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Monday, October 26, 2020

High Holy Days or High Fever?

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Less than a week ago, for the first time in my life, I blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. I have a short, black shofar that’s relatively easy to blow. I bought it on Sept. 17, the day before the holiday began, at a small Chabad shop not far from where I live.

Because I have some experience playing trumpet, clarinet, flute and other brass and wind instruments, I figured that the challenge would be manageable. Indeed, it was. On Sept. 20, we climbed onto the roof, recited the blessings, and let the whole neighborhood know that a new year was upon us. 

In a year like no other, it was a Rosh Hashanah like no other. On the eve of the holiday, Israel was placed on lockdown, at least officially. Having failed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the government imposed restrictions on movement, congregation and activity. Some of these rules were meant to make the synagogues less dangerous to our collective health. It was ordered that only small groups could pray together, preferably outside, or in “capsules” separated by partitions. 

I decided not to trust the rules, the government or the synagogue. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And in Israel’s case, the road to confusion and insubordination is paved with the same bricks. I knew from experience that in many synagogues the rules aren’t taken seriously. And when they are, they aren’t strictly practiced. And when they are, they are insufficient. People get infected at the synagogue. So the choice was simple: Visit a synagogue at your own peril or avoid it and set up your own holiday show. 

Such dilemmas are becoming everyday life in Israel. Workplaces are open (except for those, like stores or restaurants, that must engage with the public), but schools are closed. Some people must find a way to go to work without having any arrangements for the kids — unless they leave the kids with a relative who’s not sheltering with them. But that violates the edicts. Or take them to work. Also a violation. Or send them to a friend’s house. Also a violation. So parents end up breaking the rules by skipping work or by having contact with a relative who’s not sheltering with them. Some have lost their jobs. 

 In a year like no other, it was a Rosh Hashanah like no other. 

Had Israelis been certain that the lockdown would stem the spread of the virus, they might be somewhat understanding, somewhat cooperative. But government officials continue to say it’s not enough. They say the policy issued by the government won’t work. What this means is that Israelis are going to pay a heavy price — claustrophobia, economic hardship, job loss, loneliness — without any benefits. When the High Holy Days are over, the government is going to tell Israelis that they need to continue the lockdown, or implement stricter rules, or whatever. In the meantime, hospitals are becoming crowded and the death toll rises daily. 

Israel is spiraling and there’s no pilot. Or maybe our problem is too many pilots are pulling us in different directions. Or maybe it’s Israelis — the passengers — who make it impossible for the pilot to take back control. 

That’s probably it. The pilot lost control and, with it, the passengers’ trust. When Rosh Hashanah ended, thousands protested shoulder-to-shoulder in Jerusalem. Thousands more drove their cars from city to city and lied to officers who questioned them at roadblocks about where they were going or where they’d been. Thousands more said goodbye to their families, having spent the holiday together, against the rules. 

In short, when the pilot is finally trying to control the plane, Israelis won’t let him. The pilot says, “Lockdown” — and we say, “Been there, done that”; “won’t work”; “can’t stand it”; “don’t believe you”; “what about prayers”; “what about protest”; “what about shopping”; “what about schools”? The pilot says, “Trust me.” We burst into bitter laughter. The pilot says, “There’s a pandemic.” We say, “Where? We can’t see anything because of our masks.” The pilot asks, “Are you finally wearing masks?” We laugh again. 

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