Tag : coronavirus

October 23, 2020 by

Can Good Things Possibly Emerge from 2020?

In real life, I’m not a Pollyanna personality. My eye goes to what needs to be fixed rather than seeing first what’s already shiny and bright. A misplaced modifier or coffee mug calls me quickly into critique mode.

But these past eight months, soon rounding into a year, have not felt like real life. And so, out of character, I find myself meta-phorically squinting to discern what few good things seem to be emerging from behind the dark clouds of this pandemic, with its grim losses and its miseries.

A few potentially positive developments are surfacing from our generally unwelcome experiences, and I note them while also recognizing my privileged perspective as a woman with health insurance, an adequate pantry, and fairly reliable internet with which to do my work and connect, gratefully, with family and friends.

The first change that struck me was that The New York Times, that daily arbiter of our reality, is reviewing unprecedented numbers of books and art by people of color, especially women of color. Perhaps the impetus is to right a wrong, correct an oversight. With so little to review in the performing arts––no live concerts, no Broadway––there’s room to open the arts coverage lens wider than usual.

Of course there’s more. Horrific hunger is becoming more widespread, even in lands of plenty. And everywhere, an acknowledgement of scarcity—both of funds and of access––from fridge- foraging posts on social media to shortages of canned goods. One consequence is that during the pandemic the upscale restaurants likely to have warranted publicity are now off-limits, and even the august New Yorker magazine has had to pivot its spotlight from indoor fancy dining to small-scale take-out joints, frozen foods you can make at home and local places feeding their neighbors that might have escaped notice in a more conventional time.

These may seem like small shifts relative to the vast problem of global hunger, but they suggest that a certain democratization is at work. Perhaps this small seed will grow into greater awareness of what’s really important, with empathy shaping food policy.

Another unintended, unexpected outcome from the pandemic’s necessities is less quantifiable, but this one holds lessons too: we have been forced to reimagine not only our mourning rituals (Zoom shivas, recorded funerals and eulogies) but also our simchas, those celebrations of life’s happy landmarks. People are finding ways to seize joy by all available handholds. The bat and bar mitzvah ceremony for a family’s twins, originally planned as a multi-generational tour of Israel, instead evolved as a masked outdoor service, the 13-year-olds prepared by their grandfather, in a service led by a great-uncle, with the few close relatives,

socially distanced, smiling together in a sunny backyard. The direct
involvement of the older generations, this family reports, brought
an unexpected resonance that would have been missing in a more standard-issue event. Or the decision made by an engaged couple to advance their elaborate wedding, scheduled a year from now, replacing it with a small outdoor chuppah ceremony this fall. Judging from the jubilant photos, no one’s happiness was diminished (except perhaps the caterer’s). The bride and groom could share their joy in the present rather than waiting a year through who-knows-what-uncertainties of health and fortune.

Look, these are not universally cheering panaceas, or anodynes for painful, significant losses—of loved ones, of jobs, of the chance to be with people we care about. But these glimmers of good news are reminders that we have points of connection available to us still, and that simplicity, born of necessity, brings its own pleasures and poignancy. They also remind us of the enduring ability to adapt to adversity.

For me, the enforced isolations bring both gain and pain. As an editor working remotely, with concentrated time to write and to process a complete, uninterrupted thought? A plus, mostly. But having to communicate via email or text when I’m accustomed

What good things can possibly emerge from our present circumstances?
to the pace of immediate, lively conversations in person? With people I’m accustomed to seeing in real life in Lilith’s office? Not very satisfying.

In a singular way, though, the pandemic has provided gradual easing into an anticipated change that would have been far more unsettling were it to have happened in Before Times: Naomi Danis, Lilith’s longtime managing editor, plans to retire at the end of 2020 to write more of her wonderful, perceptive children’s books. The pandemic’s work-from-home routine has become an accidental dress rehearsal for the separation when, after 30 years, Naomi will no longer appear under “staff ” on the masthead, although we look forward to keeping her close as a contributing editor. In addition to her tireless and creative work ensuring that Lilith’s humans and systems work smoothly, Naomi has modeled how to ask hard questions and how to smooth ruffled feathers. Rabbi Susan Schnur, Lilith former senior editor, once wrote that the women at Lilith operate “like teabags in a single pot,” steeped in one another’s quotidian lives. But beyond that steeping is Naomi’s own particular skill in honoring differing opinions while holding steady to the course of her own moral, Jewish, feminist, writerly compass.

