| In the Shadow of Corona |

Not Alone

“The birth was smooth, the babies are healthy. My mother wasn’t here, but she got me a neis”

You can live in the center of town, in a bustling high-rise building, and you can go an entire winter without seeing your neighbor.

There are the sounds — the occasional howl, cry, meow, shrill of laughter — and you wonder fleetingly what’s happening behind closed doors.

Who do you see? An old chap in the elevator, a personal instructor laden with equipment coming for someone on the fifth floor, and oh, there’s a poodle sharing the elevator with you.

Mostly, everyone is holed up in their own homes, in their busy, scrambling lives. Work, leave, return, leave again.

Oh, sure, there’s, Do you have an egg, a cup of oil, some sugar, please?

But mostly it’s, Hello, goodbye, haven’t seen you in so long, how old is he now?

There are the newlyweds. Floating in their shining pink bubbles. Running off to parents, doing their thing.

The rest of us, perhaps meeting briefly on Shabbos, when we stop to breathe.

And then last Shabbos, when the world started closing in on us, border by border; last Shabbos when we thought it wouldn’t be us, we’d stay safe; last Shabbos when there was still shul as normal and aufrufs and children racing around, we heard they had twins, the neighbors one floor down.

“Mazel tov.” I didn’t know her well. Didn’t stop to think how she’s coping with babies three and four. Surely she was with her family, she’d go to the mother-baby home. “So nice,” I said blithely to my husband.

Motzaei Shabbos the messages came pouring in. Trump had closed the border to the UK. The school I taught in was alternating days. There’s still so much for my classes to cover, was all I thought. I squeezed in lessons, put in extra time, the government exams were coming up.

School was closing, but our smaller classes could still go on. And go on they did.


Until Wednesday evening there was a press conference, and the minister of education dropped the bomb. No exams this summer.

A pile of papers, half-graded, sat on my table. What, for what?

One more day of school, and who wants to learn? Who needed their work back? How much was it about learning and how much about the grade?

There was no time for existential questions, I forced myself to grade them all, to pretend. I had to if I wanted the girls to.

The end of a crazy, uncertain week, and then it was Shabbos again.

Spring had come to town. I stood on my porch Shabbos morning. The first balmy day of the season, and so many were locked in. I watched as people spilled out onto the neighbor’s porch, trying to keep a distance.

A bris. The neighbors. Their double bris.

My husband hurried over first.

I hoped, prayed, that nothing but the joy was contagious.

And there was so much joy.

There were few people; a respected rav who hadn’t left his home in a week came out to be sandek. Friends. Mainly it was us neighbors.

The names were given, and the young woman smiled and told us who the boys are named for.

Her parents weren’t there, nor his.

His mother was going to come from abroad to help with the babies. They were going to have a huge celebration in shul, then a bris in a hall. Her mother was going to be at her side. She was going to convalesce at a mother-baby home after the bris.

The shul closed, the hall cancelled, the mother-baby home closed, the mother-in-law couldn’t fly, the mother was stuck behind the border.

And suddenly there’s a double bris, not in shul, not in a hall, not in her parent’s big home. In their little apartment.

It’s just them. This young couple with their two kids and two new babies. And us neighbors.

The sun spilling everywhere and the pure cries of newborns.

And the mother, 25, wreathed in smiles.

Yes, it’s all coming apart, paraphernalia, and children, and scanty help, but maybe it’s also coming together. They’re hosting, they made this happen on their own. They’re rising to the occasion; so should we.

So we stayed. Because I knew she wants to share, this young woman I don’t really know.

The story of her birth, for all people she couldn’t tell now. Exactly how and when things started falling apart, arrangements unravelling.

She told us that her family was stuck in Uman.

“Uman, of all places now?”

Yes, they’d made a wedding there just last week. Her brother married a girl from Israel. What better meeting point than Uman, for these devoted Breslovers?

“It’s the second wedding they’ve made there,” she added.

But in that primitive country, the borders were shut indiscriminately. Her mother realized she couldn’t be with her daughter at this crucial time, so she went each day to the tziyun of Reb Nachman. She prayed for a neis.

“I needed a neis. My mother wasn’t here. My family wasn’t here. I was on bed rest for almost two months before the babies came. I knew the only way I’d get through was with a neis. And I got it.” She said this with utter simplicity.

“The birth was smooth, the babies are healthy. My mother wasn’t here, but she got me a neis.”

She was shining. And if I could, I would reach over and hug her, this woman I hardly know.

“The bris for both of them was on time, there’s so much out of place, but so much is going well too.”

I stayed and listened. Took in her simchah, her positivity, her chizuk at this time.

We finally left, and I thought how she would never be here in her apartment on her own with two babies, but for coronavirus. How I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to talk to her, to get to know her.

The coming days brought greater uncertainty, harsher dictates. I didn’t know if we could be back soon. But I imagined late summer, two babies sprawled on the grass outside, kids frolicking about, as we chatted on a bench in the breeze.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 687)


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