CORONICLES: Stuck in Israel, how I enjoyed Passover and some love for the season

The foremost tools in Israel's arsenal against the disease have been strong law enforcement, proactive decision making and technology.

 |  12-minute read |   20-04-2020
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It is April 20 and five days have passed since the last day of the Jewish festival called Pesach, also known as the Passover. Confined to my room in Jerusalem, I have been heartened by the Haggadah, the story of how the Israelites were guided by God to escape slavery in Egypt. For the seven evenings of the festival, I have heard families nearby singing the story with exuberance; exuberance which spoke of freedom, fortitude and perseverance. There is joy and oneness in the rituals; I may not understand the language so well, but emotions know no language and pleasure cannot be contained by walls.

I am a mathematician at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I finished my work here in early February and decided to take a three-month break before starting my job at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru. This break was meant to be a mash-up of visiting friends, collaborators, family and finally some well-deserved isolation in the Himalayas. But it was not meant to be.

Travelling up to the corona pandemic

I reached Mexico on February 16. Sneezing violently and with the coronavirus looming, I told my friends that I will not see them till I stopped sneezing. After a look at the common symptoms and some consultations with a doctor, it was decided that I was fine. I may have escaped the virus but I could not escape the onslaught of my friends; they created a group called “Coronishant” in my honour; the rest is censored.

photograph-from-mexi_042020055259.jpgMayan Archaelogical site in Edzna, Mexico. (Photo: Nishant Chandgotia)

My sister, unaware of the Mexican drama, posted on the family WhatsApp group that I should stop travelling (because Covid-19 had just begun its spread) and head to India immediately. As a responsible younger brother, I ignored my sister’s orders and went to Basel instead. By the time, I reached Basel (February 28), a few more cases cropped up and the city had decided to call off the carnival that I had been travelling for. Masks, which were meant for the festival, took over the decoration of the shops and tourists thronged the streets aplenty. I thought aloud about my sister’s advice but my friends squashed it. When else would I get to see the beautiful lake Zurich, the Alhambra in Spain and Kanchenjuga in the Himalayas? Whether or not I was sick at that point, I now realise that I did show a classical symptom of Covid-19: the urge to see the world.

photograph-from-base_042020055416.jpgFlowers and oranges meant for the carnival were being distributed for free. (Photo: Nishant Chandgotia)

photograph-from-frib_042020055452.jpgBeautiful town of Fribourg, Switzerland. (Photo: Nishant Chandgotia)

I was supposed to go to Zurich to give a research talk when the first Covid-19 case turned up there. But I was too busy planning my hikes to pay any attention to it, and took the train to the city the next morning. An hour from my destination, I got an email from my host suggesting that I do not come. Apparently, quite a few cases had cropped up in the interim. In a few seconds, I came to realise that this was a serious matter and it is perhaps better to head back to India as fast as possible. But my guitar and my flutes still lay in Jerusalem and I had to hug my friends goodbye. I took the next available plane to Israel.

The flight had a lot of people with masks on. It was funny though that they kept on taking them off to talk, laugh, eat and drink. I concluded that things weren’t very serious yet and possibly I had misjudged the situation. I reached Israel in the afternoon of March 4 with nowhere to stay and no plan whatsoever. While I was brooding upon who could be my host, a friend called to tell me that Israel had ordered a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals. The same friend had helped arrange some finances earlier, understanding my cash-strapped situation.

In any case, this meant that I was not going to India any time soon and perhaps couldn’t get hosted by anybody. I got in touch with my old landlord who let me in into my previous apartment. Sadly, I had sold off everything except a sofa, which had mysteriously refused to find a buyer. The flat didn’t have a fridge, washing machine or a stove. I called my neighbours who somehow arranged for a table, chair, some food, flowers, a stove and some utensils in a matter of an hour. When I reached my old apartment, I saw the flowers smiling at me. It felt like home, I blessed my stars and fell asleep under my sleeping bag.

photograph-from-my-a_042020055554.jpgArabic sweet meat called Knaffe brought by my friends and the flowers. (Photo: Nishant Chandgotia)

My time in quarantine

The next morning, I was woken up to frantic calls from my family trying to make me take the next flight to India. Much to their displeasure, I decided against it; after all, the quarantine was meant for a reason. That night I saw sadness and worry in my mother’s eyes and decided to keep my spirits up through the quarantine. But how could I show my family that I was happy? I decided to produce a series of silly videos on YouTube:

Despite my lack of talent and the ensuing phone avalanche from relatives and friends, I think that I succeeded in not just pretending to, but also gaining some real happiness and purpose.

Friends and my neighbours dropped books, grocery, food and many treats at my doorstep regularly. My mentors from the university called me every now and then to ensure my sanity and health. The international office was very proactive in organising various online events to keep the students involved and busy. People from the Indian Embassy kept in touch, offering all the assistance that they could. Later, they also pitched in to distribute masks and gloves among Indian students.

In no time, the 14 days were over and I was supposed to fly back very soon. As I was dreaming about the Himalayas, it was suddenly announced that my flight was going to be the last flight to India for a while. In the meantime, I developed some symptoms and was tested for Covid-19. Again, the Indian Embassy pitched in and helped me change my flight.

As time went by, I saw India and Israel both enforce stricter lockdowns. The situation in Italy and Spain made it clear to me that it was justified. My travel plans felt like a joke but I decided to continue my training for the Himalayas. While I needed three fat cushions to do crunches in the beginning of my quarantine, I could now do them without any support. I also started following HIIT routines. I experimented a lot with food, some willingly and some unwillingly: using tortillas in place of rotis, olive oil instead of ghee, sambhar masala in my oats and tahini - a delicious Israeli condiment made from sesame seeds - in everything.

It was difficult to concentrate on work. Although I did not have anyone to disturb me and no real responsibilities, I kept procrastinating. A lot of mathematics went online with conferences, collaborations and talks embracing Zoom as a medium. Universities all over Israel have taken to online classes and I gave my first research talk a couple of days ago. While this technology is great in these circumstances, many fear that it kills interactions and might become a norm in the future. Other than work, I read quite a lot during this time: My first book on behavioural economics, a romance novel, The Pigeon and the Boy by Meir Shalev, after a long time, and a Vikram Seth tome, A Suitable Boy. Spending time was never an issue. I started chiseling on ideas for short stories, spoke with people all over the world, started on some Kannada, produced more stupid YouTube videos and made plans for the time after the crisis.

In between, my mentors and the department at Hebrew University extricated me from various Kafkaesque situations that I fell in; their kindness and concern has been quite humbling. Eventually, it turned out that my Covid-19 results were lost but I was let go a few days after my symptoms subsided. And finally one day I walked out in the sun; I cannot describe how very magical it was.

Israel’s response

Israel has been handling the pandemic rather well. In the beginning of my quarantine, I had heard that a lot of people took the suggestions lightly and partied on the beach. Around Purim (this was March 10), people took to the streets and danced, drank in joy and revelry.

photograph-from-puri_042020055731.jpgPurim celebration in Mahane Yehuda on 10th of March. (Photo: Betsalel Bavel/On arrangement by author‎)

photograph-from-maha_042020055825.jpgThe same spot a few days later. (Credit: Tour Guide Dovid Solomon/On arrangement by author‎)

This led to stronger measures. People were not allowed to go out except for groceries, exercise or other essential things. When this did not help, people were disallowed from going beyond 100 metres of their houses other than for groceries and medicines. Many people continued to flout the rules, ranging from the ultra-hip to the ultra-orthodox. Eventually, specific neighbourhoods were put under stricter quarantine where people weren’t allowed to leave other than for urgent needs. This was especially enforced with the coming of the Pesach holidays (April 8-15).

In Israel, holidays are celebrated as in India: with a lot of passion and joy. Families get together, songs are sung and extravagant dinners are prepared. But Pesach is not just another celebration. The Old Testament says that back in the ages when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, god plagued the country 10 times to force the pharaoh to set them free. Pesach commemorates this passage to freedom. I can already picture the joy of my freedom when this pandemic will pass.

Perhaps, the foremost tools in Israel's arsenal against the disease have been strong law enforcement, proactive decision-making and technology. While the lockdown measures already give a strong evidence for the former two, the participation of various labs all over the country in testing, progress in production of vaccines, better testing procedures, the various means used for tracking the spread of the disease are indicative of the latter. It is April 20, as I write this and Israel is slowly going to lift its measures. I hear that my friends will go back to their labs, small roadside shops might open and life will slowly start stuttering back to normal.

There are areas though which fall on the edge of the cities, maybe far away from everything. A journalist, Tamar Beeri, tells me that while food supplies have been rather low in her area, Pisgat Ze’ev, the very border of Jerusalem, families have come together to deliver food, prepare meals and share happiness with those who need them.

What about the old city?

One may think that the situation would be slightly different in the old city of Jerusalem though. Representing the confluence of three major religions and steeped in history and culture, the old city holds a very special place in my heart. Everyone here has a story to tell; one must have the patience to listen. However its high population density makes it an easy target for the pandemic. Yet, when I spoke to people there, they painted a very different picture.

One such story teller is Mr Ansari from the Indian Hospice of the old city. He tells me that the situation in and around the hospice is quite stable. While people viewed the pandemic and the measures with scepticism initially, they have come around to understand the severity of the situation and have been following the regulations. His son is supposed to join a university as a student in August and he is worried about the uncertainty which surrounds all travel and studies. Of course, the drying up of the usual string of visitors to this magnificent place has only added to his worries. He quips though that it is only a matter of time that it will jump back again and ends the conversation with the ring of optimism.

From the other end of the old city, a tour guide, David Solomon, tells me how local community services are collaborating with government agencies to help send food and necessities to the old and needy. While one is heartened by balcony serenades in Italy and Spain, David Sterne, also a resident of the old city, shared how people came to their balconies and rooftops for the communal prayers. It is recommended in Judaism that people pray in a group of ten, at least. While the closeness could have been a curse for the old city residents, it has turned out to be a boon. While the pandemic could have been disastrous for the closely knit community, for Mr Sterne it is like a message from God to develop a more intimate connection with him.

photograph-from-ha-h_042020055944.jpgPeople praying outside the Hurva synagogue in the old city in light of the new regulations, maintaining distance and wearing masks. (Photo: David Sterne/On arrangement by author‎)

photograph-from-the-_042020060104.jpgA screen grab from CCTV cameras showing how quiet it has been nowadays at the western wall in the old city.

photograph-from-the-_042020060144.jpgThe western wall during a more joyous celebration of Shavuot not so long ago. (Photo: Nishant Chandgotia)

My privilege

I am amazed at how people have been applying themselves. Some of my friends have been helping test Covid-19 samples. My neighbour is working as a medic in an old-age home. A friend packs food for the needy and leaves it at their doorsteps. There are still others who are trying to make people smile and laugh. There is little recognition attached to this work, but people work selflessly in their own little way. They fill us up with their warmth and love.

If there is one thing that I have learnt from the crisis, it is my privilege. That I have support from friends and family all over the world is quite priceless, that I have enough financial strength to not think about hunger is essential and that I sleep on a rather comfortable sofa is a blessing. While we were speaking about the migrant crisis in India, a friend recently said, “I know this and all the news has been so depressing. Just counting blessings and praying for the rest!”

Privilege is often a dirty word, but it need not be so. It can be an enabler as much as it can be a deterrent. I am not satisfied counting my blessings. While I can’t seem to contribute as a mathematician, I want to be amid the people, doing what I can do to help. Kanchenjunga will have to wait.

Also Read | Coronicles: Lockdown in the land of hygge


Nishant Chandgotia Nishant Chandgotia @nishantchandgot

The author is a postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew university of Jerusalem.

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