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.
Viva Hammer is at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University and formerly counsel at a nonpartisan committee of the United States Congress.