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Quarantine in a cooperative house

I just moved to New York City at the beginning of this year, and was just beginning to get my feet under me, to choose a neighborhood coffee shop, when everything shut down. Each new friend I’d made has now fled the city to ride out the pandemic with family or partners, wanting to be with their closest loved ones during this time.

I, meanwhile, find myself hunkering down with veritable strangers I met via the internet a few months ago.

Thankfully, I like my roommates, and am overwhelmingly grateful not to be living alone during this time of social distancing. But our cooperative household was only just starting to gel when we were locked in together — our first house gossip session had just happened. Whatever camaraderie we had managed to build was knocked off-kilter by the quarantine; two of our five roommates have fled to families and another house member’s boyfriend has joined us for the duration.

Living in such cooperative houses has been one of my best tactics to adjust to a new city and grow my community fast. It means, hopefully, a built-in starter pack of friends, and the collective mentality allows for easy merging of social circles. Before you know it, you have a full-fledged community.

I’ve been lucky to have lived in several tight-knit houses, most memorably a five-person household in Somerville, Mass., occupying the small third floor of a rickety triple-decker. We were the hub for our social circle, hosting board-game marathons, spontaneous meals, movie nights and crowded parties nearly every weekend (and many weekdays). There was such a constant stream of friends that we gave up on locking our doors.

But these things take time; the first year in my Boston community house wasn’t anywhere near as warm and cozy as the second — we hadn’t coalesced into the family of friends we became. Our Brooklyn cooperative had to skip a few steps when coronvirus hit; fake it til you make it, I guess.

The work from home set-up

The work from home set-up Image by Courtesy of Mira Fox

Luckily, our brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant is far more spacious than the Somerville setup; we have a backyard and two floors for five people, so the forced intimacy is less intense. But we’re still spending all day together at the workstations we’ve each constructed in the living room. One roommate perches a bar table, doing data analysis; her boyfriend, a teacher, sits nearby prepping lessons. I occupy the couch, using several stools as a makeshift table for my laptop and coffee.

We’ve been bonding — running figure-eights in the backyard as the cabin fever got to us, doing a bar’s trivia night on Zoom (we came in third!). It’s enough fun that the data analyst and her boyfriend actually chose to stay rather than fleeing to his family on Long Island, though he may regret it—we gave him a haircut in the kitchen last week.

Yet we’re still getting to know how we each communicate or handle stress, and what we’re each struggling with most. One roommate, who works in publishing, is worried about her work drying up as printing dates get delayed. My family is going through various medical crises (thankfully unrelated to coronavirus). It’s hard to navigate giving and needing support in such fledgling relationships.

This is also the first time I’ve been the only Jewish person in my household. I’m not particularly observant and I’ve never prioritized living with other Jews, but my Jewish identity is important to me, and it’s odd to live with people who don’t connect to this part of me.

Especially because over the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to go to Shabbat services or my weekly Torah study group as I normally do. All of my Jewishness was getting expressed outside my house, and now I am stuck inside.

The author and her challah

The author and her challah Image by Courtesy of Mira Fox

As last week ticked away, I found myself yearning for Shabbat. I may not be very religious, but I love the space from the everyday that Shabbat can offer, and the meditative qualities of singing and harmonizing through Friday-night davening. Thinking it would give me a small taste of what I was missing, I decided to make challah, setting it to rise alongside the workstations we’ve cobbled together in our living room. “It’s Shabbat,” I explained.

Just saying it aloud helped me see that it really could be; I asked how everyone felt about doing a little bit of ritual together

We are commanded to sanctify Shabbat with kiddush, the blessing over the wine, which comes from the root kadesh (קדש), meaning to make holy or set apart. We had been working side by side all day, eating together at night, exercising in the backyard, and we were going to be together, in the same space, all weekend too; we desperately needed a way to draw a boundary. Shabbat rituals are built to transform time and reset spaces into something restful and expansive—exactly what we needed for our mentally and physically cluttered living room.

So we cleaned the space from the detritus of our week’s heavy usage, stowed monitors out of sight, and set the table with cloud-printed sheet as a tablecloth. I encouraged everyone to finally change out of our work-from-home sweats and get a little dressed up. My roommates got excited; one asked if we would learn a song together, so we mumble-hummed through Shalom Aleichem.

We sat down around 9 p.m., well after Shabbat had arrived. I had made challah, shakshuka and salad; my roommates contributed a dish of sauteed vegetables with toasted almonds and one of shrimp (why not?). For dessert, we munched homemade chocolate-chip cookies on our stoop, sipping wine in the warm, muggy evening air.

It wasn’t the most traditional Shabbat—we didn’t even have candles to light—but it worked; we all laughed and chatted and set the worries of the week aside. More importantly, it felt like this new house was a real home, with a real family.

As the least observant person in most Shabbat settings, I had never made kiddush myself; I would get shy and defer if someone offered me the chance, worried I would stumble or forget the tune. But no one here would know the difference.

I sang the blessing perfectly.

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