Working together, we can redeem the world

Viva Hammer’s address to the ACT community on Shushan Purim 27 February 2021

We are in a triple Purim this weekend. Outside of Jerusalem we celebrate on Friday, but in Jerusalem the festivities continue over 3 days, with Shabbat focused on the Purim legends. I will today join with the Jerusalemites in sharing a Purim letter I received from a religious Jewish friend in New York.  She is in a corporate leadership position. 

Purim is coming, my friend writes. The story that guides me at work. Don’t tell them about your family or religion

I used to feel sorry for Esther. She is forced to marry a powerful idiot against her will. From time immemorial women have been forced into all sorts of marriages. That still happens today in many parts of the world. From a Jewish woman’s perspective, it’s doubly tragic because Esther is forced to marry a non-Jew. Yet she is the cherished heroine of the day.  

The book is titled Megillat Esther. It’s her story. The story of her interactions with a world where God seems so removed. She is placed in dire circumstances and her courage saves the Jewish people. But Purim doesn’t focus on her personal tragedy. It’s tricky and meaningless to compare suffering. She wasn’t burned at the stake after all. She didn’t see her children murdered. But I still feel for her. She found herself in a situation she could never have foreseen. And even so, she held onto her connection to Mordechai, and to her people. Perhaps Esther’s precarious situation reflects the precarious situation of Jews in exile, and the situation of all powerless people.   

Esther is operating in a non-Jewish environment and a non-female friendly culture with massive power imbalances. These themes resonate with my reality – albeit to very different degrees! 

So says my friend in New York. 

This week we heard more from women who had allegedly been raped by a man at a high level in the Australian government. Even women who have leaped over barriers into prestige jobs, can be caught in woman-hating violence. Where can women find guidance, as they climb to places where the atmosphere is thin of women, and dense with powerful men? 

Let us look back at the beginning of the book of the Torah we will soon finish, the Book of Exodus. In the entire Bible there is no place with such a dense cluster of women, or such an absence of men, as is found in the opening of Exodus, in the darkness of slavery. Under the spell of a lunatic paranoia, the king of Egypt demands that the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, kill all the boys as they arrive on the birthing stones. But the midwives fear God, not the king and they let the boys live. When the king calls the midwives to task for failing to obey him, these fearless women come up with a ruse so clever that the king lets them alone. God is pleased with them, and builds them houses. 

In the midst of the genocide, a man from the House of Levi takes a wife from that tribe. The woman, woe to her, bears a son. When she can no longer hide him, she prepares a haven to protect him when he is abandoned to the water. What was in her mind as she laid him on the river? What hope did she have that he would survive? But her plan is provident, because Pharaoh’s daughter is out bathing with her maids. The baby’s sister appears and offers to find a wet nurse. And so the baby is cared for by his mother, at Pharaoh’s expense, for the first years of his life. And then the child returns to the woman who found him and saved him, and she names him Moses. And Moses grows up. 

In the merit of righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt, the Talmud tells us. The midrash tells us how the women did this in erotic detail, but I don’t know why the midrash is needed. Between Joseph, viceroy to the king of Egypt, and Moses, prince of Egypt, redeemer of Israel, there is not one named male. There are, however, six women, including two named, and all accomplish acts of breathtaking bravery, of hope and of rebellious righteousness. 

This is how all six women do it: together. The midwives act together. The mother and sister of Moses plot together. And Pharaoh’s daughter is in cahoots with her maid.

If women, and other oppressed people, are to become all they are capable of, they would be wise to learn from Esther and Mordecai, and from the women of Exodus. Working together, we can redeem the world. 

We cannot part

The strongest human need is the need for each other. For some time, my parents, my daughter and I have lived in one house. But now, the infectiousness of the coronavirus means that I must choose between my parents’ safety and my daughter’s healthy social life. If my daughter wants to see her friends and ride on public transportation, she must leave us. “You’re throwing me out?” she cries in disbelief as she drives off to the third social engagement of the day, a day after we’ve gone into isolation. My daughter can’t believe what I am saying. Neither can I.

I explained the virus to her and why we must be cut off from contact with other people, that my parents are elderly and very much at risk. But my daughter can’t believe I would enforce the rule: if she wishes to be with us, she can be with no one but us. And this condition of our lives may last months or more. We do not know how long.

In the days before we began to isolate, we hosted my daughter’s birthday party and a Purim party, went to two Megillah readings, shopped, and wandered the malls. We will not do any of those things again for a long time.

And while we make plans to lock ourselves away, almost no one in Australia, where we live, is sick. Two weeks ago I asked: how can they shut down civilization for the sake of a few sick people? But one person turned into two, and two into four and four into eight, and it only takes twenty-seven days of doubling to go from one to a million. No country has recorded daily doubles yet, but that is the shape of the curve. So we tell our loved ones goodbye; we will see you again in another season, or another year or on the screen.

This article was originally published at Jewish Action

Alone during COVID-19, but together with family

Forewarning of the pandemic came to our family with a festive package dropped at the door by a neighbor. Such packages are a common part of the celebration of Purim, when we remember the miraculous undoing of a genocidal decree against the Jews of Persia. But in Sydney, where we live, common courtesy is rare, and common kindness is—let us say—even rarer. “Please let us know if you need anything,” said the note with the package. “Anything that is understocked at the shops—soap, toilet paper, medicines.” We had never seen this neighbor before or even spoken to her. We were mystified; something was awry.

We are a family of three generations living in my parents’ home in Sydney. I moved back here just before the virus struck, after thirty years in the United States. “What are you waiting for?” my daughter asked and asked, until I capitulated. I left behind a son at Johns Hopkins University, and he began a barrage of exhortations that ended in our three generations isolating together in my parents’ home a few days after Purim. That was three weeks ago from the time I’m writing this. It is hard now to believe we once lived another way. And it is even harder to resist thinking that we may never get out of this way of living. My parents are healthy but old, and the time between now and a cure or vaccine is indefinite.

We are isolated in the house, my parents, my daughter, and I. No one comes in, and we don’t go where other people are. If we choose to live with one another, we can only be with one another. If my daughter or I want to see anyone else, we cannot come back home until this virus ends. That is the choice: either the family or everyone else, not both. The price we pay for being together is being separated from the rest of the world.

My father, who always prayed twice daily with his community at synagogue, came home to pray alone. Prayer alone is blessed, but wherever ten are assembled in a minyan, the Divine Presence dwells among them (Avot 3:6), in the miniature sanctuary in the places where Jews have been exiled (Ezekiel 11:16). My father is nearly ninety. The very place where religious Jews like my father find solace became a prime source of transmission of the virus. My father’s father put on prayer garments in the Nazi camps. “But this is different,” my father said. “Here we have a choice to live, and life comes first.”

It dwells among us in secret, this virus, like a ghost. Many with the disease have no symptoms and can pass it to others unknowing, so that one moment we are dancing, the next we cough, the next we choke and fall. Life has slid along a predictable course this century. The century before saw a reduction of death in childbirth and childhood diseases, the taming of heart disease, cures for cancer, even a decline in car fatalities. The blessing of old age is widely shared; since 1900, human life expectancy on Earth has more than doubled. Doctors and clean water keep us alive an ever longer time. And into a world built on the certainty of a limitlessly increasing lifespan the new coronavirus imposes uncertainty. It whips through us and we are astonished: the moment before, we believed we were masters over nature. And now, doctors who have fought successfully to keep us alive are impotent; we are left to fight the disease alone, to prescribe our own medicine, that is, to keep away from one another. Who knows who hides the disease and breathes it to us?Aloneness was like a migraine, a sickness that never left in the years I stayed behind after my loved ones left

Four winters ago, when I was still in Washington D.C., my son, my daughter, and my sister all left within weeks of one another, for other cities, other continents. I was going nowhere, but I was moving from a state of perpetual accompaniment to aloneness. When I protested to my loved ones about this prospect, they dismissed my fears. “Viva, you will never be alone!” they said. Yet at night I put my head down alone and when morning came, aloneness was still there with me.