I’m spurred to paraphrase Arlene Agus: May our dreams become our blessings in the year ahead.

Susan Weidman Schneider Editor in Chief susanws@lilith.org

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October 12, 2020 by

Reflections on Sukkot During the Coronavirus

So.

I don’t know about you, but I never thought we’d be here.

Saying goodbye to Sukkot, the grand festival of rejoicing, the time when we celebrate harvest, honor abundance, and pray for the rains to come.

And yet, we are. still. in. this. mess.

Last week, I walked the eerily empty streets of Jerusalem. It was an evening that would otherwise be packed with shoppers, tourists, visitors, hawkers, strangers, every kind of colorful human. There would be people buying their palm-branch-and-citron Lulav and Etrog sets from outdoor markets while tourists enjoy a late-night ice cream or beer and outdoor buskers strum their music to contribute to the overall din of joy.

Instead, there were just a few of us, approaching the stray stalls that were open to sell the season’s necessities, a sukkah plank here, a Lulav there; while the produce stands tried to get rid of their last vegetables and the buses stopped running at 9pm. It was dystopian, it was sad, it was infuriating.

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September 24, 2020 by

Why did(n’t) the Funeral Procession Cross the Road?

I brought my hand to my heart and took a deep breath. The voicemail was from David, at Levine’s Chapel in Brookline, MA, one of the most thoughtful funeral home directors I have the somewhat unusual privilege to know. As a rabbi, it is not unusual to get a call from a funeral home director; the rabbinate is a vocation where you make plans with friends with the caveat that you’ll show up as long as no one dies. 

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July 27, 2020 by

Say Goodnight, Especially in Quarantine

Psychic containment means checking on others who may not have adequate resources or family support. When you check on your elderly neighbor down the hall, it is helpful to her, and it also reminds you that you are not alone. Psychological containment means daily video or phone calls with friends and family. This is particularly important near the end of the day, when the silence and darkness of Covid’s viral overload become more real without the distractions of work and family. Connecting with others before bedtime should become a ritual—even similar to lullabies and the stories we read to children at night to soothe them to sleep. Just as children need to hear the comfort of another’s voice to calm their minds at night, so will all of us

. …Our need for connection to each other, laid down in infancy, is the most basic and enduring part of our existence.

ALEXIS TOMARKEN, “Even in Isolation, Don’t Forget to Say Goodnight.” The Lilith Blog

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July 27, 2020 by

Immigration Activism Met Spirituality at Our Quarantine Seder

My husband, Aryeh, and I have been counting many things over the past several months: the days of quarantine; the omer, those days between Passover and Shavuot; the days that Darwin Ramos will remain with us in our home.

Aryeh and I were at an immigration protest at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan last August when we met Darwin for the first time. Aryeh is a Talmud professor and a community organizer, and had helped to organize this protest. Our observant and progressive Jewish communities convened for a ceremony to commemorate Tisha B’Av, and to highlight family separation and the deaths that were occurring on the border and in detention centers. Darwin’s story was part of the ceremony. We heard about his torture at the hands of Honduran drug cartels who were threatened by his environmental activism, the journey he took northward to save his life, and his experiences as an asylum-seeker here in the U.S. That day we got just a chapter of his story.

A mutual friend introduced us. He was helping Darwin to secure reliable housing after release from the Adelanto Detention Center. We were about to become empty-nesters. Could we take him in? We had a lot of questions. How would we explain kashrut and Shabbat? Would he be okay without being able to cook meat in the house? We have one shower in our house, would that be comfortable for him and for us? With my college Spanish and Aryeh’s very basic activist Spanish, would we be able to communicate if there were things that weren’t working for him or for us? What would it feel like for us to have a stranger living in our home?

