You move from one chair to the next. You start in the bedroom, seated on the brightly patterned upholstered chair you purchased fifty-eight years ago at Macy’s. The chair includes a matching footstool that your husband ordered from a local Jerusalem carpenter when your back collapsed, when you could barely move.
After lacing your shoes on the footstool you move on to the state-of-the-art easy chair that you purchased after your husband passed away. The new easy chair helped you through mourning, helped you relax, helped you think about your life, about his life, and your life together; and begin again. From the easy chair, on to your desk chair, that he encouraged you to buy to be able to sit and write in comfort. You answer your emails, and then move on to the upholstered cushioned seating that covers the marble ledge in the Sukkah bordering your balcony.
The Sukkah curtains part for a view of a once lively street, where nothing seems to move. Your neighbors are indoors. Your neighborhood is one that follows government regulations. Since Felix the grocer took sick, hospitalized with Covid, the neighborhood mood is somber, and daily street prayers were offered for his complete recovery, until early Hoshana Raba morning, when Felix, a beloved local persona passed away.
It seems to be about sickness, about a specific virus that has smitten the world, a virus that has taken over a million victims to the next world. “Stay indoors Eema, stay at home, don’t go out. Sure, a little walk in the morning is good for you, but don’t go shopping, order whatever you need online.” A daily telephone reminder from your daughters.
Your youngest son warns, “It’s dangerous out there, especially for you. Tell me what you need Eema, I’ll get it for you.”
This isn’t your first lockdown. Starting after Purim thru Pesach and beyond, lockdown never really ended. And there were other years that you were locked in, bedded down. You were only nine years old, unable to do anything except move from bed to chair and back to bed carried in your father’s arms, spoon fed by your mother. The doctors called it, “Sydenham's Chorea” a rare children’s disease, complication of streptococcal infection. “Chorea, characterized by brief, semi-directed, irregular movements that are not repetitive or rhythmic, but appear to flow from one muscle to the next,” primarily jerky unceasing movement of arms, legs and face, that also affected your speech.
Uncle Heshie suggested that the devoted family GP, Dr. Goodman, was not good enough. You needed to be seen and diagnosed by a pediatrician. It was the first time you heard the word pediatrician. You had never been to a special children’s doctor. The pediatrician’s office was on Ocean Parkway, one long trolley ride plus one shorter trolley ride from your home in Williamsburg. The pediatrician assured Momma that you would recover. He advised a daily dose of Vifort, a horrible smelly oil, vitamins dispensed from a narrow dropper into your orange juice every morning. The only thing you were able to do was listen to radio soap operas, plugged in at your bedside, a folding cot in your grandmother’s room, or watch your grandmother say thillim seated on a folding chair close by.
A relapse at age 12, this time diagnosed as St. Vitus Dance followed after another strep infection. The same jerky movements treated with quiet bedrest, no stress, no arguments, no criticism, no school attendance, “and don’t make her cry,” Momma warned your siblings. The jerky movements gradually ceased after a few weeks spent overhearing whatever they said about you.
At age 15, no longer a child, Uncle Heshie recommended a German Professor, a heart specialist serving “uptown”, in a Manhattan hospital, who diagnosed your condition as Rheumatic Fever, an adult response to the same streptococcus bug that invaded when you had a sore throat weeks earlier. Negligence and ignorance kept the doctor away, thus penicillin was not dispensed in time to stop the strep infection. There were no jerky movements, your muscles were not affected, but the pain in all your joints was severe. Penicillin and aspirin and vitamins were all part of treatment, yet most of all, bed rest, months of bed rest, until your blood test results returned with a normal sed-rate.
It was your sophomore year in high school, an important, busy, school year for a socially active, popular teenager, and you were stuck at home, sick in bed. At least this time you could hold a pencil, you could hold a spoon. The fever affected your joints, hopefully not your heart. Fashion illustration and penciled portraits on long sheets of white unlined paper kept you occupied. You read books, watched T.V., and your friend Rachel visited every afternoon to deliver that day’s Geometry lesson so that you would be prepared for the N.Y. State Regents exam in June.
You’ve been there, and seen what a streptococcus bug can do. Each time you were bedded down you were blessed with a full recovery, a chance to get up and begin again. Your husband didn’t recover. Strep killed him.
Youngsters today are impatient, groups of secular and hareidi Israelis (and in the US as well) cannot accept lockdown, the danger of Covid-19 doesn’t exist for them. They can’t sit it out. They can’t remain indoors. They can’t follow rules. They must party, they must demonstrate. They prance around, arms flailing, battling police, as if Chorea or St. Vitus Dance is joy.
Your children wonder at your resilience, your ability to go it alone, week after week, month after month, Shabbat, and holidays. Each day of Sukkot you prepared your meals and moved out to eat alone in your beautiful Sukkah. You prepared and blessed the Lulav and Etrog, you readied them on the Sukkah table each morning before beginning your prayers.
You keep moving, from one chair to another, without hugs or hugging. You read and write, and you pray.
You understand the consequences of a virus attack, of a pandemic like Covid-19.
Returning to the kitchen, you sit on a simple stainless steel and wood chair, as if you were sent to sit in the corner of the classroom for misbehaving. The wide kitchen windows are open to a sunny light Jerusalem breeze. The leaves on the Eucalyptus tree brush the glass window. It’s reassuring to see nature thrive on a sick planet. You pray silently that the Almighty judge from His kisei rachamim, from His seat of compassion, and not from His kisei hadin, not from His seat of justice.
You pray for your grandchildren and great grandchildren that you have not seen in months. You pray that they grow strong and resilient, that their lives perceive beautiful views, and they are never seated in solitude for misbehavior. Whatever comes their way they should act wisely, with common sense. They should recognize and fight the enemy accordingly.
This time battling the enemy requires wearing masks, keeping socially distanced, sometimes quarantined, moving from one chair to the next, seated at home.
The film clip your son-in-law sent is powerful. A bed time story told to a young boy about the world as it was, before 2020, before the pandemic. A world that was meant to add to the beauty of G-d’s creation, but instead – the people, technology, politicians, they all messed up! The highways and freeways, roads and infrastructure filled with vehicles belching gas and fumes poisoned G-d’s beautiful blue sky. It wasn’t meant to be that way, but that’s what happened. The sea overflowed with plastic rubbish, the beaches spoiled with waste. And then the people were punished. A plague spread over fragmented angry faithless dysfunctional societies.
And the innocent child in that powerful film clip, with its attempt to explain the pandemic's causes, asks:
“But why did G-d have to make the people sick?”
You know the answer:
“You have to get sick my boy before you start feeling better.”
Faigie Heiman won first prize in the Israel Education Ministry Jewish Culture short story competition. A popular author of short stories and essays, and a memoir, Girl For Sale, Faigie Heiman is celebrating her 60th year of Aliya in Jerusalem.