Aloneness was like a migraine, a sickness that never left in the years I stayed behind after my loved ones left. No matter how hard I worked, how much I prayed, or how many deeds of kindness I did, the ache never lessened. Aloneness happened to me and I endured it, but my daughter called repeatedly to teach me that it was a condition I could cure, if I chose to. And so I moved 10,000 miles to my parents’ house. With three generations under one roof, the sickness of aloneness has vanished; I have not once wished for a night by myself.

Recently, on a plateau in Tanzania, paleontologists found the hardened footsteps of ancient humans walking across the plain together. These footsteps have become symbols of our human attachment, a confirmation that even in our early years, we traveled with one another. The strongest human need is the need for each other. We wish for connection, we ache when we cannot find it, and we are punished most intolerably when we are cut away from one another.

So when my son at Johns Hopkins told us we must cut ourselves from the rest of humanity for a time indefinite, in order to save our lives, my mother’s first deed was to reach out to those who did not have the comfort we have in each other. She called them to say, “You are not alone.” Our synagogue, which was notorious for its quarrels and lawsuits, has sprung such a large cadre of volunteers that there are more offering to help than there are those who know they can get help. My mother is ringing through her address book to create demand for the volunteers. Young people are flooding social media with offers, and we bridge those offers to the older ones, who don’t know how to ask. One woman burst out into tears when my mother matched her with a buddy. All her food was gone and she had no way to replenish it.

In the company of this virus, I find myself exhausted. Our ecosystem evolves so fast that how we live one day is obsolete and forgotten the next. The uncertainty, the ever-changing laws, the amount of information to consume and discard, and the yearning for an end date, all leave me spent at day’s end, and sleepless at night. What is the plan? we ask. Who is in charge? we wonder. Then we call friends, make face masks, and hang out the washing to dry.

Three weeks have passed since we isolated; the past week was compressed into an hour, whereas the week before was at least a year. These strange derangements of time come with the disorder of circumstance. This week we try living without news, because the week before we were addicted to news. My mind is too empty or too full. Disconnection from the world distorts time, as does excessive immersion in it. The empty mind compresses time and the full one stretches it out. And through these weeks that are years, nothing whatever is going on in Sydney, the weather is beautiful, the air is cleared of bushfires, hardly anyone has died of the virus. The disease lives among us, silent and invisible.

“Do we have enough to do for a year and a half like this?” I ask my mother.

I am waiting; I clear out a closet. So much of what we hold onto the virus has made worthless. Business suits. A handbag. A metro card. Frequent-flyer miles. And other things that were trivial are now more precious than everything else combined. Toilet paper. Rice. Wi-fi. Neighbor on this side, neighbor on that side, neighbor opposite, whose names and faces I never knew.

The neighbor who left us a food package for Purim left another package this week. It is matzah, the unleavened bread we eat on Passover, to remind us how once we were slaves in Egypt and with signs and wonders, God let us free. We eat the unleavened bread and remember that on the night of Exodus, we did not have time to let the dough rise. Redemption might come before the bread rises, or the washing dries, if we are willing to get up and leave when we hear the call.

We are taught that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of idol worship. The rabbis prayed for that desire to be eradicated from the human vices, and God answered their prayers. The second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of baseless hatred, but this time we can be redeemed only by our own deeds of baseless love. Coronavirus love. Each of us alone, together.

This article was originally published at Commonweal Magazine

Viva Hammer writes about isolation during COVID-19

On the seventh day of my family’s isolation for COVID-19, I call a friend sitting shiva after the death of his father. The three mourners sit together, my friend tells me, and alone. No visitor comes to comfort them. 

The man who died was in his nineties. He was a legendary bookseller, whose funeral and shiva would have drawn thousands. The Brooklyn neighborhood where he sold sacred books was settled by Holocaust survivors. When they celebrate or mourn, they do so in crowds, announcing to themselves that they have not been defeated. They grow and flourish. 

Mourning is surreal in the time of coronavirus. The door of the shiva house is locked. None enter and none leave. Because there is no minyan, the quorum for communal prayer, there can be no Kaddish.

