The question and inquiries came to Eric Lidji in droves, from residents to newspaper reporters to congregation lay leaders: What did Jews in Pittsburgh do to weather the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic? Even rabbis sought Lidji’s counsel.
“In the rabbinic world, precedent is a big deal — everybody’s kind of looking for guidance in their own way,” said Lidji, who directs the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
“I have been amazed by how many people have asked me for references from the 1918 pandemic — there’s really not that much,” he added. “The past did not provide that opportunity to the present. We now have the opportunity to not make the same mistake twice.”
So, Lidji, a careful student who learns from history, has started working with Archive-It, the web archiving service from Internet Archive used in its “Wayback Machine,” to collect materials illustrating how Jewish Pittsburghers are getting through COVID-19.
Lidji has amassed about 800 webpages and several thousand emails from area congregations — everything from details about wearing face masks during brit milah and social distancing to how to access Shabbat services via Zoom, Lidji said. He started with a spreadsheet of every Jewish organization in Western Pennsylvania and has added to it Jewish businesses and “anything that felt like it was part of the communal infrastructure.”
“Everything that’s online is there to be dealt with — it’s something we really have to do,” he said.
Lidji is far from alone. In Pittsburgh, congregations like Rodef Shalom also have been busy archiving records of how their members are getting by in the era of the novel coronavirus, he said.
In April, the National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem went a step further, creating a Jewish Community COVID-19 Archive, which library officials hope will document the unprecedented impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on Jewish culture, tradition, law and society globally. NLI took to the internet and asked the Jewish world to contribute digital and physical materials reflecting this impact, including items such as synagogue emails about communal prayer on Zoom; public appeals to help lonely community members; announcements about innovative halachic rulings; promotional materials for creative Jewish distance learning initiatives; posters for emergency loans and more.
“As the dynamic institution of national memory for the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, we see it as a very natural and critical role for us to be collecting and preserving materials related to how coronavirus is impacting Jewish life and practice,” Yoel Finkelman, curator of the NLI’s Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The fervor has caught on. In July, Moment magazine interviewed Joshua Furman, the founder and curator of the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice University, who had similar notions about archiving his Jewish community’s response to COVID-19. At that time of publication, he had more than 700 articles from Houston Jews.
“Some scholars in the future might be studying learned rabbinic responsa, some might be researching the development of internet humor and be interested in memes,” Furman told the magazine. “At the moment we’re more concerned with collecting than processing. The analyzing will come later.”
For Lidji in Pittsburgh, the archiving impulse came right on the heels of his work memorializing the synagogue shootings of Oct. 27, 2018. From the day of the massacre, he was proactively saving every bit of ephemera he could find.
“A lot of the past two years has been working with organizations to see what they want to live on,” Lidji said.
Lidji has been impressed by how Pittsburgh Jews have adapted to COVID-19 challenges, halachic complications and questions over how to mark life rituals, he said. He thinks saving the information will lend an interesting perspective to future audiences who might be facing similar circumstances.
“What we’re watching right now,” Lidji said, “is a real-time cataloging of resiliency and resourcefulness.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.