Writers From Around the World on the Covid-19 Pandemic
And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again:
Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic
Edited by Ilan Stavans (Restless Books)
Ilan Stavans reads a few pages of Talmud every night before he goes to sleep. Now, the collection he has edited of new works inspired by the pandemic—including poems, fiction, journalism, photo essays and graphic memoirs by 52 contributors—attempts a Talmudic feat: to take a situation and probe it in all its myriad complexities, using the voices of many to get at a collective understanding of the essence of this moment.
As Stavans writes in his own essay in the book, referring to the Talmud, “The rabbis making the arguments, the Amoraim and the Tanaim, didn’t know each other; still, in these pages they talk to one another as if they were still in the same room.” Likewise, these contributors from 34 countries are separated because of quarantine and social distancing, yet in that “same room.”
Among them are writers who bring an explicitly Jewish lens. Javier Sinay, an Argentinian writer and journalist, describes “attending a reading of Megillat Hashoah,” the liturgy composed by the Conservative movement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Zoom as “a symbol of Jewish solidarity in times of crisis.” Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman asserts that the “plague has confirmed to the people how the abysmal structural unfairness of the current social and economic system punishes the poor and helps the prosperous thrive,” much as a biblical prophet might castigate his own society. And Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru writes, “Fear of the plague is, quite simply, fear of death, which accompanies us through our lives like a shadow.”
For anyone interested in how pandemic fears are transmitted and understood in words and images, this is a volume worth reading.
Beth Kissileff is co-editor of Bound in the Bonds of Life: Pittsburgh Jews Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy and author of the novel Questioning Return.