An exhibit at the BYU Library

Mattathias Westwood

He Gave Them Bread From Heaven for Their Hunger

He gave them bread from heaven for their hunger: The COVID19 Pandemic Memoirs of Jonah bar Amittai, as recorded on Instagram, Feb-May 2020[1]

 February 27th 2020

( Photograph of a gourd plant,  Photograph of a hilltop view)
Hello all! My neighbor has been telling me for months that I need to get on Instagram to share some photos of my garden here. I don’t know why anyone would care about that. But if Garden pictures are what you all want, I am happy to give the people what they’re looking for. Never let it be said that Jonah was unwilling to share a good gourd!!!

My name is Jonah bar Amittai, and this is my garden outside of Nineveh.  I’ve been here for a while now, and I really like it! In case you haven’t heard of me, just know that I like gourds and I enjoy a good seaside vacation, but I’m not too fond of fish!!! And I belong to the Assembly of the Present-day Saints. People sometimes call us Jews, or Rechabites, or Samaritans, or all sorts of other names.  We are called Present-day Saints 1) because we’re still alive, and 2) because we see the face of the Holy One everywhere, especially where we wish it wasn’t!! There have never been a lot of us, but we get around.

I don’t know whether my neighbor considers himself one of the Saints, but I can say that I know he is a good man. And it’s nice to have someone around on this hilltop, even if sometimes you just want to be left alone.

Anyway, I will be mostly posting Garden pictures and Gourd care tips. Hope you enjoy!!!

 March 11th 2020

( Photograph of a Sunny sky.)
It’s been a kind of crazy day! This morning I was sunbathing in my front yard, still getting over a headache from my personal Purim party.  All that gragger racket really gets to me sometimes. (Not that I don’t like Purim!  It’s always good to see a sloppy drunk get outwitted by a clever woman. Especially when he thinks everyone should bow and beg like he’s the King of the world or something!)

So I’m lying there, and my neighbor opens the front gate and just walks right into my yard. (They say good fences make good neighbors, but I wouldn’t know. I have an okay fence, and I have a good neighbor, but they both seem to completely ignore each other!)  Then he walks up to where I’m laying. ( He keeps telling me that the reason that he comes over is to see how the gourds are doing. I keep telling him that as long as they get enough light and water they do fine without anyone looking at them! But he still keeps dropping by every now and then.)

So he says to me, “Have you heard about the new virus that’s been going around?”

And I say “Isn’t there always some plague or another somewhere these days?”  And he says, “But they’re calling this one a worldwide pandemic today. One of my followers just posted about it.”  He’s always good at getting news like this before I do.

The whole world, facing the same plague all at once. Now isn’t that something?

 April 7th 2020
( Photograph of a face mask. Photograph of a loaf of sourdough bread.)

I went over to my neighbor’s house this morning to borrow some leavened bread so that I could have some chametz to remove from my house.  I can’t stand the stuff, but my neighbor bakes it every day.  I say, if you’re supposed to purify your house by removing leaven at Passover,  why ever let it in?  Keep a clean house year round!

But you can’t remove chametz if you don’t have any in the first place, so I always borrow some from my neighbor right before Passover, just to find and get rid of.  So anyway, when I get over there he’s wearing this thing over the bottom half of his face.

I must have looked at him funny, because he pointed and said “It’s a medical face mask. The WHO says that wearing these may help reduce virus spread.  Would you like one? One of my friends has been sewing lots and she sent a few to me.”   I wasn’t sure what to say. I don’t know if I need one if my plan is just to stay at home by myself, but he put one in the basket on top of the two loaves.  (I always tell him I only need a few crumbs but I think he prefers to give bread away in loaves).  So now I have a face mask, so anyone I meet will be protected from getting the Coronavirus from me.

I guess it can’t hurt?

 April 8th 2020

( Photograph of a homemade piece of matzah.  Photograph of Matzo dough.  Photograph of hands rolling out a matzah piece.)

It’s Pesach, friends!  We’ll all be celebrating at home, just like in ancient days.  If you’re sad that you’re not in Jerusalem, just remember that the first Passover wasn’t either!

