Tag : pandemic

January 26, 2021 by

I Worked on a Hopeless Campaign. Why?

This year, I was an organizing intern for Merav Ben-David: a Jewish woman, a climate scientist, a Democrat. She was running for Senate in Wyoming, which also happens to be one of the most solidly Republican states in the country. According to polls, the odds of her winning her race were a whopping 0%. The race was called for her opponent just three minutes after the polls closed.

Because of the pandemic, our organizing operation was confined to our childhood bedrooms across the country. We didn’t knock on doors, we didn’t host rallies: instead, we called, we
texted, and we tweeted. Our campaign office was a bustling Slack channel. We hosted watch parties over Zoom. I became close friends and political sparring partners with people I haven’t yet met in person, and might never.

For me, working for Merav wasn’t about this election at all. Obviously, we know that polls can fail spectacularly, so winning was not completely out of the question. But what wasn’t a pipe
dream, what was real were the people I talked to every day. The Wyoming Democrats who had not been this excited about a candidate in decades. The Republicans who were disillusioned and convinced their neighbors to vote for Merav as well. The Independents who switched their party affiliation. If just one person shifts their values or their political engagement because of Merav’s candidacy, then I consider our work worth it—and I alone talked to hundreds of people like that. Multiply that number by the—at least 20 people—working on this campaign, and it doesn’t feel so hopeless anymore.

We ultimately lost the race but, in a state with about 40,000 registered Democrats, our candidate received over 70,000 votes. We changed over 30,000 minds. I worked on a hopeless campaign, but I am incredibly hopeful.


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January 11, 2021 by

Finding My Judaism in the Middle of Nowhere

A family picture in the Airbnb right before Shabbat began

It seemed like the natural choice in 2020: when a group of friends from college offer you the opportunity to join their quarantine pod for the fall semester, in an Airbnb in the middle of a forest in the Hamptons of Long Island, NY, you say yes. When that offer comes after more than six months of no contact with anyone other than immediate family (love you all), that YES is even more emphatic. 

I was so excited by the prospect of something, anything, that would allow me to be reunited with college friends and have a change of scenery that I brushed off the fact that all of them are on the Orthodox spectrum of Jewish observance—and I am very much not.

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January 7, 2021 by

A Little Backyard Writing School

It’s Friday afternoon and I am in my backyard, setting out plastic cushions six feet apart, disinfecting pencils, and copying my lesson plan onto a dry erase board with multi-colored markers. It’s starting to get cold, but I’m armed with a case of hand warmers and a list of activities that will keep my students moving.

I’m ready for winter.

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October 23, 2020 by

Commit to Your Creativity. Even Now.

Our writing has rarely been more important. And yet it’s increasingly difficult for women to get to the desk. Confined to our homes, many of us home-schooling our children and others of us (or the same ones of us) caring for a vulnerable elderly parent while also maintaining our paid employment, we reel from day to day. Occasionally demoralized. Aware that the country is at war both with a virus and with recalcitrant parts of itself, and increasingly aware—and this is almost incomprehensible, and certainly evil—that there is no useful national response. Ronald Reagan’s joking/not joking assertion, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’” have fulfilled their libertarian karma past all the bounds of reason. We are agog at the new reality (as is the rest of the world). Can it actually be true we are still in free fall? Yes. At the same time, now that we are all at home, the old realities of home predominate.

Male academics are publishing more and female academics less, with the attendant career results. Covid-related job loss has disproportionately affected women, and mothers especially. Women have lost a decade’s worth of financial gains in three months.

Given all this, how to make one’s way to the writing desk, or to whatever work
nourishes your soul and vision?

By recalling that the desk is a refuge.

By recalling that the desk provides a unique release.

By recalling that if you don’t tell us your truth and vision, no one will. You know a piece of the world that I don’t. You see things I can’t in a way I can’t. Only you can convey it. And nothing will reward you in quite the same way.

