By ALAN SMASON
It is now seven weeks since Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued her March 20 stay-at-home mandate for New Orleans. That order, which only pre-dated Governor John Bel Edwards’ similar statewide order by two days, demanded that all but essential workers stay in place and self-quarantine. President Trump’s federal lockdown followed that, but it has since expired a week ago.
“Stay at Home and Save Lives” the popular tag lines read across social media. Indeed, like obedient sheep we closed our doors, shuttered our windows and watched as the rate of infections soared and the death count began to rise incredibly high.
The horrifying scenarios, where hospitals would be overrun with COVID-19 patients and where doctors were forced to make impossible choices over which patients would be placed on ventilators and which ones would be left to die, never actually materialized here despite alarming initial statistics and unfathomable loss. Fear, both for ourselves and the knowledge that social distancing would prevent transmission of the coronavirus to our loved ones or those dependent upon us, literally drove our waking hours.
Nationwide, the stores of personal protective equipment (PPE) – surgical masks, gowns, and gloves – ran perilously low, putting our frontline healthcare workers at risk.
A massive 2,000-bed field hospital occupying the Ernest Morial Convention Center was hastily constructed, while citizens continued to abide by the law, never knowing if an innocent child or healthy-looking adult jogger passing them might be an asymptomatic carrier of the novel coronavirus and a possible bearer of insidious disease or death.
We could no longer visit our elderly parents or friends at nursing homes as administrators cut them off from the outside world, following a rash of hot spots and unacceptable losses to COVID-19 complications.
We dutifully sequestered in place and accepted new responsibilities as math and English instructors. Some of us binged entire TV series as the outside world became quiet and our air quality began to improve. We soon found out that too much togetherness could be as stressful as the feeling we had when were had been separated from our loved ones.
A decided lack of privacy made us long for those days when schools and colleges were still open and the biggest decisions about where to eat involved which restaurant food was preferred – Cajun, Creole, Chinese, Mexican or, perhaps, Thai.
The new normal requires face masks and constant care to avoid touching one’s face. Incessant hand washing is de rigeur and home-cooked meals have largely been the only orders of the day.
We can deal with pretty much all of this. We can appreciate that flattening the curve has lengthened the days of those who are the most vulnerable and the most at-risk and given frontline medical staffs a fighting chance to keep ahead of those who were critical.
We can understand the necessity of avoiding our gathering in large crowds to celebrate life cycle events like birthdays or anniversaries and, reluctantly, to witness the graveside services of friends and family via Zoom.
But what we cannot deal with is the absence of the human touch. We cannot shake hands. We cannot give tender pats on the back, adoring pecks on the cheek or even fist bumps previously favored as an alternative to handshaking and a way of cutting down on the spread of disease.
What we miss the most are long enduring hugs between us and our loved ones and those whom we care about. A hug has been scientifically shown to increase the production of serotonin, the chemical that makes us feel good. A sustained hug can bring about a feeling of calm, confidence and happiness..
In Judaism, we console each other with actual hugs at funerals and also warmly embrace at joyous events like weddings and brits or baby namings.
Jewish mystics also consider the hug as an essential element in observance. During periods of penitent prayer such as during the High Holidays, a tight-fitting kittel of white is worn by observant Jews as a symbol of purity. It might be seen as a virtual self-hug, which leads into deeper introspection in an attempt to reach out to the divine. At Succot, the minimum requirement of a succah, or booth, where we eat and sometimes rest, is three walls. This is because rabbinic authorities consider three walls similar to a welcoming hug of chest to chest, arm to arm and and forearm, wrist and hand to back.
By far, we reserve our greatest reverence for the holy sefer Torah scrolls containing the Law, the literal words of God, which we traditionally cradle and clutch every Shabbat and celebrate with joyous and sinuous dance throughout temples and synagogues on Simchat Torah.
Yes, a hug is the most endearing of human expressions and one which we as Jews and children of God crave more than anything else. We are especially sullen these days to be absent these actual and symbolic hugs, when religious services and in-person gatherings are strictly forbidden.
During the so-called “war on drugs” of the Reagan years and beyond, a popular phrase was coined: “Hugs, not drugs.”
These days, with no apparent end to this ongoing pandemic and a creeping feeling of helplessness settling in, perhaps a better phrase would be: “Hugs, not shrugs.”