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The Power of a Hug and Building Bridges

 

Blog #1: The Power of a Hug 

As the shelter-in-place order slowly begins to let up, Rabbi Benjamin Blech looks at an important lesson we can learn from our social distancing experience: 

There is a remarkable story that took place toward the end of World War II. An American soldier’s platoon liberated one of the Nazi death camps. The camp was filled with hundreds of half-starved children. The American soldiers quickly set up a huge pot of soup to feed the kids, and the children lined up behind it, eager to get their share of the precious food.

One particular soldier made eye contact with a boy at the end of the line who was waiting patiently for his soup. The American approached the boy, and since he couldn’t speak the boy’s native language, he communicated by offering the boy a warm hug. After they finished hugging, the soldier looked up and noticed that the children who were previously lined up for the soup had postponed their chance to eat and instead formed a line behind the soldier to receive their hugs as well.

There are times when hugs are more needed than food, when an embrace is more satisfying than sustenance. Our bodies require calories, but our souls have to feel the warmth of touch and of love conveyed by a loved one.

King Solomon, the wisest of all men, long ago taught us in the book of Ecclesiastes that there is “A time to embrace and a time to cease from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:5). The sequence is significant. There may be good cause at times to cease from embracing. Surely a plague is one of them. But we dare never forget that human contact is an ideal – an ideal which may have tragically been all too often unattainable in these last few months during the fearsome attack of coronavirus.

“I haven’t been hugged in months,” said a close friend to me over the phone. “I can only imagine lying in a hospital bed, fearful of death, with no one to hug you.” There are no words to describe what it must’ve been like for the woman who had tested positive for the virus and given birth without being allowed to hold her newborn infant for weeks on end. I remain haunted by the image of a 90-year-old great-grandmother looking through her nursing home window separating her from her loved ones, not knowing whether she would live long enough to ever again hug them or kiss them.

One of the things we need to take away from these difficult months of deprivation as we return to normalcy is to never again fail to appreciate what we previously so very much took for granted.

Who would’ve guessed how much power there is in the humble hug?

In a remarkable study published in the scientific journal Psychological Science, the authors investigated the relationship of hugging, social support, and the probability of getting sick in 404 volunteers from the Pittsburgh area. First, the volunteers were called every evening for 14 days and asked about their social relationships, whether they had been hugged that day and how often. On average, there was a clear relationship that individuals who had been hugged more also felt like they received greater social support.

Now for the even more interesting part of the study: Some time after the phone interviews had been completed, the volunteers were invited to an isolated floor of a local hotel and were quarantined in separate rooms. The investigators then gave them nasal drops containing a virus that caused common cold-like illnesses. Interestingly, how often somebody had been hugged clearly influenced the infection risk. Volunteers who had been hugged more had a decreased risk of infection. Moreover, among volunteers who got infected, those who had been hugged more had less severe symptoms, their noses were less stuffy. The authors concluded that hugging is an effective way to reduce stress and infection risk by conveying social support.

The common cold does not seem to be the only disease affected by hugging. Cardiovascular diseases are among the leading causes of death in the United States and in many other countries. One of the major risk factors for developing potentially fatal heart disease is high blood pressure – and hugging has been shown to reduce blood pressure in a 2005 study published in the scientific journal Biological Psychology.

Having witnessed firsthand the dire consequences of our inability to embrace our loved ones, give extra hugs to those who surround you, and when life returns to normal, let us embrace this powerful and much-needed communication with our loved ones.

Blog #2: In Montreal, Minyans on Balconies Serve as Bridges Across Cultures   

Due to COVID-19, most of the news and op-eds published over the past month or two have unfortunately been all “doom and gloom.” It’s time for some good news. Here’s a piece about a good thing that happened as a result of the virus:

On a recent April day, Jennifer Dorner, a resident of the Outremont neighborhood of Montreal, heard spirited singing outside her home. She walked to her window, looked out, and saw her Hasidic neighbors praying on their front porches. In the warm sun, two teenage boys sang praise to God in the fashion adopted by ultra-Orthodox men in the time of COVID-19: davening on the porches and balconies of their homes in an attempt to fulfill their obligation to create a minyan while observing rules of social distancing.

Dorner, who is not Jewish, was moved by the lovely tune, and posted a short video of the scene to Facebook and Twitter. “Shabbos morning enjoying the neighbourhood voices. Ça va bien aller. #Outremont”

Ça va bien aller” is Quebec’s rallying cry for unity and hope during the health crisis: “All will be well,” possibly echoing the prayer of Julian of Norwich, an anchoress and mystic who grew up in the time of the Black Death: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” This chant is one of the most famous lines in Catholic theology and possibly the most famous literary line of the 14th century.

The next day, Montrealer Rani Cruz replied to Dorner’s tweet: “The harmony is so perfect. When this is over, this is going to be one of the things I will miss about Covid times. I hope the Hasidic community knows how much their sharing of their prayers has helped us all. Thank you. Merci.” The tweet has now been viewed 16,800 times. Says Daniel Seligman, a local music producer, “it’s nice to see a kind of cultural exchange that shows a beautiful side of Hasidic Judaism that usually remains veiled to the greater public.”

Not everyone was so happy about the public religious display, however. English-speaking and French-speaking Quebec have had their own famous internecine struggles. And even before the balcony prayers, harmony had not always prevailed between the ultra-Orthodox residents and their neighbors. “For the Franco-bourgeois population, the relationship with the Hasids is often fraught with a kind of general negativity,” Seligman told Tablet, like “complaints about the Hasids taking up parking spots—and other little nitpicky things.”

