Kenneth Harrow, USAApril 7, 2020
A good friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook of her excessive fears of the virus, convinced should it invade her home it will kill her and all her children, her husband...and probably infect everyone else she loves with whom she is in contact. (I added this last bit, but her fears are contagious).
She spoke of us Jews needing to know the news ahead of time, that our survival has depended on our accessing information even while, now, we are overdosing and obsessing on the news. Right now I will go check on the latest numbers...okay sorry, I’m back. They aren’t good. When will the curve break for us, for France, for Italy. Hard to keep a clear focus when those thoughts intrude. My grandmother said her father was a sport, and played cards with the Russians, so when the Cossacks came, we were forewarned. Now, my friend says, it is in our genes.
This coming week Passover begins. Pesach, we call it, and in my family the one time during the year that the whole family got together at Uncle Lou’s house (he was the grouchy religious uncle who lived in queens) was for passover. My grandparents had 6 kids, and all but one wound up living in New York. We were 11 cousins. Lots of aunts and uncles at the seder tables that extended from the dining room of Aunt Alizabeth’s carefully appointed house to the living room with the piano, where I had my earliest lessons. Why is this night different from all other nights? Ma nishta naw, haleila ha zeh.
The smartest child knew the answer. It had to do with an angel of god marking our doorposts with the blood of a lamb, so that the angel of death would pass over our doors when looking for the firstborn children to be killed. We knew Anne Frank and her family tried to stay indoors all the time, but the Nazis finally came and found them, and she and her family were shipped off to Auschwitz where they died. Ma nishtanaw. Stay inside, don’t let anyone know you are there; keep quiet, no one needs to know we are Jews. Keep very quiet, maybe we’ll survive these bad times. Ha Leila ha zeh, this night, this one night when we eat bitter herbs to remember, when we do not recline so we can get up quickly to get away if we need to. They will die, but we might escape.
Once a day, Liz and I get out, to escape the confinement. We walk around the block, through the adjacent university housing complex, with its playgrounds and basketball hoops. The governor’s executive order is to close them; but kids and parents are out. I call the authorities to protest. Liz and I are old enough to be in the endangered group. They are indifferent to the risks they are augmenting for us. We argue; are they really endangering us more. Ha zeh. This night.
We go home, make dinner. Clean up. Rest a little, read a little, I check the evening charts. Today the number rises to over a million. A stable percentage of those will die. Depending on where you are, if there will be respirators or not, maybe 2-4%. Worse in Italy with the old folks. Liz jokes I am pushing 80. Better to be pushing 5, like our granddaughter. We will be zooming for Passover this year, the whole family seeing each other, across the gap from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Cambridge to Chicago, and finally to us in East Lansing. We will ask the kids the same funny questions, try to get them to dance, to laugh. We have 2 big and 4 little grandkids, from 1 to 5. Each of the four is very different. Who will answer the four questions tonight, who will be the smart child, who the dumb one, who will live this coming year, who will not. We will drink a cup of wine, another cup. And will say l’chay’m. To life. I wish you all a long and healthy and happy life, my children, my friends, my colleagues.
Kenneth Harrow is Professor Emeritus of English at Michigan State University. Harrow’s extensive scholarship focuses on African cinema and literature, diaspora and postcolonial studies. He has written four books, published several dozen articles, and edited numerous collections. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan with his wife, Liz.