By Zev Eleff, Shulamith Z. Berger, Joshua Furman, Jeremy R. Katz, Lincoln Mullen, Josh Parshall, Rebekah Sobel, and John Turner
Photographs of isolated graves and socially distant weddings. A “kippah mask,” meaning a face cover made out of a yarmulke, pictured above. Screenshots of Zoom seders and Shabbat services. A score and a recording of a newly written prayer asking that we remain “Safe Together Apart.”
These are a few of the many items on display at American Jewish Life, a digital archive documenting the encounter of individuals and institutions with the pandemic. American Jewish Life is part of a larger digital archive, Pandemic Religion, designed to help students and scholars of particular traditions map their texts and other media onto the broader settings and circumstances of American religion.
The goal is to curate and help teach about the conditions of this catastrophe. The vision is to explore the tragedies and triumphs of Jewish life in this turbulent time.
This project brings together the collecting efforts of six institutions: the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta; the Capital Jewish Museum; the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life; Hebrew Theological College; the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice University; and Yeshiva University. This site was created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
“Collecting artifacts and the stories behind them is such a deeply personal act,” observes Jonathan Edelman, Curatorial Associate at the Capital Jewish Museum in Washington, DC (opening Spring 2022). “In these days of isolation and overwhelming uncertainty, personal acts like these seem more precious than ever.”
American Jews have adapted and innovated during the current pandemic. They have reshaped their lives and their communities to adapt Judaism and Jewish culture to fit the contours of daily living in the Age of Covid. Jews have reinvented the experiences of life cycles, rituals, and Torah study.
Like other Americans, Jews in the United States, and elsewhere, have sought creative means to onboard their social networks to new media. Meanwhile, synagogues, schools and other organizations have had to make painful but creative decisions to maintain their missions during this turbulent time.
Some of these adaptations may be permanent. Communications technologies may remain fixtures of seders and shiva. Once the pandemic ends, other temporary adaptations may be discarded and forgotten.
This is why we need to collect the materials of the American Jewish experience in 2020. The texts, images and videos that represent complexities of Jewish life ought to be preserved on an accessible and searchable website, so that we‚and future generations‚can learn and grow from this challenging period.
We envision that these materials will be a foundational resource for Jewish educators – in day schools, synagogues, and camp settings – to explore the history of the present and make meaning out of the trauma of life in the midst of a pandemic. It will be pivotal for scholars of American religion and Jewish life.
The six Jewish institutions who have partnered with American Jewish Life represent a broad geographic and cultural swath of American Jewish life. Individually, they have been hard at work, engaged with their constituent communities to preserve materials. Those items point to the curiosities and creativity of Jewish life at this time. These include:
- “Still Closed,” a May 2020 Sixth Street Community Synagogue statement on why it remained closed despite the lifting of some legal restrictions on religious gatherings. “It is simply too soon to re-open and we will not be reckless with your safety,” the rabbi and president of the synagogue declared.
- “Minced,” a video of a southern Jewish cooking contest, in which four home cooks created a dish out of chickpeas, a fruit, leftover matzah, and “something southern.”
- A narrative written by an “Atheist/Agnostic” individual who connected with extended family for a Zoom Seder.
- A prayer written by Rabbi Stephen Belsky for medical workers and researchers on the front lines of the pandemic.
Owing to the range of our partnership, the items on the website will represent the diversity of Jewish geography. The encounter with COVID-19 has demonstrated the ways in which people have united as well as the manner in which they have relied on local sensibilities to reorient their religious and social lives.
The impact of this project will be enduring and far-reaching. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media has a twenty-five year track record of collecting and preserving digital materials and working with communities on public history projects. As in previous projects following September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, it is essential for communities to preserve their experiences during the pandemic.
Without acting now, many materials will be lost or forgotten.
Methods for preserving materials today are different, but the importance of maintaining memories has been at the very core of Judaism throughout the millennia. “Remember the days of old,” the Torah teaches. “Consider the years of ages past” (Deuteronomy 32:7).
Please join in this effort. Visit American Jewish Life and share your materials and memories. You can contribute media files (photographs, videos, URLs, audio files) or write narrative. The website is easy to use, but if you want some guidance, you can get in touch with the project at [email protected].
Share news about this project with others in your community. The more materials and memories we preserve, the better we – and future Americans – will understand the import, with all its complexities, of the present time.
The authors represent the principal partners of the American Jewish Life project.