Incessantly discussing and obsessing over one’s ailments, however big or small, has always been to me a very Jewish thing. We tend to do it more than others. I don’t know why, but I had wrongly always assumed that having some sort of health anxiety was a bit like being Jewish.
I developed this belief growing up by comparing and contrasting the conversations between my Jewish half of the family and the Irish Catholics.
No Jewish family gathering was complete without a round table discussion of the litany of health conditions plaguing each guest. How is your chest grandpa? What did the doctor say about your hearing, mum? No, not clearing, I said your hearing…WHAT DID THE DOCTOR SAY ABOUT YOUR HEARING?
Oh me, how am I? I’ve got a slight sniffle…“Have some chicken soup,” Granny Freda would reply already on her way to the upstairs freezer where an infinite supply of her homemade Jewish penicillin was stored.
I remember marvelling at my granny’s pill box which lived on the kitchen table. I’d gaze into its clear plastic covering to count the different pills for morning noon and night. Re-stocking it accurately was as fun a game as any child could have played.
When I met my non-Jewish husband I was amazed at how unnatural it was for him to make a doctor’s appointment, leaving the everyday health concerns that crop up to the universe to deal with.
Little did I know that actually worrying about your health and the health of others is a very real thing and nothing like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The outbreak of coronavirus has naturally made a lot of people panic. As we anticipate an Italy-style shut down, and adjust to what will be our new normal, social media and the opinions of people who aren’t experts have worried us even more.
We worry for our vulnerable loved ones and that anxiety is triggered further by friends who seem to think it is all fine because this thing won’t affect them.
I know I’m encountering a different type of fear because amongst all of this week’s noise I was driven to the kitchen, which until now has mostly been a room I visit to get another biscuit and make a cup of tea.
Eight weeks away from the birth of my first baby I could be forgiven for feeling a little apprehensive about bringing a new life into the world amid a world wide pandemic. But in truth I wish that was my only worry.
While the little Florida Pomelo inside me continues to grow into vegetables I have never heard of, blissfully unaware of the drama that unfolds on the outside, I am doing my utmost to keep calm.
But it has been made harder by the fact that two weeks ago I faced a meeting in my local hospital with news about a close family member and an immune-suppressed status that induced a fear I thought I had buried deep.
Coronavirus doesn’t care how treasured or wonderful the person is when it comes for them. Illness is and always will be cruel and unforgiving.
As the virus we didn’t even know existed months ago continues its spread, so does my concern, like many others with vulnerable relatives.
My relative, like thousands of others, has just started a treatment that weakens her immune system. I’m not only worried about looking after a new life that grows inside me; I’m desperate to keep safe a life that is so precious to me. And at the same time I am terrified by the individualism of people who bulk buy 100 loo rolls and joke casually with a woeful disregard for expert advice, because it doesn’t matter if they get it because they will be alright.
I have never before taken to the kitchen to deal with stress. But there was something overwhelming about my desire to make a chicken soup that I could not ignore. It could not be more out of character if it tried. If my husband wasn’t concerned about my mental state before, that certainly would have done it.
Perhaps the compulsion came because as a community and in our families we have long relied on the healing properties of chicken soup with an inalienable sense of trust and confidence similar to any antibiotic a doctor could prescribe.
And as I followed a recipe that my granny used, cut off from the latest breaking news update and cutting carrots instead, the familiar smell and the associated warmth and comfort spread its way throughout my house. I felt my nerves soften and my sense of control return.
As we approach Passover with plans in flux and so many things unknown or out of our control, our family recipes are an unlikely cure to the problems we’re yet to face. But nothing can take away the calming memories of love and family they provide.
Rosa Doherty is the JC’s Social Affairs correspondent