Democratizing history as we make it

I’ve noticed for years now that themes come up in our reporting. They’re coincidental, they’re striking, they’re thought-provoking — and it’s just happened again.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the death of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the great and extraordinarily broadly educated Talmud scholar whose arguably most important feat, among many, was the way he democratized the study of Talmud. The result of the translation of the Talmud’s Aramaic and archaic Hebrew into modern Hebrew that he undertook himself, and the translation from there into modern languages, including English, that he oversaw, made the foundational text far more available to far more people. (The online library Sefaria is doing that as well, making Jewish texts available, free, to anyone who wants to read them.)

This week, I wrote about the American Jewish Life collection, an ongoing effort to gather as much material as possible about the way American Jews are responding to the pandemic. The archive serves two intertwined purposes, its curators told me. One is the obvious — it gathers the information and makes it available, free, to anyone who is interested in it.

The other is the democratization of history that it permits. It used to be that graduate students in history would have to travel to university libraries or archives, or to great public or private research institutions, fill out forms, and wait until the precious volumes of history or boxes of ephemera were placed in front of them. They could make a pilgrimage to New York’s 42nd Street Library, walk between its two guardian lions, Patience and Fortitude, and find their way to the research room, with its great silent halls and creaky carts full of rare books.

Now, they can go online and do some clicking.

That means that history isn’t the exclusive preserve of anybody, really. It’s all there. If you want to learn about how the American Jewish community responded to the ongoing covid-19 crisis, just take a look. If you want to contribute something — and please note that your contribution is more than welcome — go to that homepage and click on the tab labeled “Share Your Experience.” (Full disclosure — I did. I contributed the story I wrote about my mother’s death, funeral, and shiva, after I’d finished interviewing for the story. The collection posts everything that isn’t actively obscene or toxic, so I wasn’t surprised to see it up the next day. It feels good. You, reader, should try doing it too.)

Reading online isn’t the same as walking up the marble stairs between Patience and Fortitude. It’s more casual. There’s less of a sense of occasion. But it’s also easier, more accessible, and yes, more democratic. It makes clear that we all make history, and that history belongs to all of us.

In this time of covid, it connects us to each other; it’s not as if we could go to the 42nd Street Library even if we wanted to. But we can go online, and so far going online has saved our sanity and helped our need to connect.

It matters.

Thank you, Pandemic Religion and American Jewish Life curators, for creating this collection. Once the pandemic recedes — please may that happen speedily and in our day! – we will be able to look back and marvel at the history we lived through.—

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)