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I lost my dad to COVID. Opening up to a stranger helped me heal — and appreciate my Jewish community even more.

To Denise, I was an open book.

For almost a year, through the endless blur that followed the first COVID shutdown, I shared with her the intimate details of my life. No, she wasn’t my psychologist, rabbi or spouse. She’s a sociologist running an oral history project.

In April 2020, my dad died from COVID. To process the mind-bending unreality of observing mourning rituals during an era of intense social distancing, I wrote about the experience for the Forward. It felt good, but I wanted my story to help others, not just now but also in the future.

That’s when I heard about a new oral history project at Columbia University: the NYC COVID-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive.

I reached out to its co-director, Dr. Denise Milstein, who heads Columbia’s masters Program in Sociology. I learned that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, sociologists and oral historians had come together at the university to capture the voices of New Yorkers processing the ways in which that tragedy changed their lives.

Inspired by those efforts, and with New York City the early epicenter of the pandemic, the team sought funds from the National Science Foundation to, in their words, “illuminate and document the social structure of the pandemic.”

Milstein surprised me with an invitation to not just share my initial article about my grief with the project, but also to contribute much more, through a daily diary and oral history interviews. For the next year, I became one of 190 people to contribute to the archive, helping the project track how the pandemic affected everyday New Yorkers.

It all began with a lengthy Zoom-based interview with Milstein. Then, each day, I wrote by hand in a diary. Every month or so, I typed those entries up and submitted them, one at a time, to the archive through a web-based form.

As the calendar date approached for my second video interview with Milstein, nearly a year after we first met over email, I was struck by a realization. I had no idea who the 189 other participants in the project were.

What were their stories? While I was busy writing about my dad, or taking a hike, or losing my job, what themes did they focus on?

Someday, perhaps in 2022, the archives will open and all will be revealed. But back then, I was aware, only Milstein knew us all.

Milstein held the archive of all of our pandemic-era lives. She, and the team of two dozen interviewers with whom she worked, was our shared confessor. I realized that, with her ability to view my life in the context of the lives of my 189 unknown peers, she could offer me what few had at that moment — distance and perspective.

So, at the end of the interview, the recording turned off, I turned the tables and asked Milstein a question. I told her I wasn’t sure I should even make the request, that I might not want to hear her response and that she shouldn’t feel obligated to respond.

“So,” I asked, in regards to my family, when compared against all the others whose stories were included in the archive, “how are we doing?”

Photo of a family

Barry Joseph and family. Courtesy of Barry Joseph

I knew Milstein had been reading in great detail about my struggles with pandemic-driven decisions. How much leeway should I give my kids when it comes to screen time? How could I use these same screens to maintain meaningful connections with my community?

She said, frankly, she thought we were doing well, which made me both proud and embarrassed.

Proud, because her words validated some of the decisions we had been making as parents, as a family, during unprecedented times.

Embarrassed, because I recognized that I shared the credit with the privileges that came from my race and class, knowing that many lacked access to the resources my family deployed in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

I asked Milstein what themes she saw in common amongst the project participants who she considered to be doing well. She shared two thoughts:

First, she highlighted the facility with which we were able to use technology, and support our children in doing the same.

I have worked with computers since I was 12 years old, nothing unusual for today’s teens, but an anomaly when I got started in the early 1980s. I always worked to help my children to develop digital literacy, not just technical proficiency but also, ideally, the ability to develop and practice good ethics and habits around digital engagement. We were no different from others families who struggled with the ways in which the shut-down expanded the power of digital devices to distract and disconnect. But apparently, while Milstein saw other families having a harder time, the dialogue we had opened with our children, and the digital independence we had cultivated in them, was keeping our family sane.

Second, Milstein told me that those connected to community, any community — of faith, of political engagement, of volunteers — were faring better. She saw that my family’s connections to our synagogue contributed to our resiliency.

When my dad died, we used Zoom to have more people attend his funeral then would ever have been able to join in person. We had an army of friends run a remote shiva for my family that brought more comfort than I could have imagined possible.

Running activities for the Zoom-based Hanukkah celebration for my children’s Hebrew school surprised me: it was extraordinary how much fun we could have while still separated from one another. And regular Shabbat services, in which we saw fellow Zoom-windowed congregants trapped like us in their own homes, kept us connected to our community.

A few months after that conversation with Milstein, in spring of 2021, the miracle at long last arrived: I received the COVID-19 vaccine. I was still waiting for the archives of the Columbia project to open; I was eager to meet my fellow contributors and have others explore my files as well. But I decided to edit my own contributions into a book — “Friday is Tomorrow, or The Dayenu Year” — about one man learning to maintain traditions in a time of uncertainty while reaching for his dreams. I hoped the ups and downs of this New Yorker could offer more than just an opportunity to read one person’s struggle with the world, wrought by the recent pandemic.

I hoped it would be viewed as an invitation for the reader, as Milstein once offered me, to take the time and space needed to consider and better understand their own story. And I hope, as you reach the end of my story, you’ll consider finding someone to listen to your own. Perhaps right now. I mean, it’s been two years. Isn’t it time?

Barry Joseph is a long-time contributor to the [Forward]) This piece is adapted from his new book, “Friday is Tomorrow, or The Dayenu Year,” a true story of learning to grieve and thrive during the first year of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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