“We are in isolation now,” says my friend, “we and all the world. Each household on its own. And in our isolation, we are together.” I had called my friend to comfort him, but the conversation ended with him comforting me. 

I live in a house in Sydney with my parents and my daughter. For religious Jews, my parents have a small family: two children and three grandchildren, scattered for the duration of this pandemic over three continents and four households. My parents are vigorous but old. The virus has come late to Australia, and so it has taken repeated urging by my son at Johns Hopkins University to convince me to isolate my parents so they do not risk infection. Because my daughter and I live with them, we have isolated ourselves, too. 

Multi-generation households are common in Sydney. Real estate is so expensive that young people stay at home for college and even after they start families. When my daughter started law school this year, I asked if she wanted to move nearer campus. She hesitated only a moment before choosing to stay with my parents and me. 

We begin our isolation on a Friday, after Australia has had its first virus death and Italy is well into its logarithmic death curve. We watch the Italians and can’t believe that what is happening there could happen to us. But we trust my son. My father goes to synagogue for the last time. We go shopping for the last time, light the Sabbath candles, and begin a new life. 

Over the Sabbath, we have endless circling conversations about the virus. My father has joined in prayer in synagogue twice a day for three decades; from now on he will pray on his own. My mother shops, volunteers, goes to board meetings and the gym; from now on she will lift weights and hold Zoom meetings at home.

My daughter joins in the circling conversations about our isolation, and on Sunday she leaves the house for her previously arranged round of social obligations. Did she not hear us? Isolation must be done together! Infection is a group affliction; one man can contaminate all the rest. Isolation is a group commitment; one defector can undo all the rest. There is a parallel to Jewish law. Even though the laws are placed upon each individual, all Jews are guarantors of one another, and they are all a single body (Ritva Rosh Hashanah 29a). 

Our family lives together in peace—three generations in one house—because we practice tolerance. We look away, turn our cheeks, and each of us puts more into the common pot than we take out. And now this, the coronavirus. We must choose between my parents’ safety and my daughter’s healthy social life. If my daughter wants to see friends or ride on a public bus, she must leave us. “You’re throwing me out?” she cries in confusion. 

I explain again why we must be cut off from other people, and tell her that if she wishes to be with us, she can be with no one but us. But my daughter cannot believe I will enforce such a draconian rule. She asks how long our captivity will last, and I tell her it may last months or more. We do not know how long.   

My daughter can’t believe what I am saying. I can’t, either. In the days before we decided to isolate, we hosted my daughter’s birthday party, held a Purim party, went to two public readings of the Scroll of Esther, and walked through crowded marketplaces. Two weeks before that, I had said: How can they shut down civilization for the sake of a few sick people? But one person turned to two and two to four and four to eight, and it only takes 27 days of doubling to go from one person to a million. No country has yet recorded daily doubles, but exponential growth describes the shape of the curve. 

I am wavering. This beloved girl who is defecting from our isolation once saved my life, and then she almost lost hers. When she first moved to Australia to live with my parents, leaving me in America, she urged me to follow. Thirty years of living ten thousand miles from home is quite enough, she said. What are you waiting for? I heard her and I wavered then, too—until I gave up my American life so the four of us could live together. And we have lived in peace. 

I am wavering still. And while I do, I test for the virus. I have had symptoms for a while: the shortness of breath, the dry cough, fevers. The clinic sends me to wait outside on the gray street in the pelting rain. I slip into a store with games and puzzles. What if I had spread the virus to my parents? I had washed and disinfected obsessively. Yet what if I were a vector of infection? And what to do with my daughter? I circle the shop in mask and gloves. I buy material to keep us entertained for the duration, and to support the small business owner behind the counter. 

I take the test and wait for the results. Sabbath ends in Jerusalem, New York, and Baltimore, the cities where the other members of our clan live. The phone calls begin. My niece lives in Jerusalem. She has a friend living with her, as well as a dog rescued from the streets. Israel has rules against crowds, but people still have to get married! My niece tells me they are marrying in supermarkets, where there is always a crowd, as well as food. People are marrying in courtyards, with the guests on balconies above. People are getting married, no matter what. “Yes!” they say, and they are fruitful and they multiply.

