28 Jul Q3: What is working and why?
From tablet to tablet – we ask experts about convergences between Jewish Studies and digital humanities. First we asked What has changed? Yesterday’s question was What’s not working and how can we fix it?
Question 3: Please name a few important, successful or promising digital humanities initiatives in Jewish Studies
Lev Israel and Russel Neiss (Sefaria)
The National Library of Israel has a tremendous body of work online. Unfortunately, most of it is not available outside of the library. They are exploring ways to open their collection.
The work of the Historical Dictionary project at the Academy of Hebrew Languages is potentially of huge value. They recently opened their concordance without restriction, and are tentatively exploring creating APIs and releasing their vast collection of high-quality texts.
JTS Professor Shamma Friedman was arguably one of the first to recognize the potential of digital technology, and he continues to focus his work on the Babylonian Talmud. He stewards three Websites – one dedicated to variants of the Talmud, one for parallel texts, and one for references to the Talmud. One gets the sense that he would be glad to open these resources to the world were he not constantly in need of the meager access fees that he collects in order to continue to provide these services.
The work of HebrewBooks.org is invaluable. It is a shame that they have chosen to place legal restrictions on their work and to provision their scans of books in low resolution.
Jonathan Brent, Executive Director of YIVO-Institute for Jewish Research
Judaica Europeana, which aggregates digital European Jewish content from hundreds of libraries, archives, and museums
Judaica Link, a linked open data (LOD) project, which involves using Jewish reference works as a tool for both exploiting the possibilities of the semantic Web and developing controlled vocabularies for Jewish Studies. Will open interesting possibilities for creating a “knowledge map” for Jewish Studies.
YIVO Vilna Collections Project, which reunites the pre-war archives of the YIVO Institute in New York and Lithuania, digitizing over 2 million documents and 10,000 books. Will be the only pre-World War II Jewish collection to be digitized in its entirety and posted online.
The Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society Portal for Jewish Manuscripts and Books, which makes the Cairo Genizah, a complex multi-lingual collection housed in multiple locations, accessible through one portal.
Footprints, which focuses on discovering the provenance of early modern Hebrew and Yiddish texts through tracing booksellers’ stamps, drawing on readers’ contributions as well as staff expertise. A pilot project that uses crowd-sourcing to build data and content.
Conny Kristel, Reto Speck, Tobias Blanke and Daan de Leeuw, European Holocaust Research Infrastructure
Archival Access project IHRA: This international project aims to overcome the challenges to access of archival materials relevant to study the Holocaust, such as legal obstacles, the closure of archives, prohibitive costs, inadequate research facilities, and the poor physical condition of some materials (https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/focus/archives). The IHRA came to an agreement with the European Union on the new version of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which includes a specific reference to the Holocaust. The reference exempts the GDPR to be applicable on Holocaust related archival material. Hereby access to these material is improved thanks to the IHRA.
EHRI (European Holocaust Research Infrastructure): EHRI’s mission is to support the Holocaust research community by building a digital infrastructure and facilitating human networks. EHRI provides online access to information about dispersed sources relating to the Holocaust through its Online Portal, and tools and methods that enable researchers and archivists to collaboratively work with such sources. Apart from providing an online platform, EHRI also facilitates an extensive network of researchers, archivists and others to increase cohesion and co-ordination among practitioners and to initiate new transnational and collaborative approaches to the study of the Holocaust. EHRI thereby seeks to overcome one of the hallmark challenges of Holocaust research: the wide dispersal of the archival source material across Europe and beyond, and the concomitant fragmentation of Holocaust historiography. Twenty-three organizations – research institutions, libraries, archives, museums and memorial sites – run the project.
‘‘International Research Portal for Records Related to Nazi-Era Cultural Property’ project by the Digital Curation Innovation Center (DCIC) of the University of Maryland is a collaborative project working with archival, museum, and technical experts to create a linked database to facilitate data identification, analysis, and visualization of looted Holocaust-era information. It is a collaboration of 18 national and other archival institutions with collections distributed over multiple sites. The goal is to use both federated and graph-database search technologies to conduct automated searches across the portal to retrieve and consolidate information on individuals, organizations, and cultural objects related to Nazi-looted cultural assets.
Zsuzsanna Toronyi, Director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives
Sefaria is one of the most innovative DH projects of Jewish Studies.