I’ve been thinking hard about these things. In part that’s because years ago I wrote a book about the emotional side of the writer’s life and I have continued to study what exactly gets in the way of being productive. Envy tormented me in those early days; I hollowed myself with it. Distraction, too, consumed hours. In addition, I was concerned about hurting the people I loved by writing about them, and yet the stories I most urgently needed to tell were from my own experiences, so much so that it felt as if I was holding the garment of my life inside out, staring at its lining, clasping the inner shoulders, and only writing would flip it so I could see its pattern. I wanted to write the secret thoughts I had no way to say out loud but that banged within me like the knocks and clamor of a radiator that needs to be bled.

And so I investigated. I wanted to find the meaning in the obstacles, to understand what my symptoms were saying. To my surprise, the little book I wrote became a bestseller. “I keep it on a special shelf beside my bible,” one woman told me. Another reported that she read it so many times that sections fell out and she patched the binding with duct tape. What had been essential for me to discover was essential for others to discover, as well. Some novelists credited it as enabling them not to abandon their book but see it through to publication. This summer, 25 years after its initial release, HarperCollins reissued it.

One message of Writing Past Dark that strikes me particularly today is that believing in one’s work is a spiritual practice. The more you do it, the stronger your practice gets, and the more you discover what you couldn’t have anticipated at the outset because you have changed. In the male life story, obstacles create strength and meaning, and ultimate heroism. Women, however, have been trained to interpret obstacles as evidence one isn’t meant to do something: the outer world is saying no and the outer world is wise. Similarly, men historically are admired for having a sense that their projects are important; they are valued for possessing the drive and even obsession necessary to complete their work. Whereas the woman who does not prioritize other people is still seen as not womanly and even inhuman. Especially today we must resist the message that our work is solipsistic or a luxury. We must remind ourselves that our artistic work is actually also—like men’s—for the general good.

I think of Claude Monet painting at Giverny as the Germans were shelling
across the Marne. Clemenceau visited, and urged him to keep on; it was crucial for France, for the very meaning of France. And so the tubes of violet and blue continued to be squeezed onto the palette, and the canvas waterlilies bloomed, and the man that Monet employed to wash the dust from the tree leaves, and to tape leaves back onto the autumn trees when they fell, continued in his work too, the cultivated and the artificial and the real all reflecting one another, surface and sky and depth. And during the next war, the German artist Charlotte Salomon, in flight from the Nazis, painted dozens and dozens of pillow-sized autobiographical tableaux before she was caught, documenting her Berlin childhood, her relationships with men, masterful expressionistic depictions that I recall two decades after seeing them in a museum, down to the very angle of the bed her grandmother lay in, as
Charlotte clasped her, and the cobalt blue wall behind her fiancé.

“A painting of a rice cake doesn’t satisfy hunger,” the 13th-century Zen master Dogen said. This is generally taken to mean that studying sutras and having a conceptual understanding don’t fulfill a person’s spiritual needs—one has to
experience certain things directly, with one’s own ears and eyes, and heart. (Ah, Zen!). But Master Dogen also said, “Only a painting of a rice cake satisfies hunger.” Which I take to mean that only the arts—and not the belly’s fuel—speak fully to one’s soul.

So—how does one actually get to the work?

Art is something transcendent created out of salvaged half hours, with noisy
neighbors and a problematically moldy bathtub, and a mother who probably has a U.T.I. again, and with only a mealy apple in one’s fridge. This is the constant challenge: to travel from the mundane, where we are planted, to the empyrean. Or at least to someplace else, where significance is a bit more concentrated.

Four or five mid-mornings a week, I ignore my imperious to-do list. And
I turn on a program Freedom, which disables access to the internet. I power
off my phone and set it in a drawer. At first my work seems boring and stupid.
I’ve been working on this novel for many years and to make contact with it I must ignore a certain sensation of tedium. Also an awareness of the book’s clumsiness. It recalls to me the taste during a dental hygienist’s teeth-cleaning. Necessary, if egregious. Doggedly, I continue on.

