Lorne Fienberg: A Note on Covid-19

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.