We were all beginning to feel more comfortable with one another. When Darwin and I were in the kitchen at the same time, we might get caught up in animated conversations: national and global politics, family, religion. Occasionally, I walked into the kitchen to find Aryeh in a theological conversation, via Google Translate, with Darwin, who had attended seminary as part of his activist training. Darwin is enthusiastic and curious, warm and intelligent, fierce in his perspectives but gentle in demeanor. Darwin’s lawyer had connected him with the Project for Torture Victims. As he worked with the psychologist, Darwin slowly began sharing more of his story.

ANDREA HODOS, The Lilith Blog

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July 27, 2020 by

The U.S. Labor System

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting on the couch, in my PJs. I should be walking to the elementary school; pick-up is at 2:40. But everything is different now. I work part-time as a nanny, and like many of the jobs that comprise the so-called “gig economy” and the domestic workforce, the Coronavirus pandemic has brought my work to a screeching halt. …And if the goal is to eventually “go back to normal,” many workers will simply be returning to insufficient wages and benefits, long hours, and continued vulnerability to unexpected crises.

ARIELLE SILVER-WILLNER, “A Nanny Reflects on the Pandemic and the U.S. Labor System” The Lilith Blog

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July 27, 2020 by

We’re Going to Witness a Surge in the Current Health Inequality

MARION DANIS is a physician and bioethicist who directs the Bioethics Consultation Service at the National Institutes of Health. The views she expresses here are her own and not necessarily a reflection of the policies of the N.I.H. or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The coronavirus pandemic feels like a throwback to an era when human capacity to overcome diseases was minimal. We revert to ageold techniques—isolation, hand-washing, masks. The novelist Orhan Pamuk, who knows a lot about how it feels to live through plagues (he’s read many of the great novels about past plagues as he has been writing a new one), tells us our experience is similar in some ways but different in others. We fear the unknown, we start rumors and blame others for bringing the plague. But unlike the experience of past plagues, we aren’t in the dark; we can know what’s going on everywhere in great detail, and we avoid the full impact of isolation by connecting virtually. We are relying on the biological sciences to eventually find more modern solutions.

In the U.S., the healthcare system will be in a sad state after we have made our way through the pandemic. This will not be solely due to the outbreak but also due to policy decisions made before the pandemic, and during it.

Millions of people will have lost their jobs and will lose their employment-based health insurance as a result. Many people who worked in the gig economy without an economic safety net will be unable to afford the basic elements needed for health, particularly safe housing and adequate nutrition, and will not be able to afford healthcare without incurring debt. Many medical practices will have faced economic hardship and even closed, and healthcare practitioners will have lost jobs because all routine, non-emergency medical care will have gone on hold. We will witness an exaggeration of health inequality because death rates from Covid-19 have been higher among minority communities. We will recognize how important maintenance of public health infrastructure is and what a mistake it was to allow a lapse in preparedness for pandemics.

It will take remarkable optimism to see much good coming out of this pandemic. But perhaps the consequences will be so dire and the urge to fix the problem will be so great that we will urge or even insist that Congress pass legislation to create guaranteed income and expand health insurance, and demand that the executive branch plan better next time. 

 

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July 27, 2020 by

Labor Activism Has New Momentum

AMELIA DORNBUSH is a former Malka Fellow at Lilith and currently works for a union in Michigan.

Labor unions in the United States have an approval rating of 64% in the US according to Gallup. Yet, union density continues to decline—currently hovering just above 10%. Clearly, there’s a gap between the wish of American workers to have a democratic say in their lives and the legal mechanisms by which they can attain such a voice.

In early April, I was struck by a headline in the publication Labor Notes that read: “Will Covid-19 be Our Triangle Fire?” In 1911, over a hundred workers (many of them Jewish women) burned alive in a shirtwaist factory because of unsafe conditions that were entirely preventable. The protests that followed led to the establishment of numerous worker safety protections.

