Longing for Nostalgia

by Hagar Hazaz Berger, Bar Ilan University

In 1688 the Swiss physician Johannes Hopper treated soldiers sent to the battlefield. Hopper noticed that the soldiers developed symptoms of weakness, severe abdominal pain, unwillingness to live, and especially intense and unbearable longing for the familiar physical space – home, and a desire to return there. He also noticed that the symptoms disappeared as the soldiers approached their place of residence. Hopper diagnosed the symptoms as a medical condition and called it nostalgia. The term means longing for something or someone far away and indulging in the past. The word nostalgia originates in the Greek language, and consists of two words: nostos νόστος, (return home) and algos ἄλγος, (pain). Evidence of this medical condition was also found among students who left their home for study purposes and among seafarers who went on long voyages.

As this medical condition was also diagnosed in other armies, the attitude towards it changed. From a medical condition received with understanding, it became a factor considered a wartime obstacle. There were military doctors who even suggested methods of terror and intimidation to treat the symptoms. In her book, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym wrote that, inspired by Dr. Jordaan Le Cointe, the army began treating soldiers who experienced symptoms of nostalgia by intimidating them. He would be buried alive, and in some cases  the threat was even carried out, and evidence of the use of methods of intimidation and humiliation and reinforcing feelings of shame began to arrive from the U.S. military as well, but the most lucrative treatment was simply to send the soldier back home.

Over time the attitude towards nostalgia and its symptoms changed, and since the middle of the 19th century nostalgia was no longer defined as a medical condition. Instead, the use of the term has become commonplace in the context of bitter longing for time that has passed and will never return. In this way, nostalgia was linked to the romantic aspects and idealization of the past, while erasing the unwanted events from the shelves of memories.

In this article I reflect on an ethnography I conducted in Israel from February 2020, when Covid-19 began to take root and the world discovered life in the shadow of a global epidemic. The study focuses on the experiences of isolators who went into preventive isolation and is based on field diaries, observations and over fifty in-depth interviews with isolators during their isolation period. I will examine the use of nostalgia and longing as practices that alleviate uncertainty in the days of epidemiological crisis.

In the fieldwork I discovered that the interviewees evoke nostalgia as a pleasant memory of what was, in the face of a longing that floods with emotions like pain, fears and sometimes floods with existential anxieties. Extensive research by social psychologists Konstantin Sedikides and Tim Wildschut suggest that the link between present and past events can be a survival technique. For example, a group of women in a Holocaust concentration camp found their grip on the inconceivable reality through a nostalgic reconstruction of family meals and exchange of recipes and conversations about food. The nostalgic focus on the abundance of food and the preoccupation with it in a place plagued by hunger and pain, helped them get through this impossible period and survive.

Reuma is a 75-year-old isolator. Longing is the first expression that comes from her words. Across the line soft tears of pain pile up. “The body empties all blood,” she says. From the pains of longing for her granddaughter, lead her to thoughts of her husband who she lost several years ago. She says this is the first time she has spoken to him, “I found myself standing in front of his picture and talking to him, that he would take care of us.” The time that elapsed between the actual loss and the imaginary loss seems to mix with the time leaking between her fingers.

Later in our conversation, Reuma tells the story of her life with longing, peace penetrates the conversation and we are both in other historical periods, but when Reuma returns here and now, the longing and anxiety puts her in distress.”The nostalgia for the past was accompanied by a sense of completion, but the longing for now is accompanied by anxiety as if the whole world is reduced to the future -first- hug with the granddaughter . Then, the nostalgic look at the suffocating reality. She gets strength, “we went through harder things than these” she adds, the past gives her strength even in moments of loss of hope and uncertainty. Nostalgia is a source of hope, a return home.

Gil, a 37-year-old in isolation, misses what may not be anymore- sitting with a friend in a bar drinking beer, the spontaneous acquaintance and intimate contact with a woman, going to a movie. In his words, longing is close, and is accompanied by anxiety for an unfulfilled future, for dreams and hidden fantasies. Like Fernando Pessoa’s Alvaro de Campos, all the dreams of the world are in him, he feels their lies as he presents them in conversation and his anxiety rises, otherwise, he will be nothing. A reflection of whoever was a living witness to what he wanted to fulfill. Leonard Cohen wrote in his poem The Body of Loneliness: “The body of loneliness is covered from the outside and inside, the body of loneliness embraces.” Gil is afraid of that embracing loneliness, of the loneliness that will embrace and take over him and, in his words, “I can no longer be who I am.” This fear, of self-perception in the face of the current situation that might cause him to lose personal identity within the collective chaos, undermines him, he enters a cloud of sadness. But out of a dream also appears a crack, which allows to see through it, to peek with hope, and the feeling of touch becomes real and tangible, at least until the next cup of coffee he brings to his lips.

Gila, 30, says we did something terrible. To the world, to the earth, to ourselves, and the world revolts against its people and demands redemption. “There is a poetic justice here,” she says, “we will still miss what was here before, but not because we were right, but because we will understand that we should correct our actions” Gila believes that it is impossible to continue to plunder the world without war returning. She adds that we are far from ourselves, from nature, from doing good to the world and to ourselves, and in the end it all hits us and there is no going back, “I am scared. Really. Maybe I will get out of here and everything will turn upside down, but I am more afraid everything will stay the same.”

In these days of confinement at home I tend to go back to the movies I saw in the past, I wondered why it was during this period that it was important for me to show my children a cult film of my childhood and thus we watched together Back to the Future, Gremlins, The never-ending story and other old (as me) childhood movies. The experience of a familiar thing that does not change, produces a sense of belonging, an attachment to a connection between past and present. The childhood films connect me to who I was, to a safe place I can give to my children. Between the safe place I thought I was in and the place I am today and creating a sequence of time, so that the past, even if our subjective world is imprinted in it, suddenly  become one with the other.

Whether we looked with nostalgia or longing and anxiety in this event in time, they all revolved around a stubborn grip on hope. And perhaps it is imprinted in the instinct of human survival and in its stubbornness, it strengthens longing and nostalgia, keeps our eyes wide open – and all that is left, is to think of the wondrous new world that may come, and may not, but hope, instead of writing a farewell elegy.

This article is part of a wide-ranging article examining the experience of the isolated people in Israel from February 2020 to the present day and attempts to examine the practice of using emotions such as nostalgia and longing to alleviate the uncertainty created by the epidemiological crisis.

About the Author

Hagar has a PhD in anthropology from the Hebrew University and is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar Ilan University. Her research deals with cultural aspects of meaning, mind and self, space, emotions, and postmodernism.

In her previous study she examined the cultural and social aspects of the tent protest in the summer of 2011 and the impact of the protest space on shaping the self-perception and search for meaning of the encampment residents, while adopting a critical look at cultural and social categories. Her current research focuses on Covid-19 isolation in Israel. Both studies were conducted using a methodological tool called “urgent ethnography,” a concept that Hagar explored in her doctoral dissertation.

Hagar is the founder and head of the Psychological Anthropological Community in Israel, and a lecturer at the Hebrew University, Ruppin College, and the College of Management.

Job opportunity – Postdoctoral Fellow

Here is an opportunity to work closely with Keir Martin (one of the ENPA network convenors):

Job description
Applications are invited for two 36 months positions, with the option of applying for an additional 12 months, as Postdoctoral Fellow (SKO 1352) of Social Anthropology to be based at the Department of Social Anthropology. The positions will be part of the research project “Shrinking the Planet: Psychotherapy and the New Global Middle Class”, led by professor Keir Martin, and funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

Our world is changing rapidly as the centres of economic and political power shift from Europe and North America to South and East Asia. The new middle classes of China and India will be the drivers of new patterns of consumer taste and culture over the next century. This is a planetary social revolution of historic importance. But how much do we know about these new groups that are coming into being and changing the shape of global society? What drives them and motivates them? What values and emotions move them and inform them? Shrinking the Planet attempts to provide an answer to this question through an in-depth exploration of one of the most significant and rapidly expanding ‘culture industries’ in countries with rapidly expanding new middle-classes; psychotherapy. In Russia, India and China, psychotherapy has gone from being marginalised or even illegal in recent years to being a mass culture industry involving hundreds of thousands of members of the new middle-classes. Through in-depth participant observation with trainee psychotherapists in these three countries the project aims to provide a snapshot of the emerging subjectivities of these new social groups that will shape global culture over the coming century. Three anthropologists will conduct fieldwork in each of the three countries in a psychotherapy training institute and with recently qualified therapists to construct a unique document of these world-views as they come into being.

Postdoctoral Fellow 1 (India)
Postdoctoral Fellow 1 will conduct 12 months of fieldwork in India. The remaining time should be spent in residence in Oslo. The ideal candidate for the job will have an understanding of psychotherapy and/or psychological anthropology and will come with previous research experience working in this field and relevant language qualifications.

Postdoctoral Fellow 2 (Russia)
Postdoctoral Fellow 2 will conduct 12 months of fieldwork in Russia. The remaining time should be spent in residence in Oslo. The ideal candidate for the job will have an understanding of psychotherapy and/or psychological anthropology and will come with previous research experience working in this field and relevant language qualifications.

More details available here:https://www.jobbnorge.no/en/available-jobs/job/192088/postdoctoral-fellow-shrinking-the-planet


Please feel free to join the open-access virtual conference (May 20 – 30):



including a presentation by one of the ENPA network founders: Friday, 22 May 2020, 2.00 – 3.15 pm (Berlin time): Tracking Corona – A Transnational Anthropological Detective Story Thomas Stodulka

Online Documentary Film Program and Debate: Religious Healing and Sacred Health Curing

The Network of the Anthropology of the Middle East and Central Eurasia (AMCE) of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), will organise a new series of online biweekly documentary film presentations regarding “religious healing and sacred health curing” from June 2020.

During our current complex situation caused by COVID-19, this program should be considered a unique platform for specialists of the field in which they will be able to watch collectively documentary films which in one way or another discuss the role of religion, religious rituals, sacred sites and material religion in religious healing and sacred health curing. The film presentations will be continued by a debate between the moderator, filmmakers and the specialists of the field. 

  1. Our program is open to all religions, rituals, and related topics and there is no limit for the date of production; 
  2. If you are aware of such documentary films which would be suitable for this program, please contact the moderator to provide the name of the film, the filmmaker and the related e-mail address. Films should be subtitled in English  and open access to all for a period of 24 hours prior to the presentation;  
  3. If you are interested in participating in this initiative as an audience member, a filmmaker, or a discussant, please contact the moderator; 
  4. While films will be presented online and based on the platforms that filmmakers will provide for watching them (individuals registered to the program), the general debate will be organised via zoom (individuals registered to the program);  
  5. With the agreement of filmmakers and discussants, the online debates and discussions will be recorded to be used as open access resources for further academic research. Those who are interested in being part of this program can contact Dr. P. Khosronejad (P.Khosronejad@westernsydney.edu.au). Sincerely,P. Khosronejad

Moderator of the Network of the Anthropology of the Middle East and Central Eurasia of EASA


After careful consideration of the recent COVID-19 developments, we have reached a consensus on postponing the conference by one year. This decision was not taken lightly, considering the financial loss for those who have already arranged travel and the fact that the conference team has been working on this with a high level of commitment, along with all the presenters, keynote speakers and chairs who have invested their precious time and energy into making it happen. Thank you for all your hard work and support.

While we, unfortunately, do not have the funds to help you with travel refunds, those who have already registered will receive a full refund of the registration costs. The conference team will get in touch with you personally.

The provisional date for the conference next year would be June 1–3, 2021 at the University of Helsinki. Hopefully, after a calmer summer, we will be able to provide more information in the winter of 2020, but please save the date if you can.

We decided against a fully virtual conference, as everyone’s resources, including the university IT support staff, are currently depleted due to online teaching adjustments. Furthermore, as this is our very first conference, we would like to kick this off with a more personal approach and get to know each other.

We are also happy to publish a blog post (1,000 – 1,500 words) related to your research or perspectives on psychological anthropologies in times of lockdowns in case you want to share a teaser with our community in the meantime.

If you have any further concerns or queries regarding the conference, please do not hesitate to contact us at conference@enpanthro.net.

We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this has caused and we hope that you will join us next year in hopefully calmer times.

Please stay safe and all the best from your conference team and the ENPA conveners:
Andy, Anni, Keir, Lavinia, James, Siiri, Suzana & Thomas