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Feeling Jewish peoplehood in the time of corona

My mother teaches a classroom of 2-year-olds at a Jewish day school in Houston, Tex. Ever since the novel coronavirus hit and school turned virtual, she’s been sending YouTube videos to her yeladim. One YouTube followed “Morah Sandy’s” Shabbat cooking preparations.

“I wish y’all had smellovision!” she said, showing off her golden challahs.

This reminded me of Rabbi Joseph Solevetchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek, in which he relates a story from the Talmud about a child born with two heads. The question is raised as to whether the child is entitled to one or two shares of his father’s inheritance. The rabbi responds, “Let them pour boiling water on the ‎head of the one and let us see the other’s reaction. If the other screams in pain, ‎then the two comprise one personality, and they shall receive one share of the inheritance.”

He goes on to say this represents the interconnected global Jew, “If boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris must scream,” he wrote. “And by feeling the pain, he is loyal to the nation.”

With so many of the visceral components of the communal experience — our ability to touch, to smell — being stripped away during this time, the Jewish people’s interconnectedness has a heightened value through our actions, online engagement and signals of solidarity. While we don’t yet have smellovision, the Jewish people are building a new form of “feelovision” in the time of corona.

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Certainly the width and depth of this crisis is unprecedented, and the immediate focus must be in ensuring the physical health and economic well-being of our communities. Yet looking forward, there’s also a unique opportunity to use this time to build Jewish peoplehood, developing a 21st-Century framework for being connected globally.

The shuttering of Jewish spaces, encounters and conferences, which today serve as the basis of the communal experience, provides a unique challenge for those working to push Jewish engagement. Since the 1950s, it has been American Jewish institutions — the Jewish community center, synagogue or summer camp — rather than the Jewish home that has been the central source for generating the individual and communal Jewish identity.

Now, with no board meeting to physically attend or summer camp to pack for, we’re tasked with facilitating our own Jewish connections. The required building of home-based peoplehood today — making challah, preparing for Pesach, or perhaps learning Hebrew or a Jewish text with someone online— will serve as testament to our institutions’ ability to successfully “give the work back” to the community.

To support these efforts, we’re seeing the creation of open-sourced Jewish content on an unprecedented scale.

Our people do well creatively when there is a need to write things down; it was in the days after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. that the Mishnah, the first compilation of the Oral Torah, was finally put on paper based on an urgency to adapt to the Jewish people’s new decentralized structure. That was how and when Judaism went from being institution-based — the ancient temples — to being home-based.

Once the Oral Torah was written down it was handed over to rabbis to organize and wrestle with for the next several hundred years. This process produced the Jerusalem and Bablyonian Talmud, where we get stories like the one about a child with two heads. So too, the day after this crisis, the task will be to aggregate the Jewish content being produced during corona by our institutions, musicians, artists, writers and educators into a digital library fit for a 21st-Century global people.

Finally, in the Talmudic spirit of contradicting what one just said, I’ll end on this note: let’s not adapt too well to our new virtual lifestyle, but begin to distinguish what online communication can and cannot provide as a technical fix.

As Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown and author said, once the pandemic wanes, “Instead of asking, ‘Is there a reason to do this online?’ we’ll be asking, ‘Is there any good reason to do this in person?’ —and might need to be reminded and convinced that there is.”

While only looking presentable from the waist-up has a slight thrill to it, when the masks do eventually come off, we will need to immediately generate new opportunities to meet in person while integrating the progress made during this time.

In the meantime, I won’t be home to eat the final batch of pre-Pesach challahs, nor will I be at my parents’ table for seder. Instead, I settled on making my mother’s challah recipe from my kitchen in Jerusalem. I’ll learn how to clean my oven and be a leader in my miniature seder from a pre-Pesach Zoom call organized with friends. I’ll bring Pesach groceries to those in quarantine and study Torah virtually with my brother.

These are small ways in which I, like so many others, are elevating our feelings of connection as a united people in a more meaningful way than smellovision could possibly allow.

Tracy Frydberg is an analyst at the Reut Group. She is currently pursuing a masters in Jewish Peoplehood at the University of Haifa.

The Reut Group is a non-profit organization dedicated to tackling challenges regarding the resilience and prosperity of the State of Israel, Israeli society and the Jewish people.


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