As of last weekend, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 had surpassed 50,000 – the highest in the world – and I had not known a single one of them.
That was when Barry Berlin, 71, a member of my synagogue and a frequent lunch companion, passed away after battling the disease for the better part of a month.
With that piece of news, the coronavirus, which has spread across the globe, infecting millions, crashing economies, isolating nations and likely changing the world for good, became more than just a stampede of facts, figures and headlines.
The veil of the disease had fallen away, reviewing a familiar face, that of a friend.
A Massachusetts native, who had lived and worked around the world, Barry, along with his wife, D.J., resided just a few doors from Temple Shalom. The short walking distance made Barry and the family service dog, Sonny, regulars at the Friday and Saturday Shabbat services.
He would always sit at the back of the sanctuary, offering fist bumps instead of handshakes to those who were part of the Torah processional.
A stout guy with gray hair and round-frame glasses, Barry was always ready with his go-to answer whenever the rabbi asked the worshippers what they were grateful for that week. “Family, health,” he would say.
Something else he was grateful for: food.
A veteran of the food and beverage industry, who had worked with the likes of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and had been on the staff of Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel, Barry’s knowledge of food and restaurants was nothing short of astounding. You could be forgiven for thinking he had eaten at every bistro, deli, pizza parlor and sushi bar in town. Of course, he hadn’t, but his knowledge of restaurants and the catering business seemed encyclopedic.
It wasn’t just the food end of the business that fascinated him. He loved to tell stories about the characters he knew behind the counters or in the kitchens of his favorite places. He noticed the ambience at restaurants, the table settings. He loved planning menus and preparing a variety of dishes.
Which is why he became a central figure at Temple Shalom, planning every detail of High Holy Day onegs and other events. I last saw him at the Purim comedy night and dinner. The social hall was set up cabaret style, two bottles of wine on each table and Barry in kitchen, where he was at home.
There were times over the past two weeks when we thought Barry would beat this thing. At one point he recovered so much so that doctors at Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where he was being treated, removed him from his ventilator and transferred him from the ICU to a regular floor – a moment that went viral when a video of nurses wheeling his gurney to his new room, doctors and nurses lining the hallway and cheering, was posted online. Even CNN picked it up.
Days later, though, he was back in the ICU. He would rally one more time when he became conscious enough to ask his nurse for ice, telling her his name when she asked for it.
After that, though, his condition worsened until it was over.
Every night, many of us watch the news, which is overwhelmingly consumed with the pandemic. We filter the headlines, looking for nuggets of good news – anything on which we can hang our hopes for a return to normal.
But we can’t help but hear the numbers of those infected and the deaths.
The networks do their best to tell the stories behind those numbers, broadcasting images of doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery workers, delivery drivers – essential employees who succumbed to COVID-19. They show New Yorkers applauding these heroes every night at 7 p.m.
Still, for many of us, the statistics remain nameless and faceless.
Not for me, not anymore. I have learned the hard way that each infection figure comes with an identity. Now, I can say that I knew one of them, and I am better for it.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)