Sunday, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus Update: March 15

From the Rabbi's Bunker

A line of cars formed outside our sanctuary this afternoon as people dropped off lots of bags of groceries for the Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County, which is struggling to keep up with enormous and increasing demand during the coronavirus crisisThank you to all who contributed to this snap food drive.  

Sunday, March 15

Shalom from the bunker.

The lovely springlike weather of the ides of March belies the disruption in our daily lives that has is now occurring. Is spring really beginning this week?  The daffodils outside the sanctuary window say yes.  But where is baseball?  Where is March Madness?  Where are the restaurants? Why is this March different from all other Marches?

I've long felt that Jews are great at dealing with disruption.  We've been doing it from time immemorial.  In fact, every horrific disruption was invariably followed by a time of great creativity and cultural flowering for the Jews.  The first temple's destruction in 586 BCE led to the final redaction of the the Torah during the Babylonian exile.  The second temple's destruction led to the flowering of the rabbinic era and the compilation of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  The expulsion from Spain in 1492 led to a growth of Kabbalah a half century later.  Following the great Cossack massacres of 1648modern Hasidism was born. In early Hasidic literature, the Ba'al Shem Tov's followers specifically draw a line from the ordeals of 1648 to their teacher's career, asserting that this charismatic leader "awakened the people Israel from their long coma and brought them renewed joy in the nearness of God."

So what has come from the greatest historical disruption of all time, the Holocaust?  For the answer to that, you'll have to read "Embracing Auschwitz," when it comes out, God willing, in May.

But of more immediate concern is what the novel coronavirus has wrought.  Andrew Silo-Carroll, editor of the Jewish Week, offered up these changes that are already happening.  He writes, "The unintended consequences of illness, social distancing and economic downturn all have potential to transform Jewish life in the long and short term.

Here's how he describes it:

 There's no silver lining when we are watching people suffer and many are living in fear.  But we are uniquely qualified to make lemonade out of any lemons we are served.  We've done it before.  

Snakes Near a Plane 

A congregant who has since seen the light was at first skeptical about the threat of the coronavirus.  He represents so many of us who took a while to understand the scope of the danger and why we need to become as socially distant as possible.  because of that initial embarrassment, I'm changing his name to Shmeryl and the doctor friend to Dr I.


Dear Josh,

Thank you for your thoughtful, helpful and inspiring letters. You are a good man and a wise leader. Today I tried to find some balance in all of this, and though I believe myself to be smart I began to feel blas√©, thinking perhaps The World was over-reacting. I'd like to share the exchange I had with a very smart friend who is a magnificent doctor in California.  I asked a simple question (albeit a bit wise-ass) and received a really intelligent response. 

The more we understand, the better. Through your words and Dr I's, I'm understanding a bit better and really hope to learn more and do good things.

May you and all those we care about be blessed with health and wisdom,

My letter to my doctor friend:
Dear Dr I, 

I know you are a smart doctor, so I gotta ask you... in addition to Coronavirus, shouldn't the world be really worried about snakebites? Look at the statistics:
About 5.4 million snake bites occur each year, resulting in 1.8 to 2.7 million cases of envenomings (poisoning from snake bites). There are between 81,410 and 137 880 deaths and around three times as many amputations and other permanent disabilities each year. Most of these occur in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
---------- Forwarded message ---------
Dr I
Date: Sat, Mar 14, 2020 at 9:06 PM
To: Shmeryl 

Dear Shmer, 
Your analogy doesn't quite hold up. First, the western world doesn't care too much about what happens in poor countries, otherwise we would have better treatments for malaria and all sorts of other killers. Good thing Bill and Melinda Gates care...something might happen.
Second, if snakes could go invisible and hide for 5-10 days on people at airports so that they could be transported around the world only to bite someone else just about anywhere, we would be much more afraid of snakes. Plus, every time the snakes bite five people they get to bite one extra person for free just to increase numbers.  
Third, if so many people were bit by snakes all at once we would run out of anti-venom the death rate would jump way higher. 
Fourth, the current snake has a death rate of about 15% in people over age 80, 8% in 70-79, 3.6% in 60-69, 1.3% in 50-59.  And because the snakes can go invisible for 5-10 days just about everyone on the planet will get exposed to a snake sometime soon unless everyone transporting a snake stops seeing other people.  Currently we don't have a good anti-venom, no one has immunity to snake poison, and we are probably 2 years away from a vaccine. So if no one moved around much for the next two years, it is possible not that many people will die.  But if everyone kisses each other hello on the cheek like Italians and French do, then there will be such a burden on the hospital system that not only will people bit by snakes die, but so will people who can't get access to care for their heart attack or stroke or anything else because the system is flooded.  
One of the hospitals in San Jose is so flooded with snake bites that they have stopped doing other surgeries.
We just barely begun screening people for snakes here in the US so we are about 10 days behind on knowing just how many people out there are carrying snakes. 
If we were as vigilant and rule-following as Singapore, this wouldn't be a big deal - they have been screening travelers since Jan 20 and use very rigorous quarantines.  Unfortunately, we seem to be following the path of Italy until proven otherwise.
At this point there is no reason to think snakes won't keep popping up around the world in clusters as unknowing carriers deliver them.   
This whole thing gives an unintended great argument for everyone becoming vegetarian...if it really came from a Chinese animal market. The pangolins and civets and bats might not go extinct!

