Sick! The National Library of Israel Wants Your Coronavirus Memes

The COVID-19 Jewish Ephemera Collection aims to capture digital life under lockdown in Israel and the Diaspora during the pandemic

Danna Harman
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A youngster wearing a T-shirt telling fellow Germans to stay at home during the coronavirus lockdown.
A youngster wearing a T-shirt telling fellow Germans to stay at home during the coronavirus lockdown.Credit: ZENTRALRAT DEN JUDEN IN DEUTSCHLAND with kind permission
Danna Harman

If you have found yourself repeating such lines as “These are crazy times” or even just plain old “What is going on?” in recent weeks, you are not alone. Over at the National Library of Israel – or rather, at the homes of the staff of the now-shuttered institution – many are expressing the same confusion.

Understanding the scope and meaning of what we are currently living through is difficult for everyone. But someday, as we emerge from our coronavirus lockdown, we will hopefully be able to look back and assess what we, as individuals and as communities, experienced.

And that is where the National Library comes in.

Dedicated to collecting the country’s cultural treasures and Jewish heritage, the library is in possession of over 5 million books and periodicals, 70,000 microfilmed manuscripts, 8,000 Hebrew letter manuscripts, 2,500 Arabic letter manuscripts, 6,000 ancient maps and tens of thousands of hours of recorded Jewish and Israeli folk songs.

Franz Kafka’s papers are there. So too are valuable handwritten notes – Maimonides’ and Sir Isaac Newton’s, for instance. There are exquisite Islamic manuscripts dating back to the ninth century, and a collection of 8,500 Haggadot from all ages and locations. The personal papers of figures ranging from novelist Stefan Zweig to songwriter Naomi Shemer have also made the National Library their home.

A Passover seder guide on the order of the meal.
A Passover seder guide on the order of the meal.Credit: Pagodaonlinelearning with kind permission

And coming soon to this illustrious lineup – your family WhatsApp group’s coronavirus memes!

“We wanted to put our finger on the pulse and set up a rapid response team to document things as they happen,” says Yoel Finkelman, curator of the library’s Judaica collection. “That’s part of our mission: we’re a repository for what goes on in Israel and the Jewish world.”

Last month, with this mission in mind and as one country after another went into lockdown, the library put out a call to Jewish communities and individuals around the world. The request? Online material related to Jewish life that might give future generations a nuanced sense of how societies were functioning, adapting and dealing with this unique period in time.

What exactly was the library looking for? In a word, ephemera. That is traditionally applied to a person, or thing, of short-lived interest. Except at the National Library, they know that these fragments of day-to-day life are bound to be of interest for a long time to come.

The idea is to create a crowdsourced “digital time capsule” of sorts, to which anyone can contribute with no more effort than it takes to read your email or text message and then click “Forward” – to ephemera@nli.org.il

“We want all those things of daily life that people might not normally think to keep,” says Caron Sethill, who is in charge of Gesher L’Europa, a program that links the library to European Jewish communities and institutions. The program has taken a lead role in the library’s ambitious new coronavirus project, officially called the COVID-19 Jewish Ephemera Collection.

An invite from Likrat Moldova for an online Havdalah during the coronavirus.
An invite from Likrat Moldova for an online Havdalah during the coronavirus.Credit: Likrat Moldova, an educational program of LivingStones Association

Easy, cheap and fast

Collecting digital source material is a twist on the usual order of things at the library, where much effort and money usually goes into digitizing and preserving ancient manuscripts, recordings and other rare objects. This time, though, the incoming material is already in digital form. This means collecting it is relatively easy, cheap and fast. But it also brings new challenges: copyright ones to begin with, and also questions about how to catalog and preserve these fragments, which, by definition, are neither rare nor unique.

Yet while creating a fully digital-born collection might be new for the National Library, collecting ephemera is not.

Six years ago, for example, Gesher L’Europa – supported by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe – initiated the Jewish European Ephemera Collection, to add to the library’s already extensive collection of ephemera from Israel over the years. The Gesher L’Europa project focuses on collecting paper-based material, and its mandate is confined to Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, its work has become the template for the geographically broader digital COVID-19 project now underway.

That original project, which is ongoing, began with placing giant blue cardboard collection boxes in Jewish community centers and schools across Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and elsewhere. Scholars, activists, library and museum professionals, and anyone else who wanted to participate, was asked to feed mementos of their daily Jewish life into them.

“One man’s trash is real treasure for the National Library of Israel,” reads a tagline on the library’s website (www.nli.org.il).

A poster for an interactive guide on how to host a quarantine seder.
A poster for an interactive guide on how to host a quarantine seder.Credit: Pagodaonlinelearning with kind permission

Some 8,000 items from over 200 cities across Europe were collected – newsletters, brochures, invitations, tickets, calendars, greeting cards, menus, synagogue timetables and more – helping to create a broad mosaic of cultural and social activity across Jewish Europe in our time.

And what about now? What might the coronavirus mosaic look like?

Through what seems to be an email glitch – one that might be familiar to anyone who has suddenly been asked to work remotely – Sethill is actually receiving a copy of each and every COVID-19 submission to her personal email address. It’s overwhelming.

Szalom TV – Stay at Home notice
Szalom TV – Stay at Home noticeCredit: Szalom.tv - Żydowska Telewizja Internetowa - Jewish Television Online

So far, she has waded through more than 1,300 submission from 21 countries, and counting. Some of the materials are in Hebrew, others in Yiddish, English, Spanish, Italian or Russian. Some entries arrive in PDF format, others are screenshots or scans, but most are simply forwarded emails. A few files are so heavy, a coronavirus vaccine might be found by the time they’ve been downloaded.

Among Sethill’s inbox gems: A photo of someone attempting to wear matza as a face mask, which went viral in Paris; a plea from the Jewish Community Center in Athens for people to stay home; and a halakhic Q&A with the Rabbinate in Kiryat Gat on the subject of kashrut and eggs imported from Spain (in light of the pre-Passover egg shortage in Israel).

There are bar mitzvah Zoom tutoring offers from Jerusalem; an Italian Jewish community Facebook group offering psychological support services; a “tzniut challenge” chain letter from Brooklyn, encouraging Orthodox women to use the time at home to get rid of immodest pieces of clothing; and an online invitation to join Havdalah services in Moldova.

These fragments do not paint a full picture of the time, nor do they presume to, Finkelman notes, But they do offer up various snapshots of the days and weeks we are living through. “There will be no way to collect this material six months from now,” he stresses. “It’s a rolling effort – and our reaction time had to be fast.”

Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe CEO Sally Berkovic notes that the next stage – figuring out how to organize and present these undifferentiated digital fragments – will prove an “interesting challenge” for the library’s archivists.

A notice for the Jewish community in Riga, Latvia.
A notice for the Jewish community in Riga, Latvia.Credit: Security and Crisis Center Riga

There will be several options, she says: the material might be arranged by country of origin, for example, or thematically. Or perhaps it could be organized chronologically, since the nature of the ephemera being sent in differs from day to day as the pandemic, and our reactions to it, evolve.

For example, in the first weeks, much of the material had to do with calls by community leaders for their congregations to stay home, and the switch to virtual life. Then, last week, a lot was connected to Passover. Now, more and more ephemera is being sent in with references to mental health and material needs.

Guide for future pandemics

The National Library of Israel is far from alone in collecting Jewish ephemera. The American Jewish Historical Society has an impressive collection of photos, posters and other Jewish artifacts; the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem collects materials on German-Jewish themes; the University of Florida has a large anti-Semitism collection; the London Metropolitan Archives holds many collections of U.K. Jewish communal organizations; and Harvard University’s massive Judaica collection, part of the Harvard Library since the university’s founding in 1635, boasts over 820,000 items that document Jewish and Israeli life over the years.

And the National Library is also not alone in collecting ephemera specific to the coronavirus: the national museums of Finland, Denmark, Slovenia and Switzerland, among others, have dispatched employees or asked the public to document the unfolding crisis for them. Ditto libraries and archives across the United States. Meanwhile, the Board of Deputies of British Jews has also launched its own appeal for material related specifically to Jewish life and the pandemic, as part of its new project celebrating Jewish archives in Great Britain.

A letter from Unione Delle Comunita Ebraiche Italiane, needed for Jewish people to show the authorities when out shopping for items for Passover.
A letter from Unione Delle Comunita Ebraiche Italiane, needed for Jewish people to show the authorities when out shopping for items for Passover.Credit: With kind permission from UCEI

“Ultimately,” Finkelman concludes, “all of this will serve as raw material for scholars, historians and authors of the future – or possibly for people in the future who might have to think about building their own pandemic responses, just as we look back to the cholera of the 19th century.”

Take this particular instruction, for instance: “Avoid crowded gatherings in closed places; avoid contact with others as much as possible, don’t even shake someone’s hand when saying hello.”

A helpful tip from 2020? Actually, no, it’s from a set of guidelines published in 1920 by the Hebrew newspaper Do’ar Hayom, which can be found – where else? – in the National Library archives in Jerusalem.

Another document in the archives is a September 1919 story from this very paper. The doctor who penned the Haaretz article wrote of “malevolent angels in the shape of contagious diseases and various plagues,” that were passing through British Mandatory Palestine at the time. He ended with an assessment of the suffering in the country, comparing it to the “havoc” wreaked in so many other lands: “Casualties in our small country,” he wrote, “were fewer than those abroad.”

We can only hope that, 100 years from now, someone will write an article in this paper and, reviewing the COVID-19 Jewish Ephemera Collection, find a Facebook post with smiley emojis and dancing GIFs containing a similar message.

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