Quarantine. It’s a word we associate with the Middle Ages. According to Wikipedia: “The word quarantine comes from a seventeenth-century Venetian variant of the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days, the period that all ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death plague epidemic.” Similarly, according to NPR, “the word quarantine comes from the Italian derived from quaranta or 40. In the context of disease, it goes back to the Middle Ages. It refers to the period of forty days that a ship from a country sticken with bubonic plague would be prevented from entering Italian ports.”
Overnight, the word has been brought back. Life as we know it, might be about to change for a while.
Of course, we know about the need for quarantine in context of illness going back to the book of Leviticus when it tells us how to quarantine people stricken with leprosy.
Its humbling to think of these previous times. In our modern day living, we live with the illusion of having control of all things. With the push of a button or click of an icon, in an instant, we can be anywhere in the world. That’s powerful and heady stuff. Yet, here we are, with the threat of coronavirus, and what seems like one instant, the world is at its knees.
The 1918 influenza pandemic is a sad part of our family lore. My great grandfather Charles Yechiel Goldberg, was infected and died within three days. He left behind nine children, but only one of them, along with my great grandmother, his wife, were able to attend his funeral. The rest were home sick with the flu. Thankfully, they survived.
Whether it’s Middle Ages, 1918, or 2020, with the advent of technology and all the remarkable and sublime progress that has been made, one thing seems not to have changed: our fragile humanity. At the end of the day, we really are just vulnerable material beings, living in a world with a mysterious force beyond us. We each in our own way call this mysterious force from the beyond: G-d.
In the Middle Ages, those who were quarantined weren’t able to stockpile food from local supermarkets. People were locked at home, and were only able to receive meager food dropped off to them through their windows where they went to receive it.
Its hard to believe, but the conversation seems to have regressed to concepts from the Middle Ages or the 1918 epidemic. More and more of us will need to be quarantined. For this formative generation the word “quarantine” won’t be a concept from their history book, but a current reality.
Of course, nothing like black humor at a black time. People are joking how quarantine is the closest thing they’ve come to have to a sabbatical. While some people are posting pictures of the food they are stockpiling, others are showcasing the books they look forward to reading.
I’ve seen the humor bleed into the current political climate as well. One friend posted, and I translate: “Israel can’t seem to build a coalition reaching 61 parliamentary seats. But due to coronavirus fourth elections won’t be possible. Looks like Bibi really is prime minister in perpetuity.”
The Israeli chief rabbi has announced, that for now, touching or kissing mezuzas is forbidden. You can only imagine the humor centering around that development.
In all seriousness, though, coronavirus is no laughing matter. It’s uncharted territory. A developing situation that no one seems to quite know how to contain it’s swift spreading. It looks like our world is about to change for a while as the situation evolves.
Apparently, an employee at Amazon headquarters has been confirmed as having coronavirus. So yesterday, after the pharmacy shelves on the Upper West Side were empty of rubbing alcohol, everyone just figured they would order it from Amazon. Even if Amazon was not already sold out of it, which they were, will people still be placing orders to Amazon now?
To which place will this domino effect reach that will look quite different than life as we know it?
Will government regulation step in and regulate the cost of rubbing alcohol so that people exploiting the situation and wanting to profit off of the crisis by selling $50 bottles, efforts will be thwarted?
What about religious Jewish life? How will daily prayer services and Shabbat be impacted?
There is so much we still don’t know. One thing is certain though: strengthening of our immune systems!
So nurture yourself with healthy food and solid good nights of sleep. Stock up on a reasonable amount of non-perishables. “Don’t panic but prepare” is the motto I am following. And get those books you’ve been meaning to read, because we might all be becoming homebodies for a while.
And more than ever, if we can’t kiss the mezuza, let’s channel the message of the scrolls that lie nestled within them, and direct other prayers in our hearts, to that mysterious force that, in all ages, is beyond us.
Because the word and concept “quarantine” is back.
May it be a safe journey for us all.
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