On the evening of Dec. 10, my family lit the first candle on our hanukkiah. The six of us huddled around the windowsill, watching the wick curl and the wax drip. We blessed the flame, said the Shehecheyanu prayer, and welcomed the festival of rededication, light and miracles.
On Dec. 11, the day that the FDA approved the COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States, I woke up with the coronavirus.
In the past year, I’ve worked on a fair amount of COVID-19 journalism – –from interning for a podcast called EPIDEMIC about coronavirus and society to writing a piece for my university’s newspaper about college students who tested positive for COVID-19. But, as it goes, hearing the narratives of others is no substitute – –or preparation –– for your own narrative.
My level of pandemic paranoia has been rather high. As a first-year college student studying remotely, I barely leave my home, but I’ve (irrationally) woken up thinking I was COVID-positive more than once, with “symptoms” as irrelevant as a slightly red eyelid. So, when I woke up on Dec. 11 and coughed, I allotted myself only a few minutes on WebMD before concluding I was perfectly healthy. I wasn’t.
I left my room, only to learn that my brother and father were waiting in a rapid test line. Within the hour, I was in isolation behind a closed door, with a mild fever and cough.
For the next few days, as we waited for the rest of my family to receive test results, the six of us isolated from each other, navigating one apartment as if it were six different worlds. To communicate with my parents or younger siblings, I’d pull out my phone. Or, tired of staring at a screen, I’d simply press my cheek against my bedroom door and shout. It was a strange existence.
As I sat eating dinner alone in my room that first night, I watched our synagogue’s live-streamed Kabbalat Shabbat service. Each prayer echoed; I heard the service from my own computer speakers, and then I heard a not-so-distant reverberation from my mother’s speaker as she watched the same service right outside my door. The hanukkiah in our synagogue was lit with two candles and the shamash. The first night of Hanukkah felt far in the past, but it was, after all, only the second night.
By Day Six of Hanukkah, each member of my family had received a positive test result. One for each night. We spent the duration of the holiday within the walls of our apartment, watching the snowstorm from our windows and counting the days we’d spent in isolation by the number of candles ablaze on our hanukkiah.
I recalled the conversations I’d had just months before with college students who had tested positive. They’d all had different experiences, but I noticed a theme in their reflections: They struggled with the question, “Why me?”
Not until I was the one isolated did I realize just how easy it is to become swallowed by this question. “Why us,” I asked myself so many times each day. I could list dozens of reasons why we, a family who had been following pandemic guidelines with the utmost caution, should not have contracted the coronavirus. Probability was against us. I asked “why now,” why during Hanukkah and why right as the light at the end of the tunnel brightened with the approval of a vaccine.
These questions were the easy ones. It took no intellectual or emotional strength to ask them. But, with Hanukkah as the backdrop for our illness, I started to recognize the much harder questions that I needed to ask myself.
We do not celebrate Hanukkah to mourn each loss the Jewish people suffered throughout the Hanukkah story. We celebrate Hanukkah to remember the small miracle of the oil lasting eight nights during the rededication of the Second Temple. Compared to the majesty of the Hanukkah story –– the violence, the power, the destruction –– this miracle is small. And yet, still today, we celebrate this miracle for eight nights.
Hanukkah is about perspective. We could dedicate eight days to remembering the destruction of the Temple, but instead, we mourn the destruction for one day a year on Tisha B’av and celebrate the miracle of the oil for the eight days of Hanukkah. Likewise, I could spend time pondering unanswerable questions about bad luck, or, I could focus on the miracles that matter and reshape the narrative.
I started thinking about the miracles in the midst of pandemonium. For one, no member of my family had suffered from a very bad case of COVID-19. We’d all been sick, no doubt, but none of us experienced life-threatening or long-lasting illness. In a family of six people, this was a miracle, one for which we are all grateful. And there was the miracle that we were experiencing this together and we were able to take care of each other –– on any given day, those who felt the healthiest looked after those who felt the sickest.
Reshaping the narrative is easier said than done, though, and I’ll be the first to admit that. Sometimes frustration is easier to express than gratitude –– I’ve definitely learned that this past year, and I’m sure many a Maccabee would agree –– but rarely is it more productive. Identifying the light, however dim or vibrant it may be, is a place to begin.
On the eighth night of Hanukkah, my family, by then healthy enough to gather together, lit our hanukkiah and blessed the light. The nine candles reflected on the windowpane, their flames remaining long as their wax bodies dissipated. We’d made it through Hanukkah, we’d made it through a week of isolation. It would still be time before we could exit isolation, and it would take another week for us to fully recover. But in an unexpected way, it had still been a Hanukkah of miracles.
Julie Levey is a first-year student at Princeton University. She was a first-place winner in the Forward’s 2020 Young Writers Contest.