"Coolness and Courage and Sacrifice:" A Prescription from The Archive

Our archives hold not just historical models of resilience, but building blocks for creating community across time and space.

Dear AJHS Community,

This weekend, frustrated by shelter-in-space, and seeking inspiration, I searched for “cholera,” “influenza,” and “economic depression” on our on-line search portal. Exploring how past New Yorkers responded to these hardships anchored me. Even when facing plagues, unemployment, and fear, they—doctors, religious leaders, small shop-owners, widows, nurses— displayed sensitivity and resilience, stretching their skills to solve communal problems. 

Carefully balancing proper health practices with sensitivity to the community’s ritual practices, he explained, “The benign spirit of our laws…authorises a latitude in the construction of its letter, whenever the lives, health or important interests of the community requires it.” With that, he recommended an early “slight meal, say of coffee, tea, or cocoa, with dry toast,” to fortify those who chose to fast. The doctor’s respect for religious sensibilities enabled him to make a medical recommendation more likely to be followed than one that ignored the tradition.

While Peixotto attended to the community’s medical well-being, Jacques Judah Lyons attended to spiritual needs. As leader of Congregation Shearith Israel, he sustained the community through several cholera epidemics, even creating a prayer service “to avert cholera.” When an economic depression hit in 1857, Lyons and other leaders realized that a sizable proportion of the Jewish population, perhaps as much as 10%, lacked the means to celebrate Passover. He and other synagogue leaders heard the call. They united over a dozen congregations to organize the effort, appealed to the Jewish press to spread the word, canvassed the Lower East Side to find those in need, hired a matzo baker, and ultimately distributed over 14,330 pounds of unleavened bread to unemployed or underemployed Jewish tailors, glaziers, peddlers, laundresses.

Decades later, Lillian Wald and the nurses she recruited walked the same streets of the matzo canvass, attending to the Eastern European Jews who now filled the tenement district. Wald learned how social and economic conditions combined to aggravate health concerns, and not only created a Visiting Nurses Society but also the Henry Settlement House, to foster education and attend to the neighborhood’s social needs.  Thus, when the influenza hit New York in 1918, Wald had the experience to chair the city’s Nurses’ Emergency Council.

To medical professionals and health care workers, Wald’s flyer may have a particularly direct, immediate application. But I imagine that the rest of us will certainly need her dose of “coolness and courage and sacrifice” when we eventually emerge from sheltering-in-place, and figure out how we might help rebuild our world—culturally, socially, economically, politically.

As Wald wrote, “Humanity calls…” In some moments, people serve humanity directly through medical care and social service. But rebuilding New York in the wake of the coronavirus and the economic recession will entail a host of skills and a commitment to community. Our archives hold not just historical models of resilience, but building blocks for creating community across time and space.

Though for now AJHS can’t form community in our traditional ways—Union Square walking tours, book talks, visits to our Emma Lazarus sitting room— we will strive to virtually use the stories we hold in our archives to bring you closer to the Jewish past and the Jewish present.

In the coming weeks, AJHS will try its hand with public zoom webinars on an array of topics and with special guests. We are also moving forward with our new crowdsource initiative —asking you to contribute your memories of Jewish soldiers in your family who fought in World War Two, so that we can augment our Jewish Welfare Board records with personal testimonies. 

If you are a teacher or a parent thrust into home-schooling, we invite you to explore our Emma Lazarus curriculum, complete with film, digital resources, and primary sources. Soon too, we’ll have a costumed interpreter Emma that you can interact with as well. We hope our programs, and our archives, root you in the larger historical trajectory needed to face this difficult time.



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