding, nothing realistic has been planned to bring us and our voices together. You see, singers in choirs have been identified as “super spreaders,” and our rehearsals were officially identified, for a brief period, by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as forbidden “super-spreading events.” It began in early May, when 60 choir members in Washington State, apparently defying state-at-home orders, met for their weekly rehearsal and as many as 52 of them almost immediately contracted the virus. A recent article in the LA Times reports on similar, ill-fated choir rehearsals in Germany, England, South Korea and Austria.
It’s not clear to me what we actually do at our choir rehearsals that marks them as especially likely to spread the coronavirus. I have read that choir members stand too close to each other and that our long tones and robust voices fling coronavirus droplets into the air at frightening speeds and beyond approved “social distance.” But there seems to be something else at work here. We love our music, the incomparable sound we make to affirm our “neshamah,” our Jewish souls. We also love each other. Rehearsals invariable begin and end with hugs and expressions of our special closeness as a community within the CBB community. And since we can’t help ourselves, we stay apart.
We have been meeting virtually each week and the Cantor has led us through a fascinating study of Jewish music. He begins each weekly email by saluting us as “sweet singers” and ends by urging us to “keep singing.” The LA Times article, however, concludes by predicting that it could be two years before choirs like Shir Chadash can sing together again.
I wonder how Walt Whitman would respond to the silence. More than this, I wonder what High Holiday worship 2020 will sound like?
After 20 years as a college teacher of American Literature and American Studies, and 20 years as an immigration attorney, Lorne Fienberg moved with wife, Nona, from New England to Santa Barbara in 2016. This week, he is grateful for the U.S. Supreme Court decision which continues (if only temporarily) protections granted to our “Dreamers” under DACA.