But then at a certain point while working a fresh idea springs up. And crazy hope. And I get all excited, and scenes in the book show me an angle I hadn’t seen before. And all is alive again, especially me. I’ve spent 10 years—no, longer—working on this book. And only when it was finished for the fourth time did its central theme leap out, and then I saw it was already encoded in all the cells of the novel’s body. A revelation. And the reason I could make this discovery now and not a day sooner is that its characters had sprung free of their ancient origins in my own life, and because I finally had read enough contemporary fiction to see the tropes, and because I’d been in an excellent psychotherapy in the unlikely town of Denton, Texas, and because being a professor allowed me to accrue enough authority to clarify my previously blurred, equivocating powers of perception.

My novel, called Chartreuse, is about a married woman who has an affair. After
the husband discovers it, the wife reports that she didn’t recognize the person she’d become. The therapist nods. “Yes,” she says, “But it is the marriage that created this unrecognizable person.”

Unrecognizable person!—what an ugly phrase! All those glottal stops! My
protagonist rejects this notion. It sounds textbook and pat. Although she has also long felt that the husband has hidden something dark and sticky behind her; she can’t see what.

One morning, as I was working on the last chapter, it occurred to me that there
had indeed been an unrecognizable person in the marriage. When the wife didn’t tell the husband how she felt but waited for those feelings to go away, she created unrecognizability. When she didn’t express her loneliness she created it as well. The husband and wife had in fact conspired in maintaining the structure of the marriage while each secretly emptied it of its contents. All before the entrance of the lover.

Here was the revelation for which I’d written the entire book, often despairing
that I’d ever find it, or thinking that it had already arrived but was no big deal. This experience instructed me again about the faith that we must maintain in our work.

Even now, during Covid days, even with all that’s going on.

My friend Alice has little problem allocating time to writing. “The problems in the world are the same problems the world has always had. There’s nothing new. I check the news in the late afternoon, once a day.”

I can scarcely agree (my psyche is in a state of perpetual alarm), but I marvel at her sangfroid—she has the perspective of an Aeschylus, a Kohelet.

Wake up very early, before the children open their eyes, as Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich did. Stay up very late, as Yiyun Li used to do, as Antonya Nelson, as Liesl Schillinger did. As Cali Khouri did writing Thelma and Louise. If you need to write you need to find hours. Save some. Make some. They may not be ideal but they may grow more ideal
as your body adjusts, as your schedule invents possibilities.

Especially now that the world is so stultifying, it is more important than ever that you not leave yourself unrecognizable. Elena Ferrante’s work is not a luxury and wasn’t even before she was famous, and neither is yours. What would you write if you had the courage to write it? What do you want to discover? What do you need to know? What scents and visions must you record? What is the most beautiful and the ugliest thing you’ve ever done? What language do you love to read and write? How can you find the hours that don’t yet exist? How can you let us know you are here?


Bonnie Friedman is the author of the best-selling book Writing Past Dark: Envy,
Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. Her work has been
anthologized in The Best Writing on Writing and Writing Fiction: A Guide to
Narrative Craft. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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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 23, 2020 by

Fiction: The Neowise Comet Listens In


I remember you from before. Weren’t you here the last time I came? It was before Gilgamesh, before Anansi, before Apollo. I saw you there. It was six thousand years ago, or seven.

Black Lives Matter, of course it’s true. But the fact that something is true is NEVER the reason for saying it. So why say it? If you’ve got to ask why, then you don’t get it, you don’t understand. I know you want time to understand the saying of it. Is it a group? Is it an idea? Why do we need to say it if we already know that it’s true?

I am a returning departing comet. The last time I was here Gilgamesh hadn’t been born yet, but you were here. You’re Black. You’re Jewish. I saw you in tents, in huts, in booths, under canopies – corridors, hallways, chambers. You crossed the sand and came to the salt water, you saw islands.

Black lives matter. Black lives started it. You all came from Africa. All of you. All of us. That’s what I overheard returning and departing. All lives are Black lives that matter. But sometimes you forget. Say it so you don’t forget. Black Lives Matter.

