Many Americans would recognize the dilemma of Reuven, an anonymous Yiddish-magazine editor who is anguished by his community’s moral failures in the pandemic.
A few weeks ago, Reuven went to a party. It was indoors. No one wore masks. No one who attended was in any rush to get a vaccine. Reuven and his wife were uncomfortable. But if they hadn’t gone, his relatives would have felt as if he were “judging them” for gathering, “and they judge me back,” he told me. “I have to weigh my options.” Reuven’s parents and siblings roll their eyes when he constantly talks about their risk of getting sick, just as he did at the beginning of the pandemic. He’s meshige far corona, they say. Crazy about the virus.
The Yiddish-speaking, Hasidic Jewish world that Reuven inhabits is intensely communal. Men crowd into synagogues in his Brooklyn neighborhood to pray together three times a day—morning, afternoon, and night. Many large families share small apartments or rowhouses, where they stage elaborate meals each week on Shabbat and during the Jewish calendar’s many holidays, filling their homes with scrambling kids and occasionally the cousins and uncles who live just blocks away. Orthodox Jews in New York are distinctly vulnerable to the virus for many of the same reasons low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods have been hit hard: crowded living spaces, lack of public-health infrastructure, jobs that require in-person work. For many people in these communities, sealing themselves inside their apartments for a year simply wasn’t possible. Reuven knows this; he doesn’t fault the Hasidim for the way they live. “We shouldn't be judged merely on the fact that we feel that some forms of gatherings are important to us, even during a pandemic,” he told me. “What’s so disappointing and depressing, and even shocking, is the fact that we chose to do all this with zero precautions, for which there is absolutely no excuse.”