When We Turned With­in: Reflec­tions on COVID-19

Rab­bi Men­achem Cred­i­tor and Sarah Tut­tle-Singer, eds.

  • Review
By – November 12, 2020

When We Turned With­in: Reflec­tions on COVID-19 is an anthol­o­gy of over 150 essays, poems, and orig­i­nal prayers by writ­ers, cler­gy, edu­ca­tors, and Jew­ish pro­fes­sion­als in response to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. Many of the entries con­nect to the Torah por­tions or Jew­ish hol­i­days cel­e­brat­ed dur­ing the ear­ly part of the pan­dem­ic. It is edit­ed by Rab­bi Men­achem Cred­i­tor, the Pearl and Ira Mey­er Schol­ar in Res­i­dence for UJA-Fed­er­a­tion of New York, and Sarah Tut­tle-Singer, New Media Edi­tor of the Times of Israel. The con­trib­u­tors are as diverse as our Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty today, but the entries share the hopes and fears many have felt dur­ing this chal­leng­ing time.

In her intro­duc­tion, Tut­tle-Singer poignant­ly shares that edit­ing this anthol­o­gy was both a pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al jour­ney. It brought her from a deep sense of iso­la­tion to the uplift­ing recog­ni­tion that she was not alone in her expe­ri­ence. These sto­ries brought the sun­light,” she writes. These sto­ries brought me back to the sur­face once again. Because I real­ized some­thing pow­er­ful while I was read­ing through each one: While each of us is a uni­verse unto our­selves, we are not alone.”

Chesed Shel Emes: A True Kind­ness, by Rab­bi Ben­jy Spiro, painful­ly recounts the author’s two a.m. call to pre­pare the deceased for a COVID-19 funer­al, wear­ing a Tyvek suit, gog­gles, gloves, a mask, and a face shield, and lament­ing the painful real­i­ty that there will like­ly be no sem­blance of a funer­al, no oppor­tu­ni­ty to hon­or this per­son, to share the expe­ri­ences that this per­son gave to every­one around him.”

Dahlia Lithwick’s essay Online Judaism is an Echo Cham­ber. Will We Ever See Those We Dis­agree with Again? forces us to rec­og­nize that bring­ing Jew­ish life online, while an imme­di­ate solu­tion to social iso­la­tion, risks iso­lat­ing us from ideas dif­fer­ent from our own. But as I move online,” she writes, I notice that I’m study­ing with peo­ple who think as I do; I’m wor­ship­ping with peo­ple who share my exact val­ues; my Zoom cal­en­dar is a mas­sive array of pick-your-own-end­ing expe­ri­ences that often end pre­cise­ly where I began.”

Rebec­ca Minkus-Lieberman’s poem Being Mar­ried to a Super­hero shares her frus­tra­tion and pain in sep­a­rat­ing from her hus­band, a doc­tor, when she needs her con­nec­tion to him the most:

Who are these experts on our shared iso­la­tion
Who pre­tend to know what will lead us to heal­ing and health
What are their qual­i­fi­ca­tions when they tell us
To turn away from the most ten­der balm we know
What do they know about these waves of absent love

The orig­i­nal prayers include a bless­ing for health­care work­ers, a med­i­ta­tion to be said while wash­ing one’s hands, and a set of new read­ings for immer­sion in a mikveh. This sec­tion, and the book as a whole, con­cludes with A Prayer While Stand­ing on an Amer­i­can Food Line, by Rab­bi Cred­i­tor. It reflects the thoughts of a per­son at a food pantry, both anx­ious and grate­ful that this line exists.

HaZ­an et haKol, Nour­ish­er of All,
may the fear we feel,
the anx­i­ety real­i­ty pro­vokes,
have its moment. And…

May we be patient with those ahead
and behind us in line.

Rab­bi Cred­i­tor sug­gests that through faith, own­ing our feel­ings, and kind­ness we will find our­selves on the oth­er side of this cri­sis. By incor­po­rat­ing words from the tra­di­tion­al Bless­ing After Meals (Birkat HaMa­zon), he con­nects our food inse­cu­ri­ty cri­sis to Judaism’s call for mind­ful gratitude.

When We Turned With­in chal­lenges read­ers to revis­it many of the com­plex, often painful moments of the past months. Its diverse voic­es con­nect us to a com­mon expe­ri­ence despite our iso­la­tion. It puts words to the feel­ings many of us have strug­gled with since March and reads as a state­ment of hope that our lives will be whole again soon.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions