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YIVO Archive to Capture ‘This Strange Moment’
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YIVO Archive to Capture ‘This Strange Moment’

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

YIVO archival photo of Jews making matzah in the Lodz ghetto.
YIVO archival photo of Jews making matzah in the Lodz ghetto.

As it has done repeatedly over its 90-year history, YIVO is collecting first-person stories from the Jewish public, this time related to the lived experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Stefanie Halpern, director of the YIVO Archive, initiated this latest effort with her colleagues, who last week sent out a call for material through their website, word of mouth and social media.

To date, they have received responses from the United States, Lithuania, Argentina, Columbia, Belgium, Canada and other countries, from people in their 20s to 80s, and continue to get new responses daily. When asked in the questionnaire to describe their Jewish identity, some write secular, Litvak, Modern Orthodox, “very, very strong,” “bad Jew,” practicing Reform Jew, “queer and diasporic,” Conservative, Jewish Renewal and “atheist missing Jewish ritual.”

Individuals write about the sounds of ambulance sirens, the deaths of friends and being alone, and they speak about how the pandemåic has affected their Jewish practice. One writes of never feeling more connected to the Jewish community, and others speak of joining synagogues and engaging in Jewish practice for the first time.

Halpern observes, “At a time when people are completely isolated, there’s a turning toward the Jewish community.”

About new activities, someone writes of hanging amulets on doors to guard against disease. Another says that his mother is convinced that the Messiah is coming.

In a question about how their Passover was affected, a Holocaust survivor describes having a seder alone. A family in Argentina details its Zoom seder with family members all talking at the same time as they do in person. After the meal featuring the same food in their different time zones, they lingered for a while, “talking about things and life and this very strange moment.”

Since its founding in Europe in 1925, YIVO has sent out questions, at first on topics like folklore and customs, and over the decades have reached out to collect oral histories of Jewish soldiers, witnesses of pogroms, experiences during the Holocaust and other moments of great strife for the Jewish community, preserving their voices.

The latest collection will be available online and also on paper in the YIVO Archives when it is able to reopen. See Yivo.org/share-your-story.

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