These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

From Quarantine to Presence: My Experience in Winter Seminar

Posted on January 12, 2022 by Josh Rolnick


I had so many reasons not to apply for the Pardes winter seminar on Cultivating Courage and Resilience.

It took place during the holiday break, when my four children were off from school, a time of family and togetherness. Every day for five days, I knew, the seminar would take precious time away from my writing schedule, just then entering a critical phase as I work toward finishing a second collection of short stories. And then there was persistent self-doubt: Who am I, whose formal study might be said to have ended with bar mitzvah, to sit in a Zoom classroom and study in havruta with some of today’s most learned and legendary teachers of Torah?

And then Omicron found me – probably at my 6-year-old daughter’s end-of-year hip-hop recital, held in a small bandbox studio in Brooklyn with many parents jammed in, in excitement, but who’s to say? – I found myself in a ten-day quarantine, sick and isolated, and my excuses for not applying fell away one after another, like the petals of a poppy in a vase.

Imagine, then, a teacher who says: It is not so hard to feel gratitude about being healthy after you have been sick or injured. What’s truly hard – the sacred work – is to feel gratitude about being healthy when you are healthy. Imagine encountering and engaging with the asher yatzar – what you had heretofore dismissively thought of as “the bathroom prayer” – in a totally new way, hearing in it a challenge, a way to cultivate presence and resilience in daily life.

Imagine peering into our texts and seeing biblical roots in the stories of Cain and Abel and Joseph and his brothers for the fractious state of our modern-day divided society. Noticing in this lesson how hard it is to fully love those closest to us – our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our countrymen and women, our tribe. Coming to recognize that Cain “spoke at” Abel, instead of approaching his brother with humility and curiosity. Asking: can we find the courage to practice a more resilient form of listening, one that does not shame, coerce, or admonish, even when we strongly disagree?

Imagine sitting in quarantine in Brooklyn and meeting in havruta a rabbi in Rockville, Md., suddenly discussing a line from Rabbi A.J. Heschel’s God in Search of Man that has always been an uncomfortable challenge for you. “On the certainty of ultimate meaning, we stake our very lives.” Doesn’t this, I ask her, require something permanent, beyond us all? Imagine a gentle suggestion from your havruta – perhaps it’s not about permanence, but about recalling those fleeting moments in our lives that felt permanent – that in a flash reorients your relationship to the line, cutting through the confusion.

And then later, on your own time, reading a contemporary short story by Anthony Doerr, “The Hunter’s Wife,” encountering another line … and he felt something happening – a strange warmth, a flitting presence, something dim and unsettling, like a feather brushed across the back of his neck … and connecting dots, triangulating, sensing in this description of transience something that feels a little like permanence, somehow.

Imagine encountering a biblical story you had never heard before in your five decades of travels on this planet. The story of Rahab, a harlot, who lived in a brothel on the outskirts of Jericho, and one dark night answered a knock at the door only to discover two spies sent by Joshua to scout the holy land. A woman, Rahab, on the margins of her society who had heard of this Jewish God – who believed the Israelite’s God to be a God of justice – and who decided in a flash to risk her life, harboring the spies, providing them safe haven, giving them the intelligence they needed. A woman who managed to save her own family in an astonishing act of courage that also laid the groundwork for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, giving rise through her eventual marriage to Joshua to a prophetic lineage of justice seekers that will lead all the way to Jeremiah.

Imagine ending your quarantine, printing the source sheets, reengaging safely at last with your family for Shabbat, and telling your own children this empowering story of Rahab, dwelling on her cleverness, her resilience, her agency. Imagine the lips of your older boys folding in as they listen; the eyes of your 6-year-old daughter, wide as biblical shekels.

Shabbat has begun. You are back with your family. Wine is passed and poured. The challah halves and halves again in fast motion, a flipbook in reverse. Something stirs in you. It’s a little hard to pin down or even name. It comes from the stories, the teachers, the texts, the way they have built upon one another, fortifying something inside of you.

Let’s call it courage.

Find out more about the Pardes Learning Seminar at:

Josh Rolnick’s short story collection, Pulp and Paper, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, selected by Yiyun Li (University of Iowa Press). His most recent stories appeared in Boulevard (spring 2021) and Meridian (spring 2020). Previous short stories have won the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and The Florida Review Editors’ Choice Prize. His stories have also been published in Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, and Gulf Coast, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. He is a faculty lecturer at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program, an instructor at Sackett Street Writers, and fiction editor at Paper Brigade, the literary annual of the Jewish Book Council. This was Josh’s first Seminar.