The parallels to our current moment are unmistakable. Tens of thousands of Americans have died of Covid-19. Essential workers are especially at risk, all the more so because the protections that workers won over a century ago have gradually been eroding.

Historically, an interplay between shop-floor action and legal changes have led to the growth of workers’ rights and democratic expression. Given the antilabor Labor Board and Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that legal avenues will offer much solace now.

That leaves direct action. And during the pandemic, worker organizing is on the rise. A strike map has shown over 200 walkouts since March, many of them happening at not-yet-union facilities.

It is genuinely impossible to say what the future of organizing will be after the pandemic—unemployment is rising and union members have been hit hard with layoffs. Corporations have ruthlessly fired workers who organize, even hospitals short-staffed during a pandemic. In many ways, the future could be grim.

We have to hope we can build ourselves a new world from the ashes of the old. The labor movement at its core is about democracy and connections among workers. A virtual world makes it harder to attain those things—but the labor movement has adapted before and will adapt again.

During this pandemic, we have seen glimmers of what that new world could be. From anecdotal evidence, it looks like unions have been fielding an increased number of calls from workers seeking to organize. Even without a formal union, workers have been winning demands through collective action. So there is hope.

Following the Triangle Fire, Rose Schneiderman delivered a speech to the Women’s Trade Union League. She said: “Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely orderly and must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

“I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

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July 27, 2020 by

Vibrant Stories from a Historic Plague

In late February, I was staring down a list nearly 50 books deep, all related to the topic I study full time: the music of Yiddish-speaking partisans, written and sung during the Holocaust. I’m almost always thinking about my research in one form or another, a constant hum that buzzes along in the background as I move through my days. My escape from the requisite anxiety and general malaise that comes from being deeply engrossed in Holocaust studies consist of the usual suspects: time spent with loved ones, meals shared with others, travel. But by mid-March, all the components of my life that buoyed me as I plowed through my sobering reading list were, necessarily, no longer possible.

My academic advisors tried to find the silver lining in the university shutting its doors and stay-at-home orders becoming widespread. “At least now,” they chorused, “you can read and research as much as you’d like!” A few of my peers expressed relief at having chosen topics of study that gave them an escape hatch when the news became too distressing, while I started sweating every time I contemplated beginning my critical literature review. My world shrank to fit the 540 square feet of my apartment, my days blurred together, and my mind raced at night as I tried to shut down my unrelenting internal monologue about genocide. I needed a distraction.

Enter the DecameronBoccaccio’s 14th-century masterpiece on the Black Death. The Plague is the framing device, the reason that his ten main characters (seven women, three men) flee Florence for a country estate. They resolve to spend two weeks outside of the city where people are dying in the street; two days of each week are to be reserved for personal duties, and two for religious observance. Thus, ten days in need of entertainment remain. Each person tells a story nightly; by the end of their confinement, one hundred stories have been shared. The stories themselves are exemplary of the virtues, vices, and anxieties that occupied the thoughts of those living through the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. Reading a book set during the plague that serves as a point of comparison for every other pandemic in modern history does, at first glance, seem to miss the point of seeking distraction from the novel coronavirus. But picking up the Decameron felt like slipping on a wishful persona, an alternate version of myself that studied Comparative Literature as an undergraduate, had been to Italy, and felt unbothered and privileged enough to see a pandemic as an opportunity to become more cultured.

In her 2013 New Yorker review of the most recent translation of the Decameron, Joan Acocella writes wistfully that Boccaccio’s ten bards “…gather in ideal fields. Birds sing; jasmine perfumes the air. The animals don’t know to be afraid of humans: little rabbits come and sit with the young people. This is the locus amoenus, or ‘pleasant place,’ of ancient and medieval pastoral poetry. It is a sort of paradise, and that is what it is based on: Eden.”

