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A digital geniza: Collecting COVID-19 ephemera

Flitting between the fragile present and the long corridor of Jewish memory, this time capsule will let us look back on how we responded to the virus
One example of coronavirus ephemera: A printable card for offering help to neighbors, made available on line by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in March, 2020.
One example of coronavirus ephemera: A printable card for offering help to neighbors, made available on line by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in March, 2020.

Please DON’T DELETE that email from your rabbi offering to Zoom the Shabbat service straight into your lounge. SAVE that notice from the kosher supermarket reassuring customers that there will be enough matzah for Passover. DOWNLOAD your synagogue’s poster offering support for vulnerable people in the community. COPY that Facebook link from the Jewish community in Latvia showcasing its app to recruit volunteers. CLICK on the message from leaders of the Italian Jewish community offering psychological support services to its members. BOOKMARK Hamodia, an Orthodox online newspaper, branding itself as ‘your coronavirus info hub.’ The community that ostensibly frowns upon the internet is finally harnessing its power to collate and publicize rabbinic statements to close down synagogues and Jewish schools.

These ephemeral digital fragments are documenting Jewish history in real-time. And they are also ephemera – in ordinary times this might mean items such as a synagogue timetable, a kosher restaurant menu, wedding invitation or Jewish film festival poster – items people would not necessarily think to keep, but that will later define our communities and our culture for future generations. In the Age of COVID-19, ephemera includes the poster from Jerusalem’s Eden Centre about women using the mikvah [ritual bath], the UK Board of Deputies template Can I Help You? card offering support to local neighbours and a poster from New York’s Hebrew Free Loan Society offering emergency financial help.

These items deserve to be collected as they will tell a story of resilience and creativity: fortunately, we have the perfect central repository for this information. The National Library of Israel [NLI] is creating the COVID-19 Jewish ephemera collection and future students of sociology, anthropology, medical history, Jewish communal life, mass marketing, computer science and rabbinic responsa will be tremendously grateful. Consider the NLI as a library without borders – with links to Jewish communities, people and libraries wherever they may be, drawing on the cyber revolution to enhance community engagement, digital preservation, open access, and collaborative projects globally.

The National Library of Israel was established in 1892 and will be relocated from the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University to a state of the art building opposite the Knesset and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Initiated by the Rothschild family via the Yad Hanadiv foundation, with the support of other generous funders, the building is due for completion in 2022.

The Library’s international outreach includes Gesher L’Europa which creates opportunities for people working within Jewish settings across Europe to engage with the Library’s extensive collections. Gesher L’Europa is supported by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and as its CEO, I have had the privilege of working with talented and dedicated professionals at the Library who have created projects including At the Source offering professional development for European librarians and archivists working with Jewish collections, and online educational materials drawing on NLI resources. Gesher L’Europa has also created the Jewish European Ephemera Collection that has amassed approximately 8,000 items from more than 200 cities across Europe…and counting. Ephemera is usually paper-based and over time, some items become more valuable as their rarity increases. Born-digital ephemera may require a different nomenclature as by definition they are hardly unique; paradoxically, while ancient manuscripts are being digitized, born-digital materials are being preserved.

Think of the COVID-19 Jewish Ephemera Collection as a digital time capsule, and you can contribute with the click of a computer mouse by sending material to ephemera@nli.org.il When we look back, this digital time capsule will tell us a great deal about how the Jewish community responded to the virus across so many areas of our lives:

Resilience: how social distancing brought communities together as Facebook was deployed to galvanise armies of volunteers to support friends and acquaintances with food deliveries and emotional support

Vulnerability: how lockdown exacerbated the problems of mental health, domestic violence and poverty, thus exposing the fissures in our community that are often hidden

Halachic innovation: how rabbinic leadership has risen to the challenges of COVID-19 and made courageous decisions with compassion and thoughtfulness

Halachic disappointment: how some mourners could not attend a funeral nor say kaddish in a minyan while others have wondered why the issue of agunah [women unable to receive a get, divorce document, from their husbands] still remains unsolved

Educational imagination: how online platforms replete with Jewish content have enabled teachers to create new modes of learning and deliver their curriculum in a flash

Educational inequities: how we discover that many families living in cramped living quarters cannot provide the quiet space and individual computer that a student needs in this virtual learning world

Jewish arrogance: how a few dangerous religious ‘leaders’ defied medical advice, claiming that COVID-19 can be overcome by Torah study and that its cure is in our hands, for it has been caused by our numerous sins, including, wait for it….a lack of women’s modesty

Jewish comic genius: how the cheeky and the talented have created hundreds of jokes, songs and videos as a welcome distraction. Perhaps the most succinct so far is this – Definition of Jewish irony: Pesach cancelled because of a plague.

We have been here before and I have in my hand a pamphlet dated the 23rd January, 1892 when Rabbi Gaster issued a prayer during the cholera epidemic for the Cessation of the Disease Now Raging. Read in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogues, its poignant words include:

Merciful and Gracious God…look down from thy holy abode and see: death is come up into our windows, it is entered into our palaces, to cut off the children from without and the young men from the streets. From the first born of the king who sitteth upon his throne to the first born of the captive that is in the dungeon, every head is sick, every heart is faint. O Lord, turn from Thy fierce wrath, and say unto the angel that destroys: It is enough, now stay thine hand.

I doubt many copies remain and it reminded me of what Jonathan Rosen wrote in his erudite essay commissioned to launch the Jewish European Ephemera Collection,

 Unlike books and manuscripts, ephemera flit mysteriously between the fragile present and the long corridor of Jewish memory. They blur the line between the scholar and the amateur, the religious impulse and the secular one, the comforts of home and the confusions of exile…. In a world of constant flux, ephemera are indispensable companions of the struggle to understand the complex world. The question framed by the Jewish European Ephemera Collection is not ‘What has been lost in the 20th century?’ but ‘What is being created in the 21st?’

Technology is the modern miracle enabling the Covid-19 Jewish ephemera collection to answer that question in ways that Rabbi Gaster could not have imagined when he pleaded with God to ‘stay thine hand.’

Use your hand – be part of the evolving story and click the computer mouse to send digital ephemera, in any language, to ephemera@nli.org.il

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, now available on Amazon.com and abebooks.co.uk A mix of memoir, sociology, history, and acute observations focusing on Orthodoxy and feminism, this 2019 edition includes a new, 75-page introductory essay reviewing the extraordinary changes in Orthodox women’s lives since the book was first published in 1997. Her writings are on her site www.sallyberkovic.com
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