I have always been an early riser, which grants me first dibs on the morning coffee. It also gives me a chance to enjoy the silence before the tumult of the day kicks in, especially five months into the pandemic, when so many of us are in the house at the same time.
At that pre-dawn hour, though, it’s just the birds and I. Years ago, my husband hung a feeder on a tree right outside the kitchen window, so I’d have something nice to look at while unloading the dishwasher. It took time for me to become interested. But I now greet the birds with open arms, wondering what mazel (mine) and avian memory (theirs) draw them back to our yard and where they go when they aren’t with me.
My husband replenishes the gourmet seed assortment regularly, attracting a wide variety of birds in groups of two or three. Yet on a recent morning, I noticed that a larger number than usual had congregated around the feeder, dining as if at a smorgasbord. There were eight of them, mostly finches — one on each pin of the feeder and two more on top. A blue bird and two cardinals waited in the maple branches for their turn at the buffet.
At first, I thought how lucky they were to be able to gather without social distancing, their chirping unfiltered by masks. I told them, “This is the closest we’ve come to cooking for a crowd since February.” I resolved to leave the birds some challah next Shabbat, elevating the sanctity of their meal.
When they flew off into the limbs of our regal maple tree and the far-off corners of our yard, it hit me how deeply I long for a return to normal. To gathering with friends around our Shabbat table. To hugging people hello. To overcoming my hesitation about permitted activities, like getting a professional haircut in order to tame what looks like a hastily constructed nest on my head. It’s not that I fear these things won’t happen again. It’s just that, for the moment, they feel as elusive as catching a moonbeam.
Meanwhile, the birds arrive each morning at their regular hour, as if no one had sent them the corona memo. During the months of lockdown, and still now, when I have yet to venture far afield, they seem to bring messages from the outside world with their chittering and flitting from bough to bough. I am grateful for their constancy.
If you’ve had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and see the Kotel, the last segment of the Temple’s retaining wall, you know all about its birds. The swifts that have been nesting in the crevices between the massive blocks for thousands of years. The sparrows. The cooing turtledoves. All of them mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah for their steady migration back to the Old City on an annual schedule. Their constancy and our prayers keep the ancient wall pulsing with life, even in our modern era.
I had plans to travel to Israel in March, to visit our son and pray at the Kotel, a small lost opportunity in the scheme of things. And yet, I’m taking particular comfort from our New Jersey birds during the Three Weeks, the period of mourning for the Temple that culminates on Tisha b’Av — the Ninth of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, which takes place this year on July 30.
This season is often referred to as the narrow straits, a description taken from the Book of Lamentations, which we chant on the Ninth of Av. It is a space in which we permit ourselves to feel vulnerable, where we experience our communal losses as though they were deeply personal ones, a time when the wounds of thousands of years of Jewish history as well as the pains of the present are laid raw and bare.
Yet hope awaits us on the other side of this dark period of mourning, along with comfort, healing, and the possibility of returning to normal. But a new normal that is better than what came before, one in which we are all more loving and accepting of one another. This, now, is our chance to join the legions of birds in singing a new song — to light the way forward, and to find joy and promise in the spaces they have been nesting for too long out of view.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.