April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

On the last day of Passover, the Yizkor prayer helps us commemorate our dead. This year I recited the prayer in the solitude of my living room—slowly mouthing the words and thinking of all the losses I and my fellow humans are enduring.

Ostensibly I was reciting the Yizkor prayers for my father, a Holocaust survivor who died 20 years ago, and for all his family members who perished in the Holocaust. Holocaust Remembrance Day always falls the week after Passover on the Hebrew calendar—so I also include a memorial prayer for grandparents, aunts and uncles whom I never met.

But this year, on my mind were those I had lost in the past few months, and those dead and dying of coronavirus. And the ill and those who are sheltering in place.

Beginning in October and ending in February I watched my personal world contract as people I know died from cancer and dementia and pulmonary disease.

Marcie’s husband; my favorite Uncle Norbert; Cynthia’s husband; Diane’s husband; my childhood friend Breindy; my fun-loving friend Rocky—all gone in the space of 120 days.

In those four months I went to funerals and a wake, organized meals at shiva houses or merely visited to offer comfort. I hugged the near and dear and left with a sense of the yawning hole in my heart having gotten bigger. And I went to school each day, smiled at and taught my students, prepared lessons each evening and graded papers late into the night. The teacher workload kept me focused and almost sane.

There were many teary moments. But then I would breathe deeply and move on to the next task. On occasion I found that I had missed something in a conversation because I was thinking about one of my friends/family who had passed just days before.

“What’s wrong with me? How is it that I am managing to keep going?” I asked a friend. “You’re resilient,” she said. “You have built that resilience over many years.” She’s right. Difficult marriage. Divorce. Raising three children. Job loss. Job search. String of bad dates. Job loss. Job search. Disappointed love. Caring for a cranky, elderly mother. What did not break me has made me stronger. (Cue the rueful laugh.)

These days I carry sorrowful weight—unable to share it. What can I say to people? Who would believe me if I said: “In the past four months two of the women in my Bible class lost their husbands. My favorite uncle died. My department chair lost her husband. A friend I have known since eighth grade lost her battle with cancer. My comrade in writing, irreverent reflection and fandom of Off-Off Broadway theater lost his battle with pulmonary disease. Who would believe me? Had I chronicled this in some morose novel, an editor would have rejected it as melodramatic drivel: “But this doesn’t happen in real life—unless it’s wartime.”

Now it is wartime. The COVID-19 death notices come regularly now. Emails and texts and feeds from my apps. More people I know, who were part of my immediate universe are gone. I send messages of thanks to my doctor and nurse friends, letting them know someone cares about them.

A line rattles around my brain. The line, from “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” by Dr. Yaffa Eliach, haunts me these days. A survivor lamented that he could not properly mourn his dead: “No one came to comfort me because we were all being murdered.”

These days when there is a lunchtime break in the online teaching, I switch on the midday news conferences. The talking heads of politicians ruin my appetite. There are body counts of “blessed souls” and positive testing results and hospital admissions. The papers are filled with descriptions of ER and ICU reality alongside advice on how to create a workspace, keep toddlers engaged, whip up creative meals. There are warnings to shelter in place, maintain six-foot distancing and wear a mask.

In my scramble to learn all about online teaching and testing platforms and switch to online teaching in less than two days, I missed the opportunity to stock my pantry. I live in a small one-bedroom, so hoarding supplies is not an option. There are no disposable protective coverings in stock at my local drugstore. I use bandanas and winter gloves when I leave the house—and launder them often. All this takes up bandwidth in my brain—leaving less space for contemplating the people missing in my life.

But the loss is real. When we would come together to study, in the course of discussions, Marcie and Cynthia mentioned their spouses, the yawning caverns of loss they face, the difficulties of putting affairs in order. Now I organize our Bible class on Zoom. The loss is still palpable. My Aunt Esther, lonely, calls often. I listen to her and offer some human warmth.

When I am consumed with sending Remind.com messages to students, grading Google Classroom assignments and engaging students via Zoom, I reach for my phone to call Briendy. Her sympathetic ear, reassuring advice and melodious laugh are just what I need. Chagrined, I stop myself. And in this coronavirus universe some of the memes and creative videos that arrive via email and WhatsApp tickle me and I think I should forward it: “Rocky would love this one.” But…

On the last day of Passover, as I stood near my window, marveling at the beauty of spring rebirth amidst the raging of a plague, I whispered the words of the prayers Jews have been saying for hundreds of years—soulful prayers that help us remember loved ones who are no longer alive. I was caught up in a tragic realization: We are all—the collective family of humankind—dealing with loss on a daily basis now. And I finally had time to feel, really feel, wallow in, the enormity of my own season of loss.

Sheryl Chaye Kohl teaches English at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, New Jersey, and is an adjunct professor at Adelphi University in New York. She is part of the Heritage Testimonies cohort at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

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