January, omicron, and YIVO

January, omicron, and YIVO

So, much as I hate to say it, this new year hasn’t had an auspicious start.

Let’s start with something that hardly can be news to any sentient reader. The omicron variant is raging. We’re told that it’s likely that most of it will get it. Most of us — because I am assuming that most of you readers are double vaxxed and most likely boosted as well — will get what’s basically going to feel like a bad cold, which is not hard to deal with, as long as we don’t live with anyone immunosupressed.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a time and a place where we can benefit from the brilliance of the scientists who can make extraordinary things like vaccines happen.

I find the gloom this time of year is heightened by the dimming of the Christmas lights, whose beauty I glory in. I feel nothing but gratitude for them. I love knowing that I can stare at them open-mouth wonder, as I finally realize that the stunning ones on the stunning huge houses — that’s not the family, out on little ladders, putting them up. They pay for that. And I’m so very glad they do.

But now that season is over, and instead of the lights we get to look at the carcasses of Christmas trees, piled in careless heaps as they wait for sanitation departments to pick them up and pulp them. They go from being aromatic delights, upright in sidewalk stands, to pathetic momentos mori terrifying quickly. I look away.

We have gone from the excitement of new winter, with everything crisp and different, to the nasty slog of a gray sky, early sunset, and late sunrise, with nothing exciting coming for months — really nothing until Purim on the Jewish calendar, and Valentine’s Day on the civil one.

As a society, we are sinking into depression. My friends who are therapists tell me that it’s pervasive among their patients, and in fact they have to battle it in themselves as well. We find our resilience being worn down in the face of the never-ending but oddly always changing virus, that microscopic mindless spiked envelope of doom.

And then something like YIVO’s new project reminds us of how wrong we are.

First, just think about the technological advances that made such a project possible. Until quite recently, historical documents simplywere not available for anyone except scholars; the thrill that you can get by looking at, say, a child’s drawing, scribbled a century ago or so ago — by reacted to it directly, unmediated by anything — would not have been possible. Now, we just click, and there it is.

Not only are these riches available to us all, they’re free. That is amazing.

And they have much to teach us. They can help scholars make sense of the Holocaust, and of the world that led up to it. They can personalize information that falls differently on our brains and hearts when it’s more distanced. They can connect us directly to people and their stories.

Below that, and in a way that’s directly relevant to us today, they show us how deeply human people who lived generations ago and an ocean away were. We tend to wrap them in sentimentality, or freeze them as sainted victims, but they were real people.

We can’t remember them, not really, although we always are told that we should. You can’t remember who or what you never knew. But we can remember that each one of them was a real person.

Then we get to the people who rescued the archives. The Paper Brigade. We’re often told that heroes are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations, but there was nothing ordinary about the Paper Brigade, that collection of poets and thinkers and activists and intellectuals.

But really, there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Every single one of us is unusual, quirky, idiosyncratic, in some way, even if that way is so deeply hidden that the hiding itself is the idiosyncrasy. So just as much as the extraordinary Vilna collection that YIVO has posted can teach us about the very specific cultures and languages and times that various chunks of it came from, it also can teach us a larger lessons about the realness and oddness and enormous value of every single one of us. Each one of us is a odd, messy, unusual person.

Take that, omicron!