I overheard someone speaking, “I was not the one who did it.” They were words coming up from Sixteenth Street in front of the synagogue, her congregation, Tifereth Israel, every Friday.
They were standing along Sixteenth Street, in support of Black Lives. I heard someone explaining, “I did not arrange it for everyone to stand along Sixteenth Street, six feet apart, social distancing.” She was holding a sign. She said, “I do it because I want a change, I held a sign but so did the others. Did you see my sign? I got worried. What is my country doing? Why does my country hurt Black people so much? That’s why I was there.” That’s what she said, that’s what she does.

Do you want to know what I do? I make returns and curves and circles and ellipses around and around and around. I come back and back and back I was here six thousand years ago and when I came by this time I heard her say, “I want it to change.”

Most of the words that were spoken the last time I came are lost now, but not all of them.

I am black and beautiful,

As the tents of Kedar,

as the curtains of Solomon

Black. Beautiful. Then. Now.

Hebrew words spoken all the way back. I was already there. Why are you saying it now? One said, “Y’all hear that, Chile? She went down to the Capitol Building, yes she did, She went all the way down to the Capitol Building to see the casket of John Lewis. That’s what she did. She kept saying, Black Lives Matter. She went before to see the casket of Rosa Parks. She went this time to see the casket of John Lewis. The moments were different.”

Rosa was in the sunlight. John was by night,

And there were floodlights on the Capitol Building.

When I was still approaching, back in 1987, I overheard when one said, “Black Power.” She was there with Stokely Carmichael in the basement of Douglass Hall at Howard University. One said, “We’ve got to call ourselves something. We have lots of words to choose from. Let’s call it something. Let’s call it Black Power. We didn’t know it would end up being a thing. We didn’t know where it was going.”

Black Power. It didn’t say, nobody else has power. It didn’t say anything about anybody else’s anything. It just said, Black Power. And if you don’t know that it’s replacing black non-power. That means you’re clueless. You don’t know what’s going on. And if you think Black Lives Matter is trying to say Black Lives Matter instead of White Lives, instead of other kinds of lives, then you don’t know what we’ve been going through.

But one said, “What about the word forbearance. One day I hope somebody’s going to have forbearance for some stupid thing I’m probably doing right now, and I don’t even realize what it is. Forbearance. Give somebody a chance to learn something.”

I overheard. One told a story. “The first day I showed up at Howard University, first year student, first day of college, I started in the summer time. I arrived, and there were policemen there holding us all back as we were about to make the turn into the campus. One, two, three, four, fifteen, twenty buses came driving out onto Georgia Avenue and turn south, going to sit in somewhere. They were going to risk their lives somewhere. And I was a little first year student, scared to death. I said, ‘I’m glad they’re going because I ain’t going nowhere. I’m glad someone’s willing to go there for me’.”

When those buses were gone, another one came up to that one and asked, “What are you going to do? Your country is a mess.” And that one answered, “I don’t believe my country would ever do anything to hurt me.” Yes, that one said, “I don’t believe my country would ever do anything to hurt me.” That one is a descendant of Jews who were kicked out of Spain in the Inquisition, in 1492. That one is a descendant of slaves in America. That one is a descendant of slaveowning rapists and murderers. One of that one’s ancestors signed a parchment with the words, “All men are created equal.” That one said, “I don’t believe my country would do anything to hurt me.”

But there was forbearance. That one had time to learn something and figure things out. That one believes in teaching and forbearance. Someone taught her and had forbearance for her.

That one thinks about her friends. “One of the hardest things for me,” she says about Black Lives Matter, “is not affirming that Black Lives Matter, but that all of my white friends are all feeling bad and searching their lives and hearts and dealing with all their pain about racism as if their lives are not connected to mine. Who am I supposed to have a cup of coffee with and a good laugh while they are out there in the midnight of their souls digging out their racism? Who am I supposed to have a giggle with while they’re off attending anti-racism seminars? And we’re so close that it hurts my heart too. It’s not like it’s only hurting on one side of the friendship, and the others are home free.

