October 28, 1918, the Forverts published what is likely their first rabbinic pronouncement on the influenza epidemic. Written by New York’s Chief of the Rabbinic Courts, Rabbi Gavriel Zev Margolis, it could be found above the fold, technically speaking, but on the very last page of the secular Yiddish Forverts.
The informal, chatty headline made it seem like advertising copy for a new play in town, or even a short story. “A Note About Influenza From Reb Velvele” turned out to relay critical information to more religiously observant Forverts readers seeking a path between tradition and practicality for their death and mourning rituals. As head of the city’s religious court, Reb Velvele held sway over religious practice.
Jews in mourning are commanded to remain in the same clothing they wore upon hearing of their loved one’s death, are to remain at home for 7 days of mourning (shiva) in stocking feet, sitting on low mourner’s stools and fed by visitors who visit to comfort them by engaging in conversation about the deceased.
A quorum of ten gathers several times daily at the mourner’s in order for them to recite the_kaddish_ prayer, so that the soul of the deceased may have ease in leaving their earthly containment, and continue rising heavenward.
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In 1918, we published Reb Velvele’s statement verbatim. And here it is again, in a week in which the Forward of 2020 prepares to publish memorials to those lost due to the coronavirus. May we be comforted by the blessing of their memories.
Here’s Reb Velvele:
During this current influenza epidemic, may god save us, I wish to let the public know that those who must sit shiva, may god protect them, may and must ease off in observing the laws of mourning. That is to say, those who live in tight quarters, or who must access fresh air, are permitted to go outdoors for several hours daily for health reasons.
Also, anyone lacking someone to pick up provisions for them, may themselves go shopping for essentials.
Also, you may wear shoes even in the house in order to not get chilled, god have mercy. It’s also permitted to change underwear, for hygienic purposes, and when necessary—bathe, taking care not to catch cold afterwards. We must hope that god, blessed be his name, will have mercy on us and the world and remove all sickness and evil ones and suffering spreading throughout the world, and will tell the destroying angel to cease, and will bring us peace and grace as is desired by all god’s nation and as is desired by those seeking the blessed god’s swift compassion.
Signed:Gavriel Zev Margolis, Chief of the Jewish Court of LawFor the People of Israel, of New York
By the time of Reb Velvele’s pronouncement, the Forverts had already been publishing their own health warnings based on intimate knowledge of communal habits. In September, folks had been asked to sneeze into hankies rather than straight out in public space, to resist the temptations of egg creams and the like at the ice cream soda counters, where they’d be served in shared glass (rinsed between customers, but still), and to refrain from public spitting. So many funerals took place that Jewish immigrants’ cherished mutual aid society, the Worker’s Circle (Arbeter Ring), initiated a burial plan as part of their offerings.
Succinct, and far from being an amulet, Reb Velvele nonetheless sought to speak to Forverts readers, as well as readers of more Orthodox publications. Not quite the nineteenth-century pandemic of cholera, where rabbinic pronouncements also led to certain easing of prayer and mourning commitments, along with some funkier suggestions involving rose water and flannel belts. But still, more spiritual than today’s New York City text line for coronavirus updates. In publishing these religious directives, a marked departure from Forverts-normativity, secular Yiddishists during a time of great fear, also found in their chosen news media a place to ask they be spared, protected and delivered.
The art for this piece is titled “A Thousand Birds You Hear But Can’t Quite See in The Mist” and was graciously provided by Joanna Murphy. More of her work can be found at www.joannamurphy.com
From the archive, Influenza: rabbi adjusts shiva