Q5: Where are we headed?

01 Aug Q5: Where are we headed?

From tablet to tablet – we ask experts about convergences between Jewish Studies and digital humanities. First we asked What has changed? Thursday’s question was What’s not working and how can we fix it? We closed the week by asking What is working and why? Yesterday we wanted to know: Are we different?

Question 5: Currently what are the most important trends in the field? What would be the ideal directions?


Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania

Recent trends include the development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools and the turn to virtual reality (VR) technologies to simulate experiences and enhance learning, and the use of Crowdsourcing to find information or otherwise engage the public in accomplishing projects.  Gamification of content and learning motivation also are recent trends worth considering. Heidi Lerner, who has regularly written on digital technological developments and their impact on Jewish Studies, notes for example the following GIS projects:

HyperCities is a collaborative project and website, developed by UCLA, USC and CUNY. This work-in-progress takes a spatial approach to history and uses the Google Earth platform to explore the historical layers of urban spaces such as Tel Aviv in an interactive, hypermedia environment. What is interesting about the project is that it enables researchers to study the history of city spaces, urban planning, neighborhood composition, and demographics in new and innovative ways.

An innovative artistic experiment to use GIS to codify Jewish spatial practices was undertaken in 2005 with eRuv: A Street History in Semacode (http://www.dziga.com/eruv), a digital graffiti project installed along the route of the former Third Avenue elevated train line in lower Manhattan. Lodged in the heart of the urban New York space, the train line historically had served as part of an eruv for a Hasidic community on the old Lower East Side. The community is now gone, but using camera phones with a protocol that brings together the Internet and physical space, interested parties can access this piece of history.

Envisioning ideal directions for Jewish Digital Humanities is challenging.  Assuming the perfect is the enemy of the good, I would simply say that the opportunity we have to provide completely free, open access to the greater part of Jewish cultural heritage is unprecedented.  However, the greatest impediments to achieving this collective good, in my experience, tend to be human not technological.  Technological challenges can be overcome with time, sufficient funding, and dedication; persuading people to adopt an open data approach is far more difficult.It is critical to the success of Jewish digital humanities initiatives and Jewish cultural preservation in general that we find ways to get institutions, communities, and individuals to embrace open data, support the digital preservation of at-risk primary sourcesbased on uniform standards and best practices, and encourage cooperation and exchange of unique digitized content. We mustbuild trust locally and internationallyby entrenching relational methods and practices and recombinatory projects within an unbreakable web of common, intertwined interests.   In so doing, we will bring together people, new technologies and cultural heritage primary sources to foster innovation and strengthen bonds of community.  In an ideal world, there would be seamless exchanges of data by people around the globe and creative opportunities for infinite play with data that would not be threatened or restricted by any central authority. Securing the future means securing open data.


Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit in Cambridge University Library

Accessibility and collaboration.

It is heartening how many institutions are making their material freely available online: Cambridge, the British Library, even the Bodleian (which has traditionally been more jealous of guarding their manuscripts). The wide availability of material promotes engagement with Jewish Studies, not just by a new generation of scholars, but also by scholars whose work typically focuses on different areas of study. We are certainly seeing this in Genizah Studies, which is attracting scholars from all manner of different disciplines. More work needs to be done to persuade private owners of material to make it available in institutional repositories/digital libraries. Not everyone is a Friedberg who can afford to spend millions on building their own website.

Digital tools enable scholarship across borders and collaboration across institutional and political boundaries. Funding that promoted collaborative projects would be of great use in furthering these trends.


Sinai Rusinek, The Van Leer Jerusalem Insitute

The most important trends are as already mentioned: correspondence networks, open tei encoded corpora, spatial humanities

Two more ideal directions:

An Yiddish corpus and digital Yiddish in general! there are a few initiatives but small and as far as I know not well funded.

Open linked data: Gazetteers and Prosopographies (Jewish and Hebrew Pelagios projects)


Zsuzsanna Toronyi, Director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

Mass digitization and almost unlimited access to content shows a new direction to scholarly thinking too. The question occurs whether quantity of knowledge is more important (many data, texts, objects) or it is more valuable to find the deductible lessons from them. Since there is nothing new under the sun, this question has already occurred in Talmud too: in choosing the leader of a school it was considered whether of the two candidates they should choose the one who knew almost all the texts by heart (Sinai), or the one who was a brilliant analyst of the texts (okerharim). The decision they made then –which showed favour towards the one who knew everything by heart – appears to us now with a later commentary. Rabbi Slomo Kluger (1783-1869), the rabbi of Brody, believed that in Talmudic times, when the texts were not yet written down, a scholar who knew everything was invaluable. However, in Kluger’s time, when texts could be retrieved and recalled due to the spread of book printing, the ability to take an analytical approach became more important. Commentaries on this text ultimately agree that both types of knowledge are indispensable abilities complementing each other.


Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University and Co-director of the Footprints project

In my view, the biggest concern at the intersection of Jewish Studies and the digital realm is the lack of cohesion.  My “Jewish DH Projects” list (generously hosted by Sinai Rusenik on her DH Israel site here) was compiled via necessity, since there is no central institution willing to host or support information about these kinds of project at this point, and it is certainly lacking many projects (especially digitization projects, which are constantly being created).  I do think that sites containing digitIZED material should be distinguished from digitAL projects, but both need to be systematically collected and compiled to promote use and avoid duplication.

I believe that before any major initiatives regarding digital projects can take place, there first must be a significant effort to bring people and projects together, and to make them available in a broad way.  It is only through collaboration and communication that we can be truly successful in this endeavor.


Conny Kristel, Reto Speck, Tobias Blanke and Daan de Leeuw, European Holocaust Research Infrastructure

Please note that due to our particular expertise, we have focused on “Holocaust Studies” rather than “Jewish Studies” in our answers to the questionnaire.

There are a number of important trends. First of all, the research has shifted away from national studies to a transnational approach to the Holocaust. The persecution of Jews is nowadays studied as an European phenomenon. This is in accordance with the actual character of the Holocaust. A second trend is the focus on local studies, micro history, and family history in relation to the Holocaust. By investigating the acts of individuals in the complex context of war and persecution, this history from below improves our knowledge on the geographical variety and the diversity in the implementation and execution of the Holocaust. In this category experiences and actions of a variety of involved individual actors and groups – be it victims, perpetrators, and bystanders – are taken into account. Although it might seem that a transnational approach and micro history exclude each other, this is not the case because the latter trend can also be researched with a transnational approach

A third trend is the focus on the Holocaust in Southern and Eastern Europe. In contrast to Western Europe, the Holocaust is still understudied in these regions, partly because archival access can be difficult. Nevertheless, more and more researchers turn their attention to especially Eastern Europe, where the majority of Jews were not deported to concentration camps but executed in the vicinity of their village, town, or city. The research on this region does not only focus on the victims, but also on the collaboration of local people, authorities, armies, and governments.

The ideal direction would be an