Wednesday, April 8, 2020 -
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Kaddish on Riverside Drive

When this is all over, none of us will be the same. Nothing will ever be the same after corona. We are living through so many firsts and so many lasts. This truly will test the mettle of our character, of who we truly are.

On a logistic level, there isn’t much to do other than to stay hunkered down in our individual “cities of refuge,” the biblical ir miklat, our homes temporarily transformed into the fortified, socially isolated sites. Those cities of refuge were designed to protect those who lived through the tragedy of becoming inadvertent killers, of precipitating the loss of of human life. In a way, our homes transformed into an ir miklat where we are living in isolation, also to protect the accidental of loss of human life.

Our social lives have shrunk. We’ve all retreated into our own smaller lives and spaces. Our normal exposure to multitudes of people has stopped, and brought us into closer, more intimate contact with the primary people in our lives.

It’s hard. But it’s manageable. In challenging times, our instinct is to dig deep into our reserves and unleash and release even more of ourselves, not less. Yet, to a large degree, in this situation the greatest service to others is one of restraint; of inaction.

As we are shutting down, the world of nature around us is progressing as usual. It’s the delightful pleasure of spring outside. “The season of songbird has arrived, cooing of turtledoves can be heard in the land,” as King Solomon wrote in the Song of Songs.

I wonder what this season of the coronavirus, which has halted the normal rhythms of life, will in turn give birth to in our lives. There is still so much unknown that is yet to come. There is so much we are all seeding during this extended, forced pause. What will its harvest be? Along with the obvious negatives and decimation of some things, will it also bring about new growth and changes for the good, like the fresh shoots of lime green just peeking from the trees and the barely-there pink buds blooming everywhere?

It feels like one big reset button on the whole world, though no one can return to what our normal pre-coronavirus life was. Instead, we are being challenged to make a gargantuan paradigm shift away from so much that has become familiar to us.

It feels like an unconventional version of a war. WW III? Just this time, instead of fighting one another, the entire world is forced to be united in fighting the same enemy; and our enemy is invisible. We are stalked by it. It is everywhere. Yet we cannot see it.

One of the “firsts” I experienced that falls into the category of new experiences in this time of the coronavirus was last Thursday.

It was a bris milah, a circumcision; the ritual of bringing a Jewish baby boy into the covenant of Abraham and the Jewish people. I’m practically a luddite, but there I was jimmying my computer screen to get the ZOOM app working, camera and all. First one square with one woman appeared on my screen, then a rabbi, then another and another person.

Before I knew it my computer screen was a technological quilt of some familiar and some new faces, all waiting together, to virtually share in this simcha.

To see and be part of the simcha of my brother’s new born baby, all the way in Jerusalem, was remarkable; a bris in the time of the coronavirus — to feel the sparseness of the people, just the parents, one set of grandparents and a couple of siblings. Nine people in all — in person.

But the rest of us, we were there too. As spotty as the connection was at times, there was a great sense of effort and palpable joy in gathering to be part of this mitzvah, and especially to hear my brother’s words at this emotionally sensitive time. The coronavirus crisis has shut down life, yet stubbornly, thankfully, life moves on and lives on. Experiencing the juxtaposition of the bris with coronavirus was indelible.

That was Thursday morning.

Then, Thursday evening, as I was out walking on Riverside Drive here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was headed to Fairway for a grocery store run. The day was dimming. Twilight was hovering.

As I was walking, visible from a distance, maybe about a block away, a familiar vision caught my eye and beckoned. I began walking toward it. Something about it drew me to it like a moth to a flame. It felt familiar. As I came closer I realized I was walking toward the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, honoring Union soldiers from the Civil War.

The raised curved space around the actual Corinthian styled marble monument was dotted with people.

With 10 men, to be exact.

Each standing at a six-foot distance from the other.

A minyan.

A prayer quorum.

The local shuls had already closed down, but the minyan found a way to carry on in this time of the coronavirus. I noticed there were exactly 10 people. And the rounded outdoor space allowed for plenty of responsible distancing.

It was time for mincha, the afternoon prayers. The terrace-like space is defined by a gate of shrubs encircling as a natural boundary between it and the street just a couple steps below. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the shrubs and joined this holy quorum of prayer.

The davening was audible.

Passersby paused and looked. I perceived admiration and respect. It was clear: the coronavirus guidelines were followed to a T, the unusual spacing striking.

But the prayers go on.

As the cadence of kaddish kept puncturing the prayers, when I heard my own quivering kaddish response it felt like I was part of something momentous.

For me, the atmosphere felt charged with emotion, harkening back to times and stories gone by, when Jews really sacrificed to continue living a Jewish life.

Standing there, praying in this quorum of 10, as dimness turned to darkness and the cadence of chirping birds from Riverside Park melded with the cadence of the kaddish, the park becoming bathed in the evening’s lamplight, was unforgettable.

As soon as prayers concluded, the rabbi immediately dispersed the crowd. No shmoosing permitted! The six-foot distancing was strictly observed.

Since then, New York has gone on lockdown. Perhaps even a quorum of 10 at six-foot distancing is no longer available.

That was a first minyan of that kind for me. And most likely, now, a last.

I feel so grateful to have caught it.

It now joins another story for the ages.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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