By Phreddy Nosanwisch
“Chaim,” our two-year-old, hadn’t gone past the threshold of our two-bedroom apartment in over two weeks. We had a blast making cake until I wouldn’t let him eat the batter with raw egg yolks. Then he screamed and cried and threw sticky spoons and fistfuls of flour while I slipped the cake pans into the oven before he could throw them, as well.
Many days, his ima/my best friend would be in Zoom rabbinical school for six hours in a corner of our bedroom that we had converted into an “office.” By “office,” I mean the one place in our bedroom that could fit a chair (for her) and a tiny stool (for her computer) that neither included the bed in the shot nor the sunlight. Meanwhile, the huge miracle is that “Erez,” our four-month-old, was managing to take solid naps in a bassinet in the hallway while all this was happening.
And then sometimes, we would switch. I would disappear into the “office,” and my best friend would jump into the role of parent/teacher/clown. In the hour or two we could manage, I would “work”: recording videos of myself at a seder with stuffed animals playing all the guests, making an online interactive vocabulary quiz, utilizing software designed for recording videogame play to record Rashi-style commentary over YouTube videos, fumble with Zoom, and write research papers sourced entirely from Sefaria and the three books I happened to bring home the last time I was on campus. I was less focused than I was when I was able to work in quiet, and all my work lacked the kind of polish I generally strive for.
At 5:45 p.m. we ate. 6:15 was bath time. At 7 p.m., we would all go to the window and cheer! At 7:30, we would say Shema. At 8 p.m., Chaim went to sleep and best friend and I would cook and clean as much as we could. At 10:30, best friend would nurse the baby and I would try to read whatever was due for tomorrow’s class and write a new list of all the things that I had to do for school and work and life that looked exactly like the list from the day before. And then we would sleep for as long as we could.
The media is full of articles written by career professionals who are working/parenting/caretaking full-time. Full-time caretaking is not like “work.” For me, and for many others, work has traditionally included breaks, lunches, and long conversations with friends who also happen to be co-workers. I used to have an extended solo commute, and even when the subway was packed full, there were 23-and-a-half glorious minutes to zone out and listen to a favorite podcast. Caretaking has neither lunchbreaks nor a quitting time.
As a William Davidson student and a teacher, I have been blessed to get a glimpse of what a more integrated lifestyle could look like. My lesson plans are formed in conversation with brilliant and caring mentors and peers. While meticulously improving the mechanics of my pedagogy, I am also blessed to learn the deepest Torah with a community of people who view education/caretaking as the highest form of spiritual practice. And I have a schedule that allows me to spend multiple days a week caring for my children full-time.
In 1 Samuel, chapter 8, the Israelites beg Shmuel, the prophet, for a king. Shmuel is sad and tells G-d, who is also sad and says to Shmuel, “They are not rejecting you, they are rejecting Me.” But G-d/Shmuel give the Israelites what they want, a mortal ruler. Kings die. Presidents come and go. The workday ends. These limited masters are easier to serve than the One-Who-Neither-Slumbers-Nor-Sleeps, or our families. We spend most of our days distanced from our loved ones and from the work and joy and growth that comes in loving them – love here being an action that encompasses care, witnessing, presence, and a willingness to grow and change in response to, in conversation with, our beloveds. Without that kind of accountability and connection, our priorities become unclear, our lives unbalanced, our souls less whole.
Even now in quarantine, the hours when I “work” are sacred for me. I get to (pardon the pun) zoom out of our tiny apartment and peer into the wisdom of our sages and ancestors and the vast expanses of my imagination. And there all the voices – of my students, my children, my teachers, the sages, my best friend, and my own – all merge into a holy choir that works its way into my lessons, my own school work, and my heart. And I try to model polyvocality, interdependence, and an aspiration for wholeness in the Torah I learn with my students.
When this crisis ends, I want to see that Torah in the streets. I want people who caretake to have a few hours a day to daven, learn, do yoga, make art, watch TV, or have deep healing cries in the bathtub. I want all of our educational institutions to be fully digitally compatible and accessible online, so people with various health, mobility, financial, and care needs can be fully enfranchised in our learning communities. I want universal healthcare and paid sick leave, so that those who caretake know they will be cared for. I dream that our schools and businesses will have childcare centers in the building, so I could spend my lunch hour and even my sacred commute with my kids.
That is what it looks like when G-d is Queen – when Love neither slumbers nor sleeps, but us mortals do, for eight sound hours a night. That is the world I want Chaim to discover on the other side of our apartment threshold.
Phreddy Nosanwisch is a student at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar. He teaches 3rd-5th grade at the Marsha Dane Stern Hebrew School at CSAIR and at the Fort Tryon Jewish Center.
This is the fourth and final post in a series of articles published by graduate-level students at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. The student authors focus on their experiences as Jewish educators as they balance being both the student and teacher during this extraordinary and unprecedented time.