The first person in Montreal to become ill with COVID-19 was Hasidic, which caused concern and panic. “The Hasidic community was unfairly criticized for not following distancing protocols,” Seligman said. “Like in every other community, about 95% of people respected the limits and followed the rules,” but also, as has been evident around the world, scapegoating the Jews has been common, perhaps most famously by the mayor of New York City himself.

But something unexpected happened in Outremont that changed the conversation entirely. On April 27, Dorner opened her front door and found a container of rugelach from Boulangerie Cheskie—the most popular pastry shop in town, which happens to be owned by a member of the Hasidic community—with a note rolled up into a scroll and tied with a red ribbon. “We would like to thank you and show our appreciation for your patience and understanding in this hard time that we experience together,” it read. “During the last few weeks, you have seen us coming out on our porches 3 times a day to pray. It might have caused inconvenience to some of you and we value your support. Please accept our small token of appreciation. Bon Appetit!” On the top of the letter was printed “Ça va bien aller” and the ubiquitous rainbows that have popped up all over the city along with the community mantra.

Dorner felt it was she who should offer thanks: “In this time of fear and crisis, my family, my husband, and I have found the praying very beautiful—comforting and soothing,” she told me in an interview. “For us the singing has been a gift. It is supposed to be a time of fear and restriction, but it’s actually been a time to get closer to our neighbors.”

The offerings of sweets were delivered to every resident of Lajoie Street. And the gift-giving caught on. On another block, a Hasidic woman made a cake that she packaged and distributed, and on another block a father distributed chocolate with his boys. The sweets then made their way to the nearby neighborhood of Mile End, and to the doorstep of a columnist for La Presse, Montreal’s largest and most influential French newspaper.

“It was an ultra-Orthodox—and ultra-fast!—girl who ensured the delivery,” wrote Rima Elkouri in a column in La Presse on May 7. “By the time I opened the door after hearing the doorbell ring, she had already run shyly away. And before I could even taste it, my confined, always hungry teens had eaten everything.”

“The songs of my Hasidic neighbors have become the soundtrack of my confinement,” Elkouri wrote. “Morning and evening, their prayers on the balcony punctuate the strangeness of everyday life. Soothing background music for a disturbing era.” Unbeknownst to their givers, the sweets had found their way to a uniquely receptive audience. “I know what hate feels like,” Elkouri told Tablet this week.

Born and educated in Montreal, the prominent journalist considered herself a French Canadian through and through—until she was named a columnist on Sept. 10, 2001. “On the 11th,” she wrote in her first column, “despite myself, I became an Arab columnist. I never wanted this label. ‘Don’t want to be Arab’ … was the title of my first column.”

She was surprised and terrified by the messages she got from the community. “I have observed xenophobia very closely as others observe bedbugs,” she wrote. “Regularly, since September 2001, readers have summoned me to return to 'my country.’”

But what country was that? Her father was born in Senegal, and his father was from Lebanon. A Catholic, he arrived in Canada in 1967. Elkouri’s mother was born in Aleppo, Syria, a member of the Armenian Catholic Church, the daughter of a man who had survived the Armenian genocide, escaping the fate of his brother and father, both of whom were murdered in 1915. Elkouri was raised as a Christian, though she says she is not now religious.

She was assaulted with messages from the ignorant, but worse, from the educated— “this hatred which has no excuse for ignorance, and which even drapes itself in virtue. Racism without spelling mistakes seems to me the worst form there is.”

In our conversation, she probes xenophobia one step further, to a place her Hasidic neighbors know only too well.

“Hate doesn’t start with genocide, but with small things,” she told me. “Targeting people because they are different. I feel the responsibility as the granddaughter of a genocide survivor to stand up and never stay silent when I see these kinds of things. This applies to everybody—whether you are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. I have a voice and freedom to express my opinions—so I have a very privileged position. But what does this kind of behavior mean for people who don’t have my privileges? This for years and years is a subject I have explored in my writing.”

Max Lieberman, a Satmar who moved to Montreal 20 years ago from Brooklyn and serves as a community leader and a volunteer for Hatzollah, says this kind of prejudice is not unknown to his community. But he looks on the bright side. “Every crisis, some good things come out. Fifty percent of the problems go away if you just talk. You show your neighbors you don’t want to impose on them anything, you want to live with nice neighbors, on a nice street—we all want the same thing. Then they realize you have different ways of doing things, but you’re a human!”

The neighborhood itself—Jennifer Dorner, Daniel Seligman, Max Lieberman, and the boys singing harmony that Shabbat morning in April, together, wrote the final chapter of this story, with, you might argue, a little help from above. And appropriately enough, the surprising news was announced in Rima Elkouri’s latest column in La Presse.

Dorner, an arts administrator, was just last week appointed executive producer of POP Montreal, a nonprofit arts organization that produces a music festival in the fall. During the confinement, she, along with many other Montrealer’s, has been regularly listening to “Chanter sur les balcons de Montreal”—“Singing on the balconies of Montreal”—a socially distanced concert series in the city supported by POP Montreal and hosted by Martha Wainwright, daughter of American folksinger Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle.

Last week on her show, Wainwright said she has been moved by the singing of the Hasidim and mused about inviting a cantor to perform on her program. Dorner, not missing a beat, mentioned the invitation to her borough councilor, Mindy Pollak, the first Hasidic woman to be elected to political office in Canada, who called Max Lieberman. Dorner then texted POP Montreal creative director Daniel Seligman—and so it was done.

“Everyone thought it was a great idea.” Instead of a cantor, the two teenagers from Rue LaJoie singing harmony that sunny Saturday will offer their own songs.

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” wrote Leonard Cohen, Montreal’s favorite son, and the only artist who has bridged the Anglophone and Francophone communities. Concludes Elkouri in her column: “Sometimes there are these balconies that serve as bridges.”