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Advice on fear, family, art and help in this pandemic

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the original Forverts newspaper, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. In 2020, we are reviving the signature advice column, helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in this digital age. Send your questions to [email protected].


A Time To Ask Why

Dear Abbys,

I’m feeling all this pressure to reconnect with my estranged siblings during this time because everyone else is Zooming with their families. But I don’t think there’s going to be a Lifetime movie-ish moment of reconciliation — pandemic or not. Can I just leave it be?

Que Sera Sarah

Illustration by Liana Finck

Image by Liana finck

Dear Que Sera Sarah,

The most recent movies we’ve watched on Lifetime was “Flowers in the Attic,” which is maybe more about our aesthetic than yours, but here’s the thing: This is an extraordinary time. You may choose to fill it with touching reunions and virtual lovefests. You may also be overwhelmed by loneliness, anxiety, and a lack of Manischewitz.


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It sounds to us like this is a great opportunity for you to do some purposeful self-reflection — really investigate which relationships are important and need your attention, and which need to be released.

As the great Gloria Steinem once said, “Happy or unhappy, families are all mysterious. We have only to imagine how differently we would be described — and will be, after our deaths — by each of the family members who believe they know us.”

Instead of watching Lifetime movies, we dare you to sit down and think about how you might describe your siblings and how they might describe you. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. Do you remember a time when you all laughed together?
  2. If she/he/they were ill (or died), would you want to know?
  3. What needs to change for these relationships to work and are you willing to help make that change?

Que Sera Sarah, you’re right. This movie-ish reconciliation is not going to just happen. You have to make it happen, but only if that’s what you truly want.

The Importance of Painting During a Global Pandemic

Dear Abbys,

As we grapple with the reality of this global crisis, our instincts drive us to gather facts, and accept the truth. If the artist’s job is to search for meaning, how should we approach this period of time — especially if there are those who might find that kind of search unimportant? What exactly is our role as artists right now?

Marcy, New Jersey

Dear Marcy,

Over the last few weeks, one line from a favorite poem keeps coming back to us. In “To Be of Use,” Marge Piercy writes: “The pitcher cries for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.”

We know who has work that is real right now: the doctors, nurses, scientists, cleaning crews, supermarket clerks, delivery people, journalists, pharmacists and elected officials. Does anyone really need an acrylic painting right now? What role can creatives play in a time like this?

A big one.

Feeling overwhelmed? Need advice? Just want to know which pajamas are acceptable for grabbing your takeout? We gotchu. Write to [email protected].

One of us spent Monday night belting out Indigo Girls with her 6-year-old daughter, and the other found herself crying to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. We are convinced that an entire generation of artists will be birthed by people like Wendy McNaughton and Mo Willems who are teaching our kids online to draw and doodle.

If you are feeling able to create, do it, please! We need to see reflections and interpretations of the pain, fear and beauty all around us. We need to understand ourselves, even in the midst of chaos — particularly in the midst of chaos. This is so much of what an artist does: she helps us to see and to feel.

And if you don’t feel capable of making art right now, that’s O.K. too. In any artistic life, there are fallow periods. Think of this period as your shmita. You know about shmita? It’s kind of a Sabbath for the land. The Torah mandates that every seventh year, farmers in Israel let some of their fields lie fallow, planting nothing. Let it be — and trust that much will grow there later on.

Illustration by Liana Finck

Image by Liana Finck

Zoom Only Gets Us So Close

Dear Abbys,

How do I manage my fear that my dad is going to be taken by this virus? He’s immuno-compromised and recently had an unrelated injury that has left him in a lot of pain and going to several different medical offices. He starts physical therapy in yet another facility tomorrow.

My mom is doing all of the grocery shopping, gas pumping, and driving. She has a medical degree and says she’s being careful, but she also has a diagnosed mental illness and always believes she knows best. They live in a small rural town in the south that has one positive diagnosis already.

We just had a Zoom call with them, and seeing their faces made me think about not being able to be there with them right now if something were to happen. It’s upsetting, to say the least. Help!

Trapped in New Jersey

Dear Trapped,

You’ve started to answer your own question. You call yourself Trapped, and you even name your captor: Fear. That four-letter word that can grip us so tightly, everything else falls away.

Fear is intelligent; it helps us survive when we’re being chased by a predator or being forced inside by a global pandemic. But it can also topple us to the ground and leave us breathless. Trapped, you cannot manage the outcome of this virus and how it affects your parents. But you can manage your fear.

We are big fans of the ways both Tara Brach, a psychologist, and Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher, dissect the way fear can transform our bodies and hijack our minds. They also provide great meditations on recognizing and allowing ourselves to work with these fears. Give them a listen, and let yourself have a good cry.

And then, how about ordering your parents some food to be delivered so your mom isn’t going out for groceries? Ask your father’s doctors about telemedicine, so he can do physical-therapy at home. If nothing else, checking in with your parents more often could help. FaceTime them during meals.

Most of all, keep reaching out and talking about your fears. That’s the very best way to walk through them.

Feeling So Helpless, Wanting to Help

Dear Abbys,

If we’re all healthy and staying safe inside, what can we do to help?


Susan in N.Y.

Dear Susan,

During any other crisis — think: natural disaster or terrorist attack — we band together to eat, drink, talk, cry, kvetch, and help each other out. But now we must stay away from each other. It goes against our every instinct, but it is, by far, the most helpful thing to do, so thank you for staying inside.

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That said, there’s plenty you can do from home, and it doesn’t need to be official or expensive: During the first weekend we were sheltering in place, one of us Abbys left notes for the widows in our building offering help with picking up groceries and medication. The other got her kids to draw cards for older friends living alone. We’ve dropped off books for friends curbside and ordered makeup (for a future date!) for a whole crew of friends.

It can be even simpler, though: call anyone you think might be feeling particularly vulnerable or lonely. Call again.

And if you want to do something more official, there are plenty of worthy organizations ready to take your money, and many online portals to constructive activity. Here’s a short list:

Abby Sher and Abby Rasminsky are writers living in, respectively, Maplewood, N.J., and Los Angeles. Got a question? Submit your questions to [email protected].

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