To help with your seder prep, here’s my favorite recipe for  “bread made in haste”,  just like mom used to make it at home.  It’s melt-in-your-mouth tasty. And you can whip it up in under ten minutes.  You can make a pile to feed a lot of guests, but this year I’ll just be making a small batch for myself. This is my favorite everyday leaven-free bread. No spoilage at all!  Good year round. Don’t make any more than you need though, this is best served warm from the fire.

Matzah for any Meal
2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c water
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Mix together the flour and salt. Pour in water and oil and mix together.  Let sit for a minute or 2, then knead the dough 5 or 10 times. Separate it into 6 to 8 balls. Roll them out flat and slap them on a frying pan, or at the outside of a good clay oven.  Cook about one minute on each side, or until lightly crisped.  If you’re not eating them fresh from the oven, place them in a clean cloth to stay warm for your meal.

 April 9th, 2020

( Photograph of a can of home canned juice. Photograph of a seder plate. Photograph of seder table with two places set, plus the cup for Elijah and cup of Miriam.)

Yesterday after making matzah, I stopped by my neighbor’s house to ask if I could trade some early gourds for a jar of grape juice for my seder. (I usually stick to the Rechabite way, so I don’t keep any grape products at home.  But for Passover, there’s no good substitute for the fruit of the vine.)  He went down to the cellar and came back with four full jars!

“Are you having anyone over for your seder this year?” he asked.

“I was just planning to celebrate by myself,” I said.  “Anything else seems too risky.  Elijah will stop by, of course, but he only ever drinks the one cup, and he’s always in a big hurry.”

“Of course, of course. I know how he is,” he said, “As in life, so in afterlife I suppose!”

“Anyway,” I said, “Since it’s just me, I’ll probably only need one jar.”

“There’s no one else you’re thinking of inviting?” he asked.

“Not really.” I said,  “I haven’t been down to the village in 3 weeks, and everyone is still doing this shelter in place thing, or so I hear.”

“It’s just been a little lonely lately, don’t you think?” he said, “I’m used to a lot of visitors to my house, but the pandemic has stopped that, you know. It’s for everybody’s safety and I wouldn’t want to complain…”

Well, friends, I may not be the fastest or most subtle guy out there, but I can tell when someone’s angling for something.  And while I like to leave people alone when they need space, I also never want to  abandon anyone who needs a friend. So I asked if he wanted to join me for the seder. (Never mind that I moved here specifically for the peace and quiet before he set up house next door. It is good to be neighborly at a time like this, I guess.)  Anyway, I’m pretty sure he was grinning underneath that mask as he picked up the four bottles and walked back with me across our lawns.

April 10th 2020
(Boxed matzah on a plate, with a cup of grape juice nearby)

My neighbor came over again for the second seder last night. He brought some Grandma Sycamore brand matzah to share.  Normally I won’t touch the store bought stuff, but I figured I should try it, just to be polite.  And let me tell you, the baked-in bitter-herb flavoring gives it that extra kick that really makes it the bread of affliction!!  The boxed stuff I’ve had before all tastes about as good as the box itself.  But it turns out, if they add enough horseradish, it hurts enough that you forget all about the taste!

I love any sort of matzah because it reminds us how much suffering is left in the world and that now is the best possible time to set it right.  As a good friend of mine used to say “The accepted time with G-d and his cause is the ever-living now.”  Or as my grandma said, “This mess won’t clean itself up, so go get a broom!”  There truly is no time like the present!  Why waste time waiting around for Someone Else to come and fix things?  I’ve tried plenty of that, and getting to work right away is much better!

After I cleared away the dinner dishes, and before we started on “Chad Gadya” and “Who Knows One?”  I noticed that my neighbor looked like he wasn’t sure how to ask a question. “What is it? ” I said, “Something on your mind?”

He cleared his throat, and said, ” I’ve just been thinking that the past two nights have been a lot of fun. I’d forgotten how much I miss having someone to talk to in the evening…”

“So?” I said.

“So I was wondering, since we’re both sheltering in place here for the time being, and since we’re both exposed to each other already, would it be alright if I moved in for a little bit?  I could help around the house.” He looked hopeful. I get really tired of that look sometimes.

” I’ll have to think about it,”  I said, ” As long as it’s just for a little while…”

“I won’t be any trouble,” he said, ” You’ll hardly notice that I’m here.”

“I doubt that,” I said,” but it won’t make too much difference I guess, and I do have a spare room.”

“I’ll go grab my things now,” he said.

“Not that blasted sourdough starter you love so much,” I said, ” I don’t want that thing in my house. Or your kombucha. Or anything else spoiled or half-spoiled!”  He was already on his way out the door.

“OK,” he said, “I’ll leave them at my place at least until Pesach is over.”

“Not just Pesach!”  I said “I don’t want that kind of mess in my house at any time of the year!” But I don’t know if he heard me. By then, he was halfway across the yard.

 April 12th 2020
( Picture of Minerva Teichert’s Christ in a red robe. )
Pictures of LDS paintings.

My neighbor finished moving into the spare bedroom today.  He even brought over some paintings from his house to decorate with. I look them over. “That’s a really nice one of Maschiach ben David,” I say, “I really appreciate that he’s painted dressed in red like a King who’s come to war instead of white like a King who comes in peace. But why is he so calm?  And how come he looks so pale? Has the person who painted this ever seen an Israelite, either Jewish or Samaritan?  I mean, it doesn’t look anything like you… or even like me for that matter.”

“I got it as a gift from a friend,” he says. “The painter was American. I do think she’d seen Jews once or twice. She painted a group of refugees in New York City in 1938.”

“Hmm,” I said. “I still don’t think it looks anything like you.” I went on to the next, some sort of woodblock print. “Now that’s a great one of Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai,” I say. My neighbor nods.

As I turn to leave the room I noticed a small piece hanging on the other wall. “Why did you hang that one up?” I ask.

My neighbor pauses for a moment, then answers, “It’s in memory of a Jew who was executed by the Romans and all the victims of the slaughterers before then and right on down to today.”

“But why did they turn it into a piece of art?” I ask.

“I really couldn’t say,” my neighbor says.

April 19th, 2020

The weather is wonderful, and everything is blooming. I often like to go for a walk in my garden in the cool of the day. As I walked around the vegetable patch, I saw that my neighbor had set up lawn chairs and a table just inside the front gate. But when he saw me coming, he gave me a quick embarrassed look, and covered the plate in front of him with a white cloth.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the plate.

“I went over to my place and made a batch of sourdough,” he said. “I know you don’t want it in the house, but I hope that it’s alright that I brought it into your garden.”

“If you must,” I said, taking a seat opposite him. “What have you been up to, out here?”

“I’ve been watching the sparrow nesting in that tree,” he says, pointing behind me.

I turn to look.  “I don’t know why they build their homes so far off the ground,” I say. “It’s so dangerous. Surely it would be wiser to build them on a flat, smooth rock.”

“I’ve always thought of bird’s nests as a hopeful sign,” he says. “But if it worries you, I’ll keep an eye on it.”  He uncovers the loaf in front of him and cuts a slice. “With all of your complaining about sourdough, have you actually tasted any?”

I shrug, “No, but I’ve had enough leavening to last a lifetime,” I say.

He laughs.  “I think you might enjoy it,” he says.

I grimace slightly but take the slice from his open hand and bite into it. “Wow,” I say, “that certainly is sour.”  I pause and let the taste wash over my tongue, “Bitter as sin itself.”

“So, you like it?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I say, “but give me another slice.”

He nods, and hands me the knife.

 

May 1, 2020

The neighbor and I made sourdough challah today.  It wasn’t as good as Mom’s but it was pretty darn tasty!  It’s been too long since I had challah. There aren’t many Jews around Nineveh anymore.

The process is pretty interesting. We started last night by making a leavening lump with some starter, flour and water. After letting that rise overnight, my neighbor showed me this morning how to mix the rest of the dough, which is completely leaven free! It’s full of eggs and honey so it’s a lovely golden color.

While I was kneading the dough, my neighbor asked if he could put on a speech by a friend of his from Brazil. It was all about learning how to become one and also has some interesting facts about rivers in his home country. As I pressed together the golden dough with the pale leavening lump I thought about his words about two rivers flowing side by side for miles until they too become one. “I think I would like to see those rivers,” I said.

“It is lovely, where they meet,” he said.

“So did you first meet this Elder Soares on a trip to Brazil?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “but he was a much younger Soares then.”

“It’s amazing how travel broadens one’s horizons,” I observed.

“Yes,” he said. “I hardly left my hometown until I was 30 but since then I’ve been all over the world for work. There really is an incredible range of people and places, all different, but somehow also the same.”

I knead the dough absent-mindedly. “It makes me wonder about this pandemic. Do you think that suffering together with everyone else will make people realize how much they depend on each other? After everything else that’s happened?”

“Who knows?” he says, “but I definitely hope so.”

 

May 11, 2020

My neighbor and I had our Lag B’Omer Bonfire tonight. After working for a while with flint and tinder, we finally got it started. “This would have gone much faster if Elijah was here with us,” I say.

He shrugs, “Sometimes it’s good to do things the slower way.”

We warm our hands over the open flames. “Two-thirds of the way to Shavuot,” I say. “Is that two-thirds of the way up Mount Sinai?”

He laughs.

“And for that matter, how long till this plague ends?” I say.  “We’ve been quarantined for much longer than 40 days by now.”

He shrugs again. “Who knows?” he says.

“I’m sure a lot of people wish it was a tyrant they were fighting and not a plague,” I say, “with Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome, at least you could take up arms against their violence, even when outnumbered. But what weapon can you use against a virus?”

“Patience,” he says. “Patience and faith.”

“Ah, Patience. Your one-size fits all prescription!!” I say, “Waiting is easy for the comfortable, less so for the afflicted! And what if this is the kind of problem that only gets worse when it’s left alone?”

He stares into the fire without answering. I decide to try another angle.

“And it’s nice, of course, to know that what you’re waiting for is worth it. When is that Kingdom you talk so much about going to arrive?”

He grins. “Some say it’s already here.”

I frown.  “You know what I mean! Not just prayers and hopes, but all the promises made real! No more war, no more sickness, no more tyrants, not even death!”

He stares into the fire for a long time. “It will come,” he says slowly, “when people are finally ready for it.”

“Are they more ready now than 2000 years ago?”

Again, he stays silent.

“And will more time and more suffering help them get ready?”

He stares into the fire again, “They at least have the option.”

“Do you really think that they’ll use it?”

He keeps staring into the fire silently. There are so many questions still unanswered, but I don’t even know which one to ask. We sit there in the garden and watch the fire together until the embers turn cold.

 

May 29, 2020

Fog rolled in last night. When I go into the garden and look down the hill all I can see is the cloud. There’s a deep and peaceful quiet. No rumble of trucks from the road, none of the muffled honks and shouts that used to float up. Even the birds are still for once.

I walk back into the house. My neighbor is taking a pan out of the oven. “I made pan de siete cielos,” he says. “It’s a Ladino recipe. Perfect for the holy day”

“It smells heavenly,” I say, looking at the elaborate mound of bread, “Is all of this just for the two of us?”

“No,” he says. “Moses and Elijah said they’d be stopping by later for Shavuot dinner–but here, taste a bite now.” He breaks off part of a scroll from the side of a loaf.

I place it in my mouth. “It’s so sweet,” I say.

He beams. “That’s all the milk and honey,” he says.

“It’s delicious,” I say. “Thank you for making it. Is this one also sourdough?”

“Yes,” he says, “with the right ingredients, even the bitter becomes sweet.”

I let the bread dissolve on my tongue and brush crumbs off my beard, savoring the moment. For now, it’s enough.


[1] At the request of an authorized representative of Mr. Bar Amittai’s neighbor, we’ve omitted the photographs that were included in his submission to this exhibit, and replaced them with captions based on the accessibility labels from his original Instagram posts.

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