I dress for Whole Foods like someone dressing for war, or like someone with an acute fear of dying. Maybe I’m preparing for both: for the worst. Rewind to a few months ago: I gave birth to my third child; my first boy. After two days in the hospital with the baby—and two weeks at home with Adrian, my two girls and the baby—I went back to an adjunct teaching position at Brooklyn College.
So soon after delivery, meeting my spring semester students took a lot of adjusting. I wanted to be home with my newest addition to the family, but I needed to work. On the upside, I had great classes with motivated students who were eager to learn, and even more eager to live.
For the first few weeks of the term, my students opened their minds to my lessons on Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, and what makes New York the greatest and worst city in the world. This class was a research and composition class where I ask my students to pick something, anything, about Brooklyn to research. Before they choose their individual topics we review difficult subjects like gentrification, how Robert Moses displaced the poor, landmarks, politics and, of course, Coney Island.
My focus never strays from Brooklyn, as I remind my students that Brooklyn is the epicenter of the universe, a place so hyped up that part of the borough lives only in our memories, as if certain things never really existed, and we just dreamed them up. “What is authenticity?” I ask them, “What is the ‘real’ Brooklyn?”
This particular class was going exceedingly well until the whole world decided to freak out and get very, very sick. A month ago, the same week as the Jewish holiday, Purim, I pulled my 4-year-old daughter out of her UPK program after hearing of a surge of coronavirus cases in New York. That same week Brooklyn College began remote session learning. My students, all of them, were devastated. I was confused. My children were terrified, especially Helen, my 4-year-old, the oldest of my three kids.
Helen loves school and within a week—even though I had pulled her out early—her school, like so many others, was closed and her teachers were setting up remote learning via ZOOM. Our family had also moved all of our food and clothes into my mother’s house to ride out the virus. Helen showed her apprehension to all the change through temper tantrums and bed-wetting, something she hasn’t done since she was potty trained. Alma threw things, and Mathias, the newborn, slept through most of the drama.
My mother, a 75-year-old woman in great health, who usually goes to the theater twice a week and still works almost full-time after retirement, said that the isolation the city was asking seniors to abide by would kill her before the virus would. My mother has asthma and respiratory problems, and I forbade her to go out. This authoritarian attitude from a daughter to her mother would seem normal for the most part during a pandemic, but with my mother it was like trying to stop a high-speed Mack truck going 100 miles per hour on a highway, with a pigeon feather.
But I digress; I was discussing war…and dying…and Brooklyn.
Life in New York has always been about survival. I’m a New Yorker. I’m not someone who moved here as a sweet young thing. I was born here. I was born in Manhattan Hospital and took a cab back to Brooklyn on my first days on this earth. My family is from here, too. My father grew up watching baseball games from the roof of his building. My father’s first cousin, Arnold, still has the ticket from the last game the Brooklyn Dodgers ever played. My grandmother, who lived just around the bend when I was a child, used to say, “There are things in this world I am happy I won’t be alive to see.” Now I know exactly what she meant.
Yet, as New Yorkers, we survive. As mothers we survive. As human beings we survive.
So there I was at Whole Foods, surviving. I was doing my weekly shop, and my Passover shop, and my Easter shop. Basically, I was doing my interfaith shop in a city where, it so often seems, people forget about faith. My family is feeling the depth of this pandemic, my mother is getting depressed, my students are calling me crying, and my extended family thinks this city is on fire and we’re burning down with it.
They’re from New Jersey, so of course they think that. But with all of the concern, the anxiety, and the news creating even more anxiety, something miraculous begins to happen in New York, and especially in Brooklyn.
Before my weekly mask-wearing, glove-wearing shop, I start to see faith everywhere. Of course, to be fair, I am at my mother’s house, which is located in the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. But, my mother’s block is not the only place I see it. When I run back to my apartment to grab the rest of my spices for Passover, my neighbors from down the hall text me to see if we are OK. Do we need anything? They will pray to Jesus for us. Upon leaving my apartment to head back to my mother’s house, the Haitian man who lives in the building next to ours says Hello, do I need anything, and he will say a prayer to Jesus for me.
Then, a friend from work says she’s doing church work via ZOOM, and do I need anything, and she will say a prayer for us. The woman at the bagel store asks me how my mother is, does she need anything, and why doesn’t she want tuna salad today?
A week goes by and my mother’s Orthodox Jewish neighbor texts me, do we need anything? She leaves a fresh baked challah on the doorstep and tells me that she prayed to Hashem (God) for us while she kneaded and baked the dough. Strangers are reaching out, and many of them are offering the only thing they have: God.
At 7 in the morning I wake to a sound I only hear on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—but it’s not Rosh Hashanah. In fact, it’s nearing Passover. I hear a cantor singing in Hebrew. He sounds so close it’s as if I’m inside my own synagogue on the Jewish New Year. I run to the back window and see 10 men in the backyard behind my mother’s yard praying. That same night I see them again. As the sun begins to set they are praying, singing, crying, smiling. Most of them stand six feet apart, unless they are immediate family, then they stand next to each other. Since people started to self-quarantine synagogues have closed, as have churches. But people are praying, and some are connecting spiritually for the very first time.
New York is the epicenter of this pandemic right now, just as Brooklyn is the epicenter of the universe. But, could the ‘real’ Brooklyn I ask my students to describe be what I am witnessing in my mother’s own backyard? Is this the Brooklyn we imagine? Is it the world we imagine? Is it what we needed to have faith again?
Maybe. Who knows?
I am dressed for war, or like someone with an acute fear of dying. But death isn’t what terrifies me. More daunting is the idea that I will miss all of this beauty, this deep exchange of faith, this discovery that who we are on the inside is so similar to all of our neighbors and friends, no matter where they come from. I am dressed for war, but it’s only a costume.
The real me does what these strangers have done in the past few weeks in New York, what we all do, what every faith does. We ask: “Do you need anything?” “How can I help you?” “I will say a prayer” and, “Why doesn’t your mother want tuna salad today?” After all, it is Brooklyn. Food always comes first.