The snake analogy may not be perfect, but it helps us to understand that we 'aint in the Garden of Eden anymore.  It's time to remove that fig leaf and look reality squarely in the eye. 

What to Watch: "The Plot Against America"

Tomorrow (Monday) night, HBO begins a mini-series broadcast of Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America."  I read the book when it first came out and found it chilling then.  It's even more chilling now.  What would have happened had the Nazi sympathizer, virulent anti-Semite and original America Firster Charles Lindbergh become president during World War Two?  

I wrote about this book back in 2004 when it came out, and then shared my thoughts again immediately after the 2016 election.  Here's an excerpt of my essay.  Take a look at it.  Then let me know how you respond to the film.


The fear of this novel is a fear of the night. It is Elie Wiesel's "Night" transposed onto our own country, where things like this can never take place, or so we thought. It is not giving away too much to let you know that no American Auschwitz is built, but things come precariously close. By the novel's climax, we have long since experienced an American Kristallnacht, the border to Canada is sealed, Jews are being relocated en masse, and the Axis powers have a very friendly ally in the White House.  And the American people are happily safe and economically sound, far from the carnage of a European war.
Lindbergh's rise to power is made plausible by the fear Americans had of entering the war back in 1940, fueled by the anti-Semitism that was commonplace in the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin and the diatribes of Henry Ford and the pronouncements of Lindbergh himself. In the middle of the night, Lindbergh literally swoops down on a deadlocked Republican Convention, which turns to him with adulation on the 21st ballot. The narrator recalls being awakened at 4 AM.
"'No!' was the word that awakened us, 'No!' being shouted in a man's loud voice from every house on the block. It can't be. No. Not for president of the United States.Within seconds, my brother and I were once more at the radio with the rest of the family, and nobody bothered telling us to go back to bed.... The neighbors pour into the street in their pyjamas and nightdresses, crying in outrage and disbelief, 'Hitler in America!'
In point of fact, the whole novel reads like a nightmare, uneven at times, with long, complex historical processes simplified to a few sentences, with some implausible leaps of logic, with the post-Holocaust refrain of "Never Again," mirrored in the narrator's constant refrain of disbelief, "Never Before."
Returning home after a particularly trying day, he says:
I didn't know if I had dreamed that an FBI agent had questioned me on Chancellor Avenue. It had to be a dream and yet couldn't be if everybody else said they'd been questioned too. Unless THAT was the dream. I felt woozy and thought I was going to faint. I'd never before seen anyone faint, other than in a movie, and I'd never before fainted myself. I'd never before looked at my house from a hiding place across the street and wished that it was someone else's. I'd never before had twenty dollars in my pocket. I'd never before known anyone who'd seen his father hanging in a closet. I'd never before grown up in a place like this. Never before: the great refrain of 1942.
There is no escape; there is no escaping this nightmare and there is no escaping his Jewishness. Some Jews try to escape the latter, including one of the protagonists, a rabbi, who turns out to be Lindbergh's lackey. But for the most part, for these Jews, their Jewishness breathes through them. They would neither desire to nor be able even to conceive of the option of shedding that skin. Now, in 2004, that choice to shed is more readily available.
When you read this novel, where Lindbergh rises to power with the campaign cry of "Don't let us get swept into a war on behalf of the Jews," you can't help but hear echoes of accusations made against Israel and Ariel Sharon regarding the Iraq war: 
It's the Jews war! Our boys are dying for Israel!  That's what makes it so plausible. We've heard these claims even in our own day, although more from the left than from the right.
What we hear from the right is also echoed in the book, in America's yen for mindless hero worship and its drive to homogenize and disregard civil rights and the pain of minorities. An American Moslem could read this book and understand the Jewish condition. At one point, Roth's father comes back to Newark from an outing into red state America and states, "We knew things were bad, but not like this. You had to be there to see what it looked like. They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare."
So how would we respond if we woke up one day and Pat Buchanan had been elected president? A few more butterfly ballots and we might have elected him! Post 9/11, is America more susceptible to the type of charismatic populism that blind us to the evil lurking behind it? Or are we now more attuned to our place in defending the entire world from such evil? Neither Roth nor Jacob give us those answers. It is noteworthy, though, that this novel's America doesn't allow itself to be completely consumed by this plot against it, in part because the roots of anti-Semitism and intolerance simply don't run as deep here.
But the fear does. For the Jew, the fear does. Even for Philip Roth, the one who has made a career out of mocking it, the fear does. Most of us can never really know the kind of terror that would cause one to say, "Never before." Only a survivor of the Holocaust can really understand how one's lifelong home can turn into a prison overnight. But all of us know that perpetual fear...the fear that began when Jacob left his home behind, the fear that has not left us since.
One wonders if it ever will.
Stay well -

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman 

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