“So, I keep thinking, maybe I’m the wrong person to listen to… Black Lives Matter… but too late now, I’m here, and I’m already talking, so you can’t uninvite me.

“I feel so weird sometimes when I see the lack of forbearance. It’s a new word that has never been heard before. Hold back a little bit, give somebody a chance to learn something, to teach something, to understand something.”

This is what I overheard six thousand years on my way back, or maybe seven. Mostly I just lie down and wait for time to pass, lying down in space. And I remember you, all of you, from
before. You were here the last time I came. Before Gilgamesh. Before Anansi. Before Apollo.

But there you were, Black, and Hebrew, and Jewish.

Black and beautiful

as the tents of Kedar

as the curtains of Solomon

One said, “There were more barriers when I went to see John Lewis. I don’t remember barriers for Rosa. John’s dark was so beautiful, he changed the night. Rosa was joy, John was solemn. 

One said, “You want to tell it as if I did it all myself. I looked at it, I because I am a part of it, standing along Sixteenth Street holding a sign. Is that just performance? Is that nothing.”

Another one spoke to that one. “What do you think holding a sign on Sixteenth Street is going to do to help Black Lives?” White people were up there yelling at other white people, “All ya’ll are doing is performance. You’re doing nothing, nothing. All you’re doing is standing there holding a sign. That’s just performance.”

And yet I overheard young men, Black men speaking one to the other, “I’ve never seen this before. Usually when the trouble comes, white people disappear. Every other time they disappeared. This time they didn’t run away.” Performance. A way to get started.

Surely you were here the last time I came ellipsing around your sun, hearing your earth.

One remembers a song she sang as a child.

We’re marching to Zion,

Beautiful, beautiful Zion

We’re marching onward to Zion

the beautiful city of God.

But another one said to that one, “Zion isn’t yours.” But that one thought… Yet the other said, “If you’re a Zionist then something is wrong with you. If you want to be a Zionist you better be it secretly in your heart. You’d better not tell anybody. Send secret money to Israel while marching on the Plaza with Black Lives Matter downtown.”

“Do you think the land was given to Jews only forever for all time?” “Not exactly that, but I figure if G_d gave us that land, then let G_d set it up,” that one said. “As for me, my joy is to have peace with the people around me. If G_d wants to make a change, then G_d you come in here and do it. I want peace. I want the people in Israel to know they don’t have to worry about food. They don’t have to worry about having a place to live and stay. My hope is that given the freedom of enough food and enough support, there will be time to know how can we live in Israel in peace.”

I overheard as I ellipse around her sun. I remember that one. I saw her before, when I came by before, this is what I saw,

I saw Moses standing before Pharaoh. There was a little Egyptian girl behind a curtain listening. Hail was about to fall. Moses said to Pharaoh, “so tell your people to say inside and get the cows in, or the hail will fall on them and they’ll die.”

And the little Egyptian girl behind the curtain said, “That’s the first time any G_d has ever cared about what happens to the enemy, and tells the enemy to protect themselves. I’ve heard of many a god, but I’ve never heard of a G_d who cares about the enemy. So I’m going to follow this Moses. And I’m going to be there.” And the little Egyptian girl left Egypt just behind the children of Israel, and spent 40 years catching up with them, crossing the desert, and came to the land. To Israel. Black Lives Matter. We’re Marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.

I remember you from before

You are Black and beautiful

As the tents of Kedar

As the curtains of Solomon.

Carolivia Herron, Ph.D., teaches Classics at Howard University. Her books include Peacesong DC: A Jewish Africana Academia Epic Tale of Washington City; Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History; and Asenath and the Origin of Nappy Hair: Being a Collection of Tales Gathered and Extracted from the Epic Stanzas of Asenath and Our Song of Songs.

