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Pandemic, Jewish Learning and Us

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Toilet roll and face mask

There is liberation to be gained through reading and writing. One can feel a kind of freedom through the process of placing words and finding order, by the idea that there could be necessity of a function in narrative. Reading and interpretation form much of our Jewish experience, and I wonder how might lived and inherited narratives be used within our private and public lives to develop strategies for living as British citizens and British Jews. 

Almost without warning life as we knew it stopped, only to reveal the tireless rushing that had occupied us. Introduced were new questions to consider in this slower, almost motionless existence. For what does one truly know about the future? Perhaps, as Jewish people who spend time taking the stories of our ancestors and relating them to our living experience, we are already aware of this as a reality, in tune with a feeling that was not really so abstract pre-pandemic. It was always there, this dislocation, manifested and sometimes realised. It was present, simmering under the surface, to begin with. 

When talking about the potential for writing during –or through –this moment in time you spoke of a sense of mourning. We talked about an adjustment to a new way of living, as one might feel when losing a loved one. I have ‘taken to my bed’ as one might when entering a time of ‘wintering’, or grief. Our bed has taken on a new significance. It is not only where we sleep, but also where I work, where I have meetings, ‘attend’ talks. It is where my five-year-old daughter escapes when she needs a break from the rest of us, despite her having her own bed. And it is where my youngest daughter sleeps during the day while I read. I have lost the table and chair in the living room that once constituted my workplace. It is now a ‘living room’ in the actual sense. 

Not being with extended family at Passover is difficult. A festival that I refer to as ‘our Christmas’ for the emphasis on the particular foods, on whole family involvement, and the expectation to identify and appreciate the lives of others in the world. For this is what British Jewish culture looks like: eating, reading, discussing, and singing. Together. But as readers, as part of a diaspora, what might Jewish culture in Britain look like now? 

I have barely thought of the period of the Omer in response to my Jewish learning until now. A harvest offering brought to the temple during the second day of Passover and the command that from that day there would be a seven-week period of ‘semi –mourning.’ I receive an email regarding Lag B’Omer and look it up. A day of respite, when one can resume some celebration, get married, and cut one’s hair. 

The Talmud tells us that during this season a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students, punishment for a lack of respect shown among them. Placing this within historical context, Rabbi Akiva was an ardent supporter of Simeon bar Koseva, who in 132 C.E. led a revolt against Roman rule in Judea, in which many of Akiva’s students were killed. 

The day also marks the death of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. Rabbi Simeon continued to defy the Roman rulers, leading him to flee and remain in solitary hiding for 12 years in a cave with his son. When Simeon emerged, he denigrated all practical occupations insisting that people engage only in the study of Torah. As punishment God confined him back to the cave for another year, accused of destroying the world with his rigid asceticism. 

Confined with loved ones, the narratives of our ancestors take on new meaning. How might we relate to and support our smaller and larger community, what might community look like during and post-pandemic? What does it mean to work or not work, to be present in one’s own family life as much as the lives of others? 

Time is spent developing techniques to live with certain fear and worry, while newspaper articles tell us, ‘Don’t read too many news reports’, ‘live in the now, the “new normal”.’ One approach is to ease quietly into a new way of living, to go with the flow, conforming through a sense that there is a dislocation at play. 

I watch as my children’s hair grows longer. The youngest daughter still has fuzzy, short hair that I cannot bring myself to trim. Jewish law decrees that a child’s hair cannot be cut until they are 3 years old. A law believed to act as extension to that which forbids picking the fruits of a newly planted tree during its first three years. I read about the ritual of bringing 3-year-old boys to Meron on the day of Lag B’omer to have their hair cut for the first time. 

My grandfather, a hairdresser is trimming my five-year-old brother’s hair, refusing to overly cut the hair that grows beside his ears, much to my brother’s annoyance. My grandfather was not overtly orthodox, but there remained a sense of sacredness in certain rituals that have been passed down. I couldn’t bring myself to cut my eldest daughter’s hair when she was very little, despite comments that perhaps I should. I brush her hair today in front of the mirror in the adult bedroom. The same room where we sleep, work, eat, hide, cry, laugh together. We admire how shiny and long the strands have become after weeks at home. 

My daughter gets dressed to go out for a walk and a thread becomes loose on her trouser leg. ‘There you go’, says her father, carefully pulling the thread off. I wince at my own superstition for he has cut from the fabric without first removing the garment. ‘Never cut on the body’ my father would say, for it is a sign of mourning. The words of my grandmother sound in my head ‘Tut tut tut.’ 

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Rebecca Harris is an independent researcher, curator, and educator. Thinking about art practice, literature and translation through Jewish cultural experience, she has worked with artists, writers, researchers, and cultural historians and theorists.
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