From Holocaust study to pandemic - Research under quarantine

A memoir of reading and researching under quarantine

Dr. Joel Rappel at the S.Y. Agnon Library in Jerusalem (photo credit: YOSSI ZELINGER)
Dr. Joel Rappel at the S.Y. Agnon Library in Jerusalem
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELINGER)

When the days of masks and gloves began in Israel, my wife, Dorit, and I were at a four-day conference in Austria, the second part of which was held at the Mauthausen concentration camp. During our stay in Austria, we did not see a single person walking around with a face mask; life continued as usual in the streets, hotels, tourist sites, parks, universities, and restaurants. Vienna was still the picture of carefree joy.
Although there were reports that Austria had also been affected by the pandemic, the Austrians appeared quite calm. It turned out that friends of ours who were also at the conference in Vienna returned to their home in London while already ill with the coronavirus – without knowing it, of course.
My wife and I returned to Israel in the early morning of Monday, March 2, and a few hours later, I was already at the university. At the point, people were talking about the virus – but not more than that. That Wednesday, the university held a conference in honor of our esteemed friend, former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. At 5 p.m. that evening, in the midst of that conference, I received word that all those who had returned from abroad – including my wife and me – were required to self-quarantine. Life had suddenly been upended, as we would now have to remain at home in seclusion for the next 12 days.
That evening, I was scheduled to deliver a lecture in memory of Dr. Shelly Goldberg, on a halachic-historical analysis of the recitation of Kaddish by women. Some 180 people had registered to participate, and the organizers decided not to cancel the lecture. From that point on, we remained at home until May 8, when we traveled to the Carmel Forest to meet up with our children and grandchildren after more then two months apart.
To be perfectly honest, this time alone, although not particularly restful, was productive for me. I had big plans – which had to be balanced, of course, with cleaning my study and preparing for Passover. And over the course of our two months of forced isolation at home, we not once neglected our daily five-kilometer walk. 
Sitting among the overflowing shelves of my library (which has more than 6,000 books) and free of all family obligations, I managed to read and write, and then to read and write some more. 
I did a remarkable amount of reading, mainly new books on the Holocaust, including Gali Mir-Tibon’s The Mothers’ List [Reshimat Imahot in Hebrew]; Havi Dreifuss (Ben-Sasson)’s The Warsaw Ghetto-The End; Anita Shapira’s Two Motherlands: Friendship in the Age of Early Zionist Immigration [Tzomet Bilu); Dvora Hacohen’s To Repair a Broken World: The Life of Henrietta Szold (Manhigah le-lo Gevulot); Dina Porat’s To Me Belongeth Vengeance and Recompense: The Yishuv, the Holocaust, and the Abba Kovner Group of Avengers (Li Nikam ve-Shilem); David Biale’s Gershom Scholem; and Tamar Wolf-Monzon’s Poetry and Politics: Between Pre-State and State (Shirah u-Politica: Bein Yishuv u-Medinah).     
In addition to my intensive reading schedule, I also did quite a bit of writing. A short time before the pandemic began, I was invited to write two long articles for the Makor Rishon newspaper to mark 50 years since the passing of two great Hebrew writers – S.Y. (Shai) Agnon (Nobel Prize Winner 1966) and Natan Alterman. The first article was about the unique gift that Shai Agnon gave me in honor of my Bar Mitzvah – a personal tour with him in Jerusalem! 
The second article, entitled “Alterman in Kishinev,” discussed the five formative years that Alterman, a very important Israeli poet, playwright and journalist, spent in the capital city of Moldova, made famous in Jewish histor by the 1903 pogrom. 
Ten days before the coronavirus reached Israel, I returned from a trip to Kishinev, during which I visited all of the sites that Alterman mentions in his writings. During that trip, I also traveled to Transnistria, a visit which served as the basis for an article on Ynet (a Hebrew news site) for Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which I described the present situation of Jewish life in the area notorious for the annihilation of almost 3,000 Jews. 
Another article that I wrote was entitled “Prayers to stop the plague” (published in Ha’Umah/The Nation), based on a number of prayer texts from the current period. In addition, I wrote two articles related to my researches at Bar-Ilan University. The first one was on the topic of “When the number ‘six million’ was first mentioned” to describe the loss of Jewish life in the Holocaust. 
Based on my article, Ofer Aderet from the Hebrew daily, Haaretz, wrote his own article with many quotations – and an interview – from my original article. The article was published on Holocaust Remembrance Day and later the original, which is a much longer article, was published in The Jerusalem Report, on the JPost.com website, and from there in many other worldwide publications. 
The second article was written for a new book published by the Bar-Ilan University-Institute of Holocaust Research where I discussed very problematic issue, “Sanctity of life in Elie Wiesel’s Night.”
I certainly had no lack of things to keep me busy. The one thing I was missing was, and still am – is time!