The novel coronavirus has illuminated and exploited the vast inequality that pulses within the United States; social distancing experiences vary wildly between socio-economic brackets. I won’t wax poetic on finding some kind of common paradise in the midst of panic; far too many have died to try and universalize a sense of excitement about how great art will be after this is all over. But I have a little green space a short walk from my apartment. The jasmine is blooming, and it’s not too hot yet. I can take a blanket outside, and force myself to think about courtly love, if only for an hour or so.

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler is a graduate student, baker, and abortion rights advocate currently home in the South.

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July 27, 2020 by

Politics Shapes Party Dresses

In all the years I’d been wearing, collecting and swooning over vintage fashion, I remained a pure formalist. My appreciation was based on the nuances of cut and color, shape and design. It wasn’t until I began a more methodical kind of research into some of my favorite silhouettes that I began to see how they were part of a broader cultural context. The subject in question was Dior’s “New Look” in women’s clothing, introduced in the spring of 1947, featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a very full skirt. I was writing a novel, Not Our Kind, set in that year, and my two protagonists—one Jewish, one most emphatically not—were both aware of Dior’s recent game-changer, so I was prompted to find out more about it.

To understand fully the implications of this new and quintessentially “feminine” silhouette, I had to look back just a few years, to World War II, when rationing and privation went hand in hand with patriotism and national pride. The urgent need to direct fabric (and so many other resources) to the war effort had a direct impact on clothing styles. Women’s jackets were fitted and short, and skirts simple and narrow, and both were made with the minimum of material and labor.

So two years later, when the war is over, Dior’s New Look bursts on the fashion scene not like a bombshell—there had been enough of those—but like a meteor shower, dazzling and gorgeous. You can see this even in the jacket—inches longer, trimmed in fur—but it’s the skirt that really drives the point home. That beautiful, long, twirling skirt required 18 yards of fabric, and then another 18 to line it. And then there was its length—a typical skirt of the war years measured 15 inches from the shoe; Dior lengthened his skirt so that measurement was only 9 inches.

Some might see this as gross indulgence, a wanton squandering of resources and time. But this skirt was a powerful symbol of the hopes and dreams of a nation—of several nations—meant to place the horror of the war in the rearview mirror. The elegant, swirling skirt proclaimed the bad times and the deprivation were gone, all past. Now there would be beauty and bounty—vive la différence. And that this dress by Dior photographed by Richard Avedon was shot on the Place de la Concorde may be a coincidence, but it couldn’t be a more perfect expression of the designer’s intent. Peace, harmony, and the embrace of a glorious future were the subtext of a skirt whose graceful, twirling folds evoked a flower unfurling its petals.

Dior’s iconic suit is a good example of how what we wear is an emblem of the times in which we are wearing it, so it’s intriguing to speculate on what kind of effect the present pandemic will have on fashion. In quarantine, women have been jettisoning bras and Spanx in favor of leggings, and loose, unstructured or oversized pieces in soft, skin-caressing fabrics. On fashion sites like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar there’s been a lot of attention lavished on pajamas—flannel, poplin, silk-trimmed-with-maribou feathers—along with robes, shawls and slippers. The message is clear: we’re staying home in comfort as well as style.

And yet, when the virus is conquered, or at least contained by the triumvirate of testing, treatment and vaccines, women will once more venture out of their homes. What will we be wearing? It might be reasonable to assume that the home-grown comfort will remain with us in spirit and that we’ll be seen trotting around town in caftans or yoga pants and Sketchers.

But I can also envision another scenario, one not unlike Dior’s extravagant response to the austerity of the war years. Our collective post-pandemic aesthetic may well lean toward exuberant color, extravagant pattern and excess of many kinds. Masks are sure to be with us for a time, and we’re already seeing them cast as fashion accessories, rendered in such prints as leopard and toile de Jouy. Gloves—washable, flexible, colorful— may soon follow.

While it’s only a supposition, and not a certainty, I’m casting my vote for the latter trend. Just before Covid-19 exploded, I bought a lime green raw silk coat, circa 1967. Embellished with clear, Lucite buttons and lined with—get ready—hot pink and white polka satin, it’s the perfect garment in which to celebrate victory over the pandemic. Mr. Dior would have agreed. 

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