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October 7, 2020 by

I Had Planned a Midlife Hair Makeover— Then Covid Showed Up

Dear Reader,

In the midst of a terrible season, allow me some self-indulgence.

During the winter of 2020 before the world derailed with Covid-19, I was 49 years old, facing my 50th birthday with a mix of excitement and resignation. Certainly, I was glad to be healthy, in an intact marriage, with growing wonderful children, and a full roster of friends, family, social engagements, community service, and even a resuscitated second act after retirement to practicing as an attorney in solo practice.

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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

The Ethos of Rural Life Is Everyone’s Ethos Now

RABBI RACHEL ISAACS serves as the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, Maine and directs the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College.

A few weeks ago I went out to buy my annual supply of seed potatoes. I got into our family’s small Subaru sedan and drove slightly south of Augusta—Maine’s state capital— to a local agricultural superstore. I put on my mask as I entered, passing two or three people along the way. Digging through the large bins, I chose blue, Yukon Gold, and Kennebec potatoes, placed them in the complimentary paper bags, and brought them back home to prepare for this year’s planting. As a 37-year-old rabbi raised in the New York metropolitan area, I never imagined that I would feed my family with crops I planted, tended, and harvested myself. Now, having spent the past 10 years in Maine, I am thankful that I have the resources and the practical skills to feed my family for months without shopping at a supermarket.

All of a sudden, after years of feeling deeply peripheral, we’ve discovered that the ethos that has sustained our ecosystems—Jewish, agricultural, and social—here in Maine has become crucial to weathering this storm. Our brand of Jewish leadership and life is no longer an outlier; it represents a resilient species of Jewish life that is not easily discouraged.

Where does the greater Jewish community go from here? It may look a lot more like our community in Maine: stripped down, collaborative, scrappy, self-sufficient, capable, and pliant. Our rabbis have already hosted one online statewide Shabbat service with nine clergy and close to 500 participants attending, and our second statewide service is poised to be larger. We are used to pulling together and pooling our resources to make Jewish life work. It’s been a long time since any of our small synagogues could really do much on a large scale alone. It has been decades since any of us could offer regularly catered meals, or budget swag into our conferences and events. Fewer and fewer of our congregants can afford dues, yet our synagogues have been growing in size and strength consistently over the past decade. Maine rabbis know what it is to be approached regularly for financial help from those we serve. Our clergy discretionary accounts are more often used to cover college application fees, medical expenses and utility bills than scholarships for trips abroad or fundraisers for causes in far-away places.

In the years to come, more of us will be growing our own potatoes. We will probably get closer to the chickens who lay our eggs. We will feel a sense that we have sacrificed something truly precious when we crack an egg for our challah or peel a potato for our Hanukkah latkes.

You will be visiting us in Maine soon, if not physically, then as observers of, and then participants in, our way of life. Together we will return to a potent awareness of the fragility of our existence, an awareness that would be deeply familiar to many of our ancestors. Our lives will feel dirty, and real, and precious.

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July 27, 2020 by

Link Food Supplies to Public Health

MARION NESTLE is professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita, at New York University, and the author of the forthcoming Let’s Ask Marion: What You Need to Know about the Politics of Food, Nutrition, and Health. 

The problems in food systems are particularly evident in meatpacking plants as viral epicenters, staffed by low wage, largely minority and immigrant employees often without sick leave or health care benefits, now considered essential and forced to work by government invocation of the Defense Emergency Act. Problems are also evident in farmers’ destruction of animals, eggs, milk, potatoes, and other vegetables, while food banks are overwhelmed by demands for food that they cannot meet. These situations call for nothing less than major reform of our food system to make it more resilient and sustainable. This means decentralization, regionalization, and localization of food production, and implementation of policies to link food production to public health and environmental protection.

What kinds of policies? How about a universal basic income, universal school meals, and federal subsidies for local and regional small- and mid-size producers, and fair wages (with benefits) for all those essential workers. Our country has plenty of money to do this; what’s lacking is political will. How do we get political will? Advocate! Vote! Start now!

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