My sister, who also lives in Jerusalem, was visiting New York when Israel closed its borders. In New York, religious Jews have been catching the virus before others, going from wedding to bar mitzvah to synagogue to Sabbath dinner to an airplane to more weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Sabbath dinners on other continents. Dense networks of Jews, like every other people, seek the comfort of one another in good times and in times of trouble. 

I find a room for my daughter, who is still gallivanting round Sydney. I don’t discuss it. I tell her she cannot stay in our house if she will not observe the rules of isolation. She is in disbelief, she is crying, she is being banished for doing what? We are like a ship, I tell my daughter. If there is a hole in the lower hold, we do not say, “Only the lower hold has a hole in it.” Rather, we recognize that the ship could sink and that we must all repair the hole down below (Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah, Ch 11).

In Sydney, we live between the ocean and the harbor, where the weather has turned glorious. A breeze rustles the leaves outside my window. The smog from bushfires that raged all summer has cleared. And governments are battening down the hatches, erecting barricades against the storm. Deaths, like those in Italy, are before us. This is going to happen as surely as the tides. 

We are exceedingly busy doing absolutely nothing. Washing our hands again and again, then washing the towel that washed the hands. On the phone with the lonely shut-ins. My mother Zooms. Even my father Zooms. In his ninety years, which began without running water or sewage, he has endured three types of fascism, a war, his enslavement, the incineration of his people, revolution, escape, and now Bible study with his mates on Zoom. 

I hang another load of laundry in the sun and take a walk to Bondi Beach, keeping two meters away from the throng. In the heat of the day, the beach is jammed. “We’re gonna catch some waves before we go under,” the surfers say. Australians are not lying down with the virus. They’ll catch a wave till their time is up. 

I walk home. People don’t say hello in this neighborhood. Even people I pass every day don’t return my greeting. They look at me as if I must be deranged to greet a stranger. I haven’t ever seen the people in the homes next door, although I hear their children’s laughter. Coming through our front gate, I see there is a food parcel with a note. It is from a neighbor I have never met, asking what we need and offering help. The synagogue has also gathered a volunteer corps to shop and do errands for the isolated. In this neighborhood where no one says hello, the virus has spun us into a web of care.

On the seventh day of our coronavirus isolation, my daughter begs to come home. She cannot bear to be alone in a hotel. She wants to be with us more than anyone else, more than any friend. Under the terms of our captivity, she will not come close to anyone other than us for an indefinite time. “If only there was an end date!” She cries. “Then I could look forward to it!” Yes, if only there were. But we are in captivity together for as long as the virus endures. 

“Give me a friend or give me death!” the Talmud exclaims (Ta’anit 23b). The strongest human need is the need for one another. We wish for connection, we ache when we cannot find it, and we are punished intolerably when cut off from one another. 

Our great obligations—to visit the sick and accompany the dead, to dance at a wedding, to join community in prayer—all are abrogated by the virus. If we get sick now, we will die in hospital alone. The chief tool in the human kit, to be present in our bodies for one another, is forbidden to us. What is left?

In all places, wherever a person has touched another who has touched another, this virus will touch. But a flame goes up from each home, each place of isolation: the flame of the human spirit. We cannot touch one another, but we watch the flames from the windows, from our screens and devices. And we know that even as we are aching for the captivity to end, or at least to know when the end will come, that we are aching in our isolation together. 

And one day, when the virus is spent, we will meet one another again. Shake hands, embrace, give thanks. May that day come speedily. And may the gift of this time, our outpouring of care for one another, survive what comes after.  

This article was originally published at First Things

Always Artful Jew

Artful Jew

In this era doused with fleshy image, we need not be ashamed of our wordy heritage devoid of sensual media. Despite the destruction of synagogues and communities, confiscation from us (many times over) of vast gilded wealth and bonfires of book burnings, we have held on to our words.