Between “Next Year in Jerusalem” and our last year in Jerusalem, we went viral. For better and worse, in sickness and health, and, yes, for life and for death.
We lost two of our closest friends, pillars of Jerusalem society and Israeli industry, and we gained our first two grandchildren, one of whom we were not allowed to touch for several months.
Ephraim Seidel, 83, and Hagai Seidel, 81, were famous in Jerusalem and throughout Israel for their pioneering work in the Oran Heating Company, a family business specializing in solar energy and heating. Ephraim and Hagai were known as hard-headed but soft-hearted businessmen who came to work early and left late, healthy and hard workers until their final days.
They were very careful about safety matters, about wearing masks for themselves and their workers, but they met a lot of customers, and they got ‘the bug’ just a few days before the vaccine became available.
It is said that even the prime minister’s wife would not hesitate to call them for emergencies in the middle of the night, and usually the Seidel Brothers found an answer.
Their workers, many of them Arabs, treated Ephraim and Hagai as respected elders in their families.
“We just lost our two godfathers,” said one worker, who has been with the company for more than 50 years.
Our first grandchild, Tamar Esther Widlanski, was born last March to our son Daniel and Elisheva, a fastidious nurse who is a fantastic mother. Indeed, Daniel and Elisheva are such great parents that they actually did not let us touch Tamar for several months.
When the virus began, government guidelines were often inconsistent and seemingly illogical, and we all developed our own methods of staying safe. How to wash hands or use hand gel or eating Sabbath meals indoors with or without children and grandchildren became tension-filled challenges.
“Seeing the grandparents” meant drive-by rendezvous encounters waving through a closed window. After a while, Daniel and Elisheva eased up, because they realized that Sara and I were sticklers for personal hygiene and physical distancing. However, when Noam Ephraim was born in September – the brit was on Rosh Hashanah – we made sure that our “family capsule” included Noam and his parents, our son Yoni and his wife, Nelly. We made our house, with its big backyard, their base of operations. It was not easy, but we loved it.
Nelly’s parents, both physicians in their native France, planned a trip to coincide with Noam’s birth, but they nevertheless had to observe a two-week quarantine before gaining entrance to our capsule.
This year taught us a lot about how some people – friends, government officials, and local police – can be considerate or callous about others. Why the Israeli government and police chose to enforce some rules on some people and not on others was grating, and I think it also cost some people their lives.
Over a year ago, I walked out of a neighborhood synagogue – a relatively youthful, egalitarian, and largely Anglo-Saxon crowd – when I saw that people were not being careful, not covering their coughs and sneezes and then running up to kiss the Torah.
Common sense and basic hygiene were always my guide. I did not wait for a government rule about synagogues. I started praying at home, and that is where we read Megillat Esther, the story of Purim.
Later, as some realized the virus was serious, courtyard prayers became the rule around Jerusalem, and I returned to my morning minyan.
My approach was similar also when going to the YMCA for a swim. I would wear my swim trunks under my pants and disrobe pool-side, avoiding changing clothes in the locker room because many of the young members were sometimes cavalier in a macho manner about mask wearing and distancing. Exiting the pool, I wrapped myself in a towel and got into my car in a still-wet bathing suit.
Yes, the virus does not travel in chlorinated water, but having five or six guys crowding around you while getting dressed or undressed was a risk I did not want to take, and I had a similar rule when youngsters on the Tel Aviv beach – most without masks – plunked themselves down next to Sara and me, oblivious to rules and common sense.
My daily exercise routine was disrupted by the virus and the various shutdowns. I try to swim three or four times a week, aside from long walks and other workouts. During the major shutdown, my exercise bike broke, and the only exercise was walking our dog, Churchill, a 9-year-old Weimaraner, or crisscrossing our backyard over and over again.
Churchill built up a lot of mileage as he became our excuse to get out of the house.
But now, this year in Jerusalem, after being fully vaccinated, we are going back to our large family Seder. Sara and I will enjoy, God willing, many moments of family hugging and bouncing the grandkids on our knees during their first real Seder, where we always argue about which tunes to sing.
And we will remember many of the 6,000 Israelis who will not be able to sing “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
Michael Widlanski is a Jerusalem-based journalist and advised Israeli negotiation teams at the Madrid and Washington talks in 1991-92.