by Binny Lewis

Many people believe this Coronavirus is the first plague in modern times to affect the Jewish community and the world at large. The truth is that there have been many pandemics throughout the past few hundred years which have caused much pain and anguish, and even further back to the times of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, in 412 BC. Since then there have been pandemics ranging from light to severe that have occurred once every 10 to 30 years until today1. To help us gain a better understanding of what a global pandemic has meant for past generations, here are a few events that have occurred within just the last century.

Swine Flu (2009 – 2010)

While not as widespread as the Coronavirus, many succumbed to the Swine Flu, including approximately 12,000 people in the United States. Half a million throughout the rest of the world were affected. Travelers returning from Mexico, where the virus originated, were asked to self-isolate for seven days, the incubation period for the flu. Doctors in Israel2 mandated, similarly to today’s guidelines, that citizens refrain from kissing or touching mezuzahs which are placed on doorposts by Orthodox Jews as a mitzvah (and some add that they are there for protection of the home). In 2010, many Rabbis3 were quick to point to the Talmud’s account from nearly two thousand years ago, which depicted a similar plague to the Swine Flu, which had the potential to be transferred from pigs to humans:

“They told Rabbi Judah: There is a deadly plague affecting the pigs. He decreed a fast. Do we say that Rabbi Judah holds that a plague which affects one [animal] species is likely to affect all species (and therefore, kosher farm animals were threatened also)? No. Pigs are different since their digestive tracts are similar to those of humans [and therefore might affect people].
— Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 21b

Hong Kong Flu (1968 – 1969)

The last large-scale pandemic in recent history occurred during the late 1960s. Originating from China, or more specifically Hong Kong, the H3N2 strain of influenza spread through Europe, Australia, and the United States. After three months, over one million people died. A large majority of these cases occurred in Hong Kong, where 15% of the population was wiped out.  Shortly after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel faced what could have been another existential crisis. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on December 30, 1968, that all members of the Israeli government were immunized and that the limited supply of vaccines available were being distributed to “chronically ill persons and those whose jobs are considered vital to national security.”4 Due to Israel’s early response to the growing pandemic, they were able to avoid what could have been a major catastrophe.

Asian Flu (1957 – 1958)

Roughly 10 years prior to the onset of the flu in Hong Kong, the outbreak of the Asian Flu began in southern China and spread quickly, killing between one to two million people worldwide. In a second wave, the virus spread to America and Europe. According to the CDC5, there were about 116,000 deaths in the USA. A local Israeli winery from the town of Binyamina made light of the situation and published an ad with a recommendation that wasn’t necessarily approved by doctors: “Asian Flu or Common Flu? In any case, it is not great to catch. [But] there is no better natural cure for Flu and Colds [than to] drink Cognac Golden Crown, from Binyamina’s “Eliaz Wineries”.6

Spanish Flu (1918 – 1919)

While World War I was raging and covering news headlines the world over, an influenza pandemic was spreading that led to more deaths than all of the fighting of WWI combined! Starting in 1918 with US troops stationed in North Central Kansas, within six months, nearly 50 million people died worldwide. Shortly after the end of the war the virus reached its full impact. By the end of 18 months, 500 million people had been infected. While in some previous pandemics Jews had been blamed for the virus spreading7, Jews were not blamed for the 1918 Spanish Flu. In fact, Jews were vital to combating the spread of the virus, and San Francisco’s health department was led by a number of Jews, including Lawrence Arnstein, who was also involved with leading the Red Cross’s response around the country. In the town of Sanok, Galicia, Poland, Eliyahu Berger records8 some of his memories from his childhood of the small Jewish population of about 3,000. There are many striking similarities to the pandemic affecting us today.

“In 1919, after the First World War, a typhus epidemic broke out in the cities of Galicia. It spread quickly and attained the proportions of a frightful epidemic… The physicians Dr. Rammer, who was also the head of the community, and Dr. Shmuel Herzig, who was then the president of Yad Charutzim, summoned all the residents of the city to a meeting in the large Beis Midrash. They explained the reasons and causes of this illness… No medicine was effective against this illness and the high fever which accompanied it. The epidemic increased from day to day and afflicted most of the residents of the city. There were approximately 10-15 funerals almost every day… The Jewish physicians utilized strict precautions. Among others, they forbade all gatherings of people in one place, such as communal gatherings and even public prayer in the synagogue and Beis Midrash, in order to prevent the spread of the disease… [They repurposed many buildings, even] the hall of its synagogue, which turned into a “hospital”. There was also no shortage of volunteer “orderlies” and “nurses” from amongst the population… Of course, a mood of oppression, fear and even despair pervaded among the residents of the city. Nobody could be sure that the fate of the victims of the disease of yesterday and today will not visit them tomorrow or the following day. This mood was strengthened by the lack of information about the causes of the disease, as has been noted, and the lack of information about means that could be employed to prevent or cure the disease… The epidemic in our city lasted for 20 days. It became clear in an official fashion that the plague stopped exactly on the 21st day, and disappeared in as sudden a fashion as it had arrived, without anyone knowing the reasons for its disappearance… At the conclusion of my words, I will not hold back from adding a few words about various phenomena that took the town by complete surprise, the echoes of which have an aura of mystery about them and defy complete understanding… The effect of those terrible days in Sanok remains etched in the memory of the members of our town, and served for many years as a source of thoughts and stories but a rare, awesome and powerful event.”
There is much that we can learn by studying the past. Although sometimes we feel that we are alone in Jewish history, the experiences of our grandparents and ancestors who have lived through similar flu pandemics, even in the last century, can show us how to cope in these trying times.

  4. “Security for Cabinet Members – All Are Inoculated Against Hong Kong Flu.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency – Daily News Bulletin, 31 Dec. 1968, pp. 1–4.

Binny Lewis is JewishGen’s Director of Special Projects – Yizkor Books