Pandemic Israeli Style

Real news never happens on TV. For the cameras to roll and the anchors to anch, something sensational has to happen, and to produce the sensation, something must be sacrificed, either a clear view of reality or a human life, preferably both. And that’s what Covid-19 is all about in newsrooms around the world. It bleeds, so it leads.

But real news happens off camera. In Neveh Daniel, my little Mayberry of the Middle East, before the lockdown, 11 people were infected, total, out of a population of 2,345. First thing I noticed was that the men’s mikveh (ritual immersion pool where I ordinarily prepare myself to write the ornate Hebrew sacred scrolls on parchment with a hand-made quill pen) was shut down and all the water drained out. Next, a few weeks later, access to the makolet (grocery store) was limited to eight customers at a time, who had to wear masks and gloves and make an appointment. This right before Passover, which is a major shopping holiday. Then my friend and house cleaner, we’ll call him Ahmed, was told neither he nor any of the other Arab workers who regularly come here for employment, could enter the town. Right before Passover, when the entire house must be cleaned and my wife and teenage youngest son had to do it all, since I’m recovering from major surgery. As for “Ahmed,” Passover is a major money-making opportunity for him, and he’s now left in the lurch with a family to feed.

Real news is also comprised of many distinctions, the existence of which the TV world is unaware. “Orthodox” and “ultra-Orthodox” are about as helpful as the term “Arab,” “Muslim,” “Christian” or American. There are many denominations of “ultra-Orthodox” and “Orthodox” Jews, from Ashkenazi Mizrahi and Sephardic to the black-garbed anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, from proselytizing Chabadniks and Breslovers to hospitable but insular Satmars, from Haredim who throw dog turds at immodestly dressed women to Haredim who deplore and oppose such militant nastiness. But one common denominator characterizes every kind of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jew: They crave and insist on each others’ company, especially during troubled times. They talk it over at shul or in the street, invite unfortunates who’ve lost their employment over to enjoy the holidays with them, or gossip at the men’s or women’s mikveh. The various Chassidic sects’ adherents each have a supreme spiritual guide called a “Rebbe,” and whether after a business upset, a family quarrel, before undertaking a new enterprise, or during a pandemic, they go to their Rebbe for advice, a blessing, or just a comforting word. To Chassidim, telling them not to go to their Rebbe, instead to “shelter-in-place” and “self-quarantine” is not just advice to be disregarded as coming from the “tzioinishe apikursim,” (Zionist “heretics”), but also completely counterproductive. How to face a pandemic without hearing from the Rebbe.

Needless to say, not all Rebbes are alike. Some have called for compliance with the government strictures, others encouraging some form of defiance. Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss, age 95, and leader of the Edah Haharedit, defiantly directed schools and yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries) to remain open, while closing kindergartens. But on March 30, after Rabbi Weiss was diagnosed positive for Covid-19 with a high fever and low blood pressure, the Edah Haredit reversed itself and called for compliance with government regulation. 

But even if every Haredi household complied with every government guideline from the getgo, they would still have a high infection rate, due to their large families and cramped living quarters. And the most revered and loved members of Haredi extended families, the elders, are the most vulnerable to Covid-19. Even worse, the small children who are the most frequent carriers of viruses, are cooped up in the house and would flock to their grandparents or great grandparents if they would visit. My eldest son, a Bialer-Ostrover Chassid, is now homebound with his wife and five of his children. He works from home, but normally the older children are at school. When we speak to them via smart-phone ap, it sounds like a sports arena. And not every Haredi household permits Internet or smart phones. With mixed compliance, whether at the instructions of a Rebbe or from plain individualistic orneriness, Haredim make up a third of the infected in the Israeli population, of which they are only 12.5%. In Bnei Brak, a Haredi stronghold, 40% of the population is infected.

The sages of the Talmud say that three things can only be acquired through suffering: 1. The next world; 2. Mastery of the Torah; and 3. The Holy Land. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Holy Land was plagued with locusts, epidemics, pogroms and wars. From the Seljuks and Crusaders to the Mamluks to the Ottomans to the British to the modern State of Israel, whichever government was in charge was never over-concerned with liberty and civil rights. It is even less so now in the face of this pandemic. It will pass, as have all the other afflictions that have troubled this land. And as with anything that doesn’t kill a body, it will make it stronger.                                                                                                                      

Dovid Primack is a resident of Neve Daniel in the Gush Etzion region of Israel, and also a poet and journalist who makes his living as a “Sofer Stam” (Jewish calligrapher). He speaks Yiddish and Hebrew, and has tried for decades, thus far without success, to master Arabic. He can be reached at: