YIVO Institute Starts COVID-19 Archive

Seder held by HIAS for newly arrived immigrants, New York, circa 1910
Seder held by HIAS for newly arrived immigrants, New York, circa 1910 (Courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

Though we’re in the thick of it now, it’s natural to wonder how history will record the COVID-19 period and, specifically, what it will look like through the lens of Jewish experience and against the broader arc of Jewish history.

But the exigencies of the everyday render these considerations academic for now.

So cue the academics: The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York has launched a new archival initiative to gather stories of Jewish life during the pandemic.

Founded in 1925 in Berlin, Warsaw and Vilnius, Lithuania, and forced by World War II to relocate to New York in 1940, the institute today has the same mission with respect to the present pandemic is as with the other major historical events, said Stefanie Halpern, a native Philadelphian and the director of the archives — namely, “to collect the experiences of the Jewish people in their own words … to ensure that everyone’s stories and experiences during these difficult times can be saved for future generations.”

When YIVO says it wants to hear about how every Jew has experienced the pandemic, it’s not speaking hyperbolically. It’s seeking firsthand accounts of how COVID-19 has affected all aspects of Jewish life, from the spiritual and the religious to the physical, psychological, social, financial, etc. For that reason, it is asking that individuals share what it’s been like to live in a world paralyzed by a global pandemic at yivo.org/Share-Your-Story.

The more information YIVO can gather about Jewish-lived experience, the better. But it does make one wonder whether Jews as a group are experiencing this pandemic in ways that are materially different from anyone else. And even if there’s something meaningfully distinct about the Jewish COVID-19 experience, what does this particular set of trials articulate relative to the rest of Jewish history — or even Jewish American history?

“What’s unique about Jewish life is it’s really a communal affair,” Halpern said. “From ritual practice and prayers that require a minyan to the seders that just happened, where the traditional mandate is to open your home to friends and strangers alike, all these traditions and practices have to be mended because we can’t be in a large group.”

What makes this scourge particularly cruel is that it often leads to death, yet dealing with death according to tradition has become nearly impossible. The same is true of rituals performed so automatically from year to year that it becomes emotionally jarring, perhaps even traumatic, when they are no longer there.

“These things that we’ve come to take for granted as part of Jewish life are being completely upended,” Halpern added. “Even little things like food — people are afraid to go out to buy kosher-for-Passover food or clean the chametz out of the house because they’re afraid of what might happen if they go outside.

“So, in these very profound ways, people are having to rethink Jewish custom, Jewish communal life, Jewish ritual and how they can still be a part of that.”

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