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March 11: The 1918 Flu Epidemic

Lawrence Bush
March 11, 2017
The first case in the U.S. of the so-called “Spanish flu,” an influenza strain that killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide, including nearly 600,000 Americans, was reported at the Army hospital in Fort Riley, Kansas on this date in 1918. Within a week, the hospital was dealing with 500 cases and 48 deaths. A 2006 study focused on Hartford, Connecticut determined that Southern and Eastern European immigrants were significant carriers of the disease in the U.S., and people who came in contact with them were “most likely to contact the flu and die from it.” According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Alan M. Kraut, “Native-born individuals or immigrants not of Southern or Eastern European origin who resided in areas with high concentrations of Southern and Eastern Europeans also had a higher probability of contracting the disease.” Yet New York City, with a high concentration of both Jews and Italians, did not suffer worse rates of the flu than other cities, in part because New York had already mobilized, two decades earlier against tuberculosis, which was widely known as “the Jewish disease.” The Forward wrote in 1918 that “In the Jewish community, the head of the rabbinic court or Beys Din of New York announced that Jews in mourning who must sit shiva ‘can and must be lenient with regard to the laws of mourning.’ Mourners were required by Jewish law to stay at home, do no work or domestic tasks, or even change clothes or bathe. However, because of the flu, mourners were told, ‘He who lives in narrow rooms or such a one who must have fresh air may go around outside for a few hours each day on account of health.’ The bereaved were told they could buy food and need not go barefoot, ‘even at home, but wear shoes in order not to catch a cold. God forbid.’ ” “Dr. Maurice Fishberg, a Russian-born physician and amateur anthropologist, collected data to refute allegations that Eastern European Jewish immigrants were inherently sicker than the general population. Instead, Fishberg and others argued that Eastern European Jewish immigrants often arrived in ill health because they had lived impoverished lives, with inadequate nutritious food, poor sewage, and contaminated drinking water. Their pre-departure environment was typically a frigid breeding ground for disease. And conditions after arrival were usually not much better . . . Not surprisingly, the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 aroused fears of anti-Semitism within the Jewish immigrant community. History had taught Jewish spokespeople that they must at all costs deflect blame for the pandemic away from Jewish immigrants less they trigger the sort of medicalized anti-Semitism they had left Eastern Europe to escape.” --Alan M. Kraut

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.