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Stuck in a New York Virus Epicenter, I Wonder When, If, I'll See My Children in Israel Again

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New York Army and Air National Guard arrive to sanitize and disinfect the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue, center of a COVID-19 outbreak in New Rochelle, NY. March 23, 2020
New York Army and Air National Guard arrive to sanitize and disinfect the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue, center of a COVID-19 outbreak in New Rochelle, NY. March 23, 2020Credit: ANDREW KELLY/ REUTERS

In his timeless words of the 12th century, Yehuda HaLevi wrote, "My heart is in the East, and the rest of me is at the edge of the West." In these days of the coronavirus no words have more precisely described my feelings and yearning.

And I sit here in my house in New Rochelle, New York, now infamous for being the epicenter of the New York outbreak of this modern-day plague. 

My synagogue stands locked, with members of the national guard out front; the city declared a containment zone, with my computer and smart phone my link to the world. 

As I write these words, enclosed with my wife in quarantine, I should be on a plane taking me to Israel, where we had planned to join three of my sons and their families who live there and share the Passover holidays together with them in our home in Jerusalem. But my flights are cancelled and my plans undone.  

Through years of such travels back and forth, during times of celebration and joy as well as war and intifada, in warm weather and cold, when we were young and now that we are grey and long in the tooth, we took for granted that, "It’s not quite galut [diaspora] if you commute," as I often used to quip. Israel was our second home, and home is where the heart is.

My four sons, who grew up in this spirit, who spent summers, my sabbaticals and many years teaching in Israel being part of this bi-national existence, embraced that ideal – but ultimately went beyond my back and forth. Three have made their homes there and the fourth is on his way back. Three commute either electronically or in person to work in the U.S. and the fourth, from his home in Maryland, works to send college students to work in Israel, where he too will soon return.  

But now suddenly, we are each held in place by the invisible wall of coronavirus that sorts us all into compartments that provide no revolving doors or exits and the days of being bi-national now suddenly seem beyond reach, so that Yehuda HaLevi’s lament is now my own.

My wife and I still watch and read the Israeli news from here; we still communicate via visual-enabled technology with our children in Israel. My wife reads books to our grandchildren; we watch as they are tucked into bed, join them at dinner via a screen. We play chess with them online, share pictures and stories. But we cannot hug or be hugged by our grandchildren, nor will we be able to search for the hidden afikomen together.  

And given the grim statistics about those beyond a certain age who will be cut down by this disease, while we hope that a time will come when this is all a bad memory, there is no certainty that we all will be there when it ends.

A woman wearing a mask walks the Brooklyn Bridge in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on March 20, 2020 in New York CityCredit: AFP

This was driven home to me when last week my co-author and dear friend, Professor Menachem Friedman passed away, and I was not able to be there with him to say my farewell and share the tribute I would have given at his funeral, nor the comfort I would have offered his widow, Tamar, at the shiva. We are physically separated, and our spirits cannot always breach the divide.  

Inside we imagine a time when we shall wake from this nightmare and once again hold hands and dance in the circle that is so much the image of the Zionist dream. We await a day when we can see and touch the red kalaniyot (anemones) that peek up in the green fields, watered so abundantly by the ample rains of this past winter, and provide the proof that life is again renewing itself.  

But for now, I watch the forsythia, apple-blossoms and magnolias bloom in New Rochelle, while my children see the kalaniyot and both of us pray for the day that we can together feel part of a single family in the land that we love.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York 

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