If we have learned nothing else about Covid-19 since March, it is that the virus neither knows or cares about the labels and boundaries that human beings have created.
In New York City, there are about a dozen zip codes in both Brooklyn and Queens in which there is a rise in Covid-19 cases. Most of these neighborhoods have a large population of Orthodox Jews. Some have claimed that the city’s response is anti-Semitic.
My personal reaction is the claim is mixed. If I felt it was truly anti-Semitic response, I would be direct in saying so. But it is not antisemitism, it is common sense. If anything, their reactions only amplify the anti-Semitic lies and imagery. Being learned in the text and customs of any religion does not stop this disease. Wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands frequently will stop this disease.
However, the residents of these zip codes are not completely to blame. If the news reports are true, there are not enough Yiddish speaking tracers to reach out to the community. That failure falls firmly on the shoulders of the Mayor and other officials.
The problem with Covid-19 is that common sense and logic are replaced by fear and anxiety. While those responses are normal, given the circumstances, they will not help us in the long run. We need a clear head and a well constructed plan if we are able to return to some sense of normalcy.
Mental illness and it’s various forms affect countless people around the world. But unlike physical illness and it’s many variations, mental illness does not get the respect it deserves.
Back in 2008, Malka Leifer was accused of sexually abusing several students at the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne, Australia, where she worked as a teacher. But before she could be brought into the courtroom to face her accusers, Ms. Leifer left Australia for Israel. Twelve years later, she faces extradition back to Australia. Her lawyers and supporters claim that she is mentally ill.
I have a huge problem with this claim. The problem is that her claim (if it is not true) is not only foolish, but it could also have life-shattering consequences. Millions of us wake up every day with mental illness. I wake every day with depression hanging around my neck. Does that mean I will commit such a heinous crime as sexual assault on a minor?
It’s hard enough to admit that one is living with mental illness and needs help. The last thing those of us who live with this disease need is for someone to use it as an excuse for moral failings.
Mental illness is NOT an excuse for sexual assault and never will be.
In a time of crisis, logic often secedes into emotion and chaos. While this secession is completely and understandably normal, it can lead to actions that would not otherwise be taken.
As many of my regular readers know, I live in New York City. Anyone who does not have their head in the sand is aware that NYC is one of the Covid-19 hot spots in the United States. Since March, those of us who live in the city have heard the same three words countless time: stay at home.
Unfortunately, there are some fools who are putting their lives and the lives of others at risk. Over the last few days, there were three incidents in which I have to question if the participants truly understand what we are going through.
Incident #1: In Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Yeshiva (religious school for Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews) was still open in spite of the order from the city to close all schools. Neighbors contacted the local police precinct when they saw students and teachers exiting the building. I am all for education and religious instruction (especially from my coreligionists), but would it hurt to use a little common sense?
Incident #2: A party in Canarsie was broken up by police. After two months of staying home nearly 24/7, I am more than eager to see another set of four walls and my friends. However, there is a little thing going around called Covid-19. This virus attacks and kills its hosts indiscriminately. That last thing I would ever want on my conscious is knowing that I may have been the one to give Covid-19 to someone else.
Incident #3: The weather this past Saturday was perfect. Last year at this time, I would have gone out for a drink without question. But not this year. According to news reports, several bars on the Upper West Side had a full house. Some patrons hung out on the sidewalk, unable to find seats inside. I am all for meeting my friends at a bar to relax after a long week, but not with the threat of Covid-19 hanging above us.
What the f*ck don’t they understand about staying at home?
For the last two months or so, social distancing has been the norm.
Last week, I wrote about the antisemitic accusation that New York City Bill de Blasio leveled at the entire Jewish community of New York City for breaking the social distancing rules. While the specific synagogue at the center of the brouhaha has apologized for their lack of forethought, this does nothing to nullify the Mayor’s statement.
This past weekend was absolutely perfect weather-wise in the city. It was everything one would ask for a weekend in May. If we were not living through the Covid-19 pandemic, no one would be thinking twice about getting out. But we are living through a pandemic and that requires us to think twice about leaving the house for anything but basic necessities.
Across the city, many took advantage of the warm weather.
I don’t have a problem with people getting out. If I had not already had plans, I would have done so myself. What I do have a problem with is the lack of sweeping prejudicial generalizations of those who were outside on Sunday. Where was the literal nagging finger, accusing city residents of ignoring the social distancing rules?
I think it is fair to say that anyone with a reasonable amount of intelligence these days would say that Covid-19 has forced all of us to adjust how we live. I think that it is also fair to say that given the current crisis, it would behoove those in the halls of power to work together.
Last night was the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, who according to press reports, died from complications from Covid-19. As is the custom in Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, the funeral was public with thousands of mourners crowding the streets in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. In normal times, this would be a non-news issue for all but the local community. But we are not living in normal times.
According to an article in Gothamist, the Police department knew about this before hand. But yet, Mayor Bill de Blasio accused the entire Jewish community of New York City of breaking the social distancing rules.
The problem that I have with his accusation is that instead of specifically pointing the finger at those in attendance, he blamed every Jew in New York City. I am a Jew and I live in New York City. Was I at this funeral? No. He should be putting the blame on those who were there, not on all practitioners of that particular religious identity. He should have also spoken to his police officials before making this kind of accusations.
Last week was Yom Hashoah. Given our current political climate, the recent climactic (and bloody) events in Jewish history and the extreme rise in antisemitism, I would think twice before making such a comment.
Which is why I did not vote for this man and will be more than happy to see him out of office when his term ends.
We live in a world which demands that we conform. If we do not conform, the consequences are numerous.
Unorthodox recently premiered on Netflix. Based on the book, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman, the four part series follows Esther “Esty” Shapiro (nee Schwartz, played by Shira Haas). Married at 19 to Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav), Esty is unprepared for the pressures that come with being a married woman in the Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
When the pressure becomes too much, Esty escapes to Berlin where her estranged mother, Leah (Alex Reid) lives. Taken in and befriended by music students, she begins to see that there is life outside of the world that she was born into. But when her husband and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) arrive in Berlin to find her and bring her home, it becomes a game of cat and mouse.
I found this series to be fascinating and human. Its easy to live within the confines and the rules of the community, especially if you are a woman. It is infinitely more difficult to make your own way in the world. Two things stuck out to me as I was watching. The first was that although we see the world through Esty’s eyes, the judgement is not as harsh as it appears to be. The second is the relationships between the characters. Regardless of the societal, cultural and religious beliefs that the audience member holds, there is a universal quality to the the story being told.
Leah (previously known as Lola) Howard and Yaakov Lehman are both going through tough times. Leah was raised by a Jewish mother who was Jewish by history, but consciously rejected the standard middle class life that she was raised in in Brooklyn. Growing up in California, Leah was raised as a neo-hippie. Yaakov is a recent widower with five kids who life has fallen apart since his wife’s death. He is falling behind on his bills, his oldest daughter has taken on her mother’s role and his life is an overall wreck.
They meet in the Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park. Leah is a baal teshuva, needing a new direction in her life after the death of her fiance. Yaakov needs someone to watch his younger children during the day. In the world of Orthodox Jews, a potential marriage is not ideal between Leah and Yaakov. But Leah and Yaakov are a perfect fit. Will this couple meet each other at the chuppah or will gossip and judgement tear them apart?
I’ve been a fan of Ms. Ragen and her books for quite a few years now. What I love about her books is that though they are set in the world of Orthodox Jewry, her characters are thoroughly human. One does not need to be Jewish or even an Orthodox Jew to get sucked into her writing.
As a reader, I felt for her main characters. Both Leah and Yaakov are lost and looking for something or someone to anchor themselves to. I also felt frustrated because this couple was potentially going to be torn apart not by circumstance, but by outsiders who believed that they knew better. In calling out the bullshit within this community, Ms. Ragen is challenging both her characters and her readers to not be so quick to judge others because they are different.
To say that I am a bookworm is an understatement. As you might expect, I’ve read quite a few books this year.
Without further adieu, my list of the best books of 2019 is below.
The Women of the 116th Congress: Portraits of Power: This book is #1 because it represents how far American women have come and how far we need to go before we are truly equal. In celebrating the success of these female politicians, the authors are paving the way for the next generation of women to represent their country.
In our modern, diverse culture, we often say that love is love is love. But we sometimes forget that there parts of this world where being who you are and having an open relationship with the one you love is not always easy or accepted.
In the 2006 book, Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman, Ronit left her insular Orthodox Jewish London community as a young woman. She has recently returned because of her father’s passing. But returning to the community that she once called home is not easy. Her cousin Dovid married their friend Esti. There are whispers around the community that Dovid is to take his uncle’s place as Rav. While Ronit is wrestling with her past and the death of her father, Dovid is thinking about his future. Esti is trying to be a good wife, as per the laws of Orthodox Judaism. But she is also in the closet and remembering her relationship with Ronit when they were girls.
Before I go any further with my review, I have to admit that I saw the movie before I read the book. That being said, seeing the movie gave me a new perspective on the book. While the movie is told from third person POV, the narrative in the book is told from a first person POV, jumping from Dovid to Ronit to Esti. While it’s not a clear-cut case of the book being better than the movie, I just feel like the narrative in the movie was cleaner and more powerful than the narrative in the book.
The best narratives are often the ones that are universal. Transcending the place, time and the characters, these stories speak to all of us, regardless of who we are, where are we are from and what we believe.
In 2009, writer Tova Mirvis published her first book, The Ladies Auxiliary. In a small corner of Memphis, Tennessee, a group of Orthodox Jewish families have banded together to create a community within a community. Enter Batsheva, the widow of one of the sons of the community. Arriving with her young daughter, Ayala, Batsheva is clearly an outsider in more ways than one.
The women in the community are hesitant to embrace her, but some do. But even while she starts to integrate into the community, some of the women are still suspicious of her, especially when she maybe the catalyst for change in their growing children. Will Batsheva be accepted as one of their own or will she forever be an outsider?
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, there is a universal theme of acceptance and being open to someone or something new. The reader does not have to be Jewish or an Orthodox Jew (though it helps, especially when it comes the religious rituals and traditions) to understand the characters and the narrative. But at the same time, the writer jumps from several point of views and perhaps a bit dryly spends a little too much time explaining the religious rituals and traditions.