When an adult education class I take migrated to Zoom, the rabbi suggested we start the first virtual session by sharing what we were reading outside of class. This was at the start of social distancing, when informal conversation helped transition into the (then) novelty of online learning. Many classmates mentioned history and expressed interest in learning from the example of other challenging times.
I was unsure how to answer. Also drawn to the past, I felt embarrassed that I looked to history less as an instructor than as a companion. I lacked critical distance to find lessons of leadership and resilience in history books. But now, concerns that once belonged to another era now belonged to us: the ache of being apart from loved ones; vulnerability to disease; preoccupation with hygiene. The neat categories once used to mark time had collapsed: not just days and weeks, as people sheltering in place have observed, but also decades and even centuries. The past was no longer a foreign country where they do things differently.
“I am not writing in order to preach to you, but to drive away the melancholy that goes with the long night,” writes Glückel of Hameln, introducing a well-known memoir. Glückel, widowed after a happy marriage, was concerned about the welfare of her adult children. She writes in the late-17th and early-18th centuries, but she could be speaking from one of the tiny squares on my classroom screen. (Hey, I see Glückel! Hi, Glückel! Our nights are long and melancholy, too.)
The mid-20th-century Israeli poet Zelda describes this intermingling of eras. In her poem “That Strange Night,” she writes: “The past trembles with the present/ When the present falls into the pit, the past goes with it.” The past is here now, trembling in anxiety with me over adequate attention to cleanliness.
“My son!” writes Eleazar, author of the medieval treatise “Paths of Life. “Keep a vessel of water always near your couch. On rising at morn, do not begin to dress before washing the hands, nor receive garments from another in the same condition.” I can almost hear him adding, as I have to my own family: “Kids! Remember the box of gloves by the door. Upon accepting deliveries, do not open the door before putting them on, nor receive a package without wiping it down.”
For Eleazar, hygiene was both a daily necessity and a spiritual practice: the source of its benefits a mystery in the original, mystical sense of that word. “Laving the hands is one of the sublime things which stand at the height of the world,” he writes a few sentences later. “When you wash your hands, you are bound to stretch them on high.” Science has solved only some of the mystery: what he writes of ritual washing informs our new washing rituals. We stretch our hands to squirt and soap, humbled to consider their connection to life and death, aware how much lies beyond their reach.
As our collective focus shifts beyond this period of pause, time will again flow more freely and reassert its convenient division into past and present, with an uncertain future beginning to take shape. This proximity to the past will recede, as centuries resume an orderly progression. In his ethical will, the 18th-century scribe and scholar named Jonah Landsofer imagines his son will read his words in the future, and it will be “as though they still stood face to face, bone of each other’s bone, in the vividness of old association.” I admire these words, both old and vivid, and take heart in their confidence that even in a world changed forever, the essentials — what is in the bones — will carry forward. Zelda’s poem also describes this confidence, this turning, like Eleazar’s description of his hands, forward and up. She writes: “When the past looks toward heaven/ All of life is upraised. Even the distant past.”
One day, this period will become the distant past, discussed in adult education classes that may again meet in person. To know and imagine this is itself a form of uplift, albeit imperfect. While we are still together in the pit, I cannot say if I have raised up the past, only that it has raised up me. Amid the uncertainty and anxiety of these past weeks, it was good to renew old associations.