Traditional Jewish thinking evolved from the repeated reinterpretation and re-commenting of ancient sacred texts and oral tradition as well as the continuous raising of new questions about the same texts. According to Jewish tradition, the true meaning of things is inherently related to heritage and immanent in them. Their revelation happens through the continuous reinterpretation of tradition for all generations, connecting living Jews with their ancestors, their present problems and lives with that of their forefathers. In this tradition, visual culture has a smaller role as due to the strict interpretation of the second commandment, Judaism does not hold respect for images and icons. The concept of Jewish art has been subject to scholarly debates since the last decades of the 19th century. The results, which have only crystallised in the mid-20th century, constitute the basis of scientific research and processing of Jewish objects in museums. Harold Rosenberg, a New York art critic, introduced a new concept in 1966 which he called ’The Jewish art of the future’. This concept is the metaphysical Judaica: art portraying the teachings of Judaism with a philosophical content. It goes beyond visual material and formal content.
Seeing the results of the Sefaria project, I believe with digitizing and online publication we have come to the future that Rosenberg dreamed of. The essential goal of Sefaria was to digitize classical Jewish texts, in the course of which nearly the entirety of traditional Jewish literature is to be published in original language and translation as well. Its data upload methodology is open: it follows the practice of crowdsourcing, currently with 3439 active participants. They have so far digitized 84.141.295 Hebrew/Aramaic words and related to this have published an English translation of 18.989.055 words. So far this could be a traditional library. In the huge amount of uploaded classic texts 1.102.349 intertextual links have been made available by one click. The same knowledge that was indicated by Soncino, Bomberg and other printers from the 15-16.century – however, back then, the reader had to turn over the pages of another volume for “linking”, if he had the book at all. Otherwise he would have had to travel to another city to get it. Today, it takes only one click to switch. Further, in the spirit of the above mentioned continuous reinterpreting practice, users of digitized texts can compile “source-sheets” from texts selected in their “baskets”, which can be used to study contextual questions and problems. By the 10th May 2017, 62.959 such source sheets are available, in thematic groups, sorted by subject. But that’s not all. Sefaria, following the most beautiful practice of “digital humanities” visualizes, depicts the vast amount Jewish sacred texts. Their visualizations, on the one hand, show the nexus between texts, so they can be interpreted as learning facilitators. But perhaps they mean even more than that. The links between the several thousand year-old texts give a beautiful, symmetrical and/or repetitive pattern. In Secular-Art Theory, this is nothing more than the true, transcendent, metaphysical Jewish art that shows the Jewish spirit. For those who are more attached to Jewish traditions, however, it may even be more than that, since we are not talking about new contents. These contents have been there since the revelation on Mount Sinai but we were unable to see them before. The exploration and exhibition of this immanent aesthetic aspect is what we had to wait until the current stage of technological development. It must have been a similar experience for our ancestors in the 16th century to take the first printed copies of the sacred Jewish books and explore on the multi-column printed pages the text links, or the small signs that refer to other books or texts. I hope we will not have to wait another five hundred years for the next step and, with the help of IT technology, and we will soon, in our days, be able to explore a new layer of tradition that is not yet part of our knowledge.
Lena Stanley-Clamp, Director at European Association for Jewish Culture
Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts in Humanities (DARIAH) is a large-scale and long-term, European initiative aiming to enhance and support digitally-enabled research across the arts and humanities, including Jewish Studies.
European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) is supported by the Dariah infrastructure. The project supports research on the Holocaust by providing a digital infrastructure. It provides access to information about dispersed sources and gives access to tools to enable archivists and researchers to work collaboratively.
The Friedberg Genizah Project (FGP) was established to facilitate Genizah research. It has been locating the Genizah manuscripts and then identifying, cataloging, transcribing, translating, rendering them into digital format and publishing them online.
Digital Mishnah project hosts the development of a born-digital critical edition of the Mishnah. The project will provide a dynamic edition of the Mishnah that takes advantage of its medium to provide multiple and customizable presentations of the text, as well as analytical tools that will allow the user to study variability between witnesses as well as other features.
Footprints, is a database which tracks the circulation of Jewish books and enables to build a composite view of the movement of Jewish texts and ideas from place to place and across time.
Another interesting example is EPIDAT – a database of Jewish epigraphy at, which allows collaborative editing and multi-disciplinary research. The Epidat data has been integrated in Europeana.
Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University and Co-director of the Footprints project
Digipal, and its Hebrew iteration, Sephardipal. This site shows how the digital can truly revive an endangered field. While the experts in Hebrew paleography are few, far between and near retirement, Sephardipal (and its parent, Digipal) has successfully brought paleography into the modern era, allowing users to annotate manuscript images to study paleographical similarities. This will be a game-changer for the formal teaching and studying of paleography, but also to “casual” users who need clarification in reading texts in various hands. The creator of Digipal, Stewart Brookes (KCL) reads Hebrew, and understands the significance of Sephardipal in particular (Note that Sephardipal is not yet public, as its creator is working on it for her dissertation.)
Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place. Footprints takes the history of the book to a level that can only be achieved in an era of digital technology. With a focus on paratexts and ephemeral material surrounding the printed Jewish book, this project attempts to take digital projects to the next step: compiling data that is found in libraries around the worldinto a robust database to track the movement of Jewish books (and thus people, and ideas, and movements, etc.) throughout time and space.The project uses both trusted crowdsourcing from scholars in libraries, as well as direct partnerships with libraries to harvest provenance data for the project. It is a digital projectthat brings collections together in a way that could not have existed in a previous era.
(Disclaimer: I am one of the co-directors of the Footprints project)
The Friedberg Genizah Project. Although it has gone through many changes over the years, the FGP was the first successful “digital humanities” project in Jewish Studies. It made incredible use of the digital forum to bring together manuscripts that had been scattered around the world and to facilitate incredible research via its platform. Its relatively recent upgrades, which digitally matches fragments automatically, has added very significantly to Geniza research.
The Digin is not a digital project per se, but the first (and only) collaborative bringing together people working on digital projects in areas surrounding Jewish Studies. It is technically an Israeli collaborative working on digital humanities, and thus goes beyond Jewish Studies, but it has become a de facto forum for people doing work in the area. Its Facebook Group has nearly 550 members from around the world, and is a great forum for questions. However, it is, at its heart, an Israeli initiative, and thus all of its events and programming take place in Israel. If it could be supported in such a way that it could include global Jewish Studies, it could be the initial uniting force for DH projects in the field.
The Digital Yiddish Theatre Project. Similar to the Digin, the DYTP is not a digital project, but a collaborative forum for scholars working on digital projects in Yiddish studies. In recent years, many projects have begun which combine the digital with Yiddish Studies (Debra Kaplan’s Networks of the Vilner Troupe, Mapping Yiddish NYC, and other projects still in beginning stages), and this group has collaborated to share ideas and advice. It is a wonderful model of a successful DH collaboration in Jewish Studies
Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit in Cambridge University Library
In my field of Genizah Studies, these would be:
the Cambridge Digital Library, which continues to innovate in making the material widely accessible
the Friedberg Genizah Project, which has revolutionised Genizah Studies in general
the British Library’s digitisation of its Hebrew manuscripts (notably Or.4445, one of the more important codices of the Bible)
the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv digital library promises to further revolutionise our ability to conduct long distance research without shifting from our comfy chairs. In putting online digitised microfilms of the Russian National Library’s Firkowitch Collection, it is already doing a great service to scholars worldwide
Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania
The Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe’s involvement in the creation of the National Library of Israel (NLI) as an independent institution and the development of the NLI under the leadership of Oren Weinberg, has been the single most important initiative. The reinvention of the National Library of Israel, serving national needs without neglecting global Jewish cultural life is of unparalleled significance. Examples of the impact are many: the creation of Archinet, the Israeli Internet Archives, the opening up to the public of the Bibliography of the Hebrew Book, sustaining RAMBI, partnering to build the Jewish Historical Press Project, moving the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts towards its conversion into a digital repository, ongoing production of the digital Book Repository, creating the Visual Memory digital website, developing the NLI’s National Sound Archive and the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, the merger with the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, and actively facilitating Judaica digital projects around the world. Thanks to the RFE and the NLI, Jewish digital heritage has entered a new reality, one that could only be dreamed about as recently as ten years ago.
Yerusha, based in London, which has grown out of the RFE-NLI partnership, is a critically important effort to use digital technologies to unite scattered Jewish archives located across Europe and in so doing to create an online portal and centralized database to help research and discover the extantEuropean Jewish archival heritage. It is a model partnership.
The Friedberg Genizah Project in Israel, which has broken new ground in pattern recognition technology applied to manuscript fragments and The Friedberg Jewish Manuscripts Society projects, which has developed multiple new projects for presenting significant manuscript sources and their variants online (though marred by having to access the site via registration);
The Jesselson-Kaplan American Genizah Project at the University of Pennsylvania, utilizing TEI, has introduced new, cooperative models for how to search and display physically dispersed, privately and publicly owned archival and published monographic and serialized primary sources;
Footprints at Columbia University opens up the world of the history of material texts of Jewish culture to crowd-sourcing provenance, while focusing scholarly attention not only on the texts themselves but on their physical biographies.
Sinai Rusinek, The Van Leer Jerusalem Insitute
Polonsky and friedberg digitization projects are extremely important, but only if they will be coupled with MSS digital palaeography that opens them (e.g.Sephardipal project)
JPress and the digitization of books at the NLI: extracting a textual corpus for modern jewish languages
Sefaria: for their open source policy
AharonVarady- for his “Open Source Judaism” initiative
Michelle Chesner’slist of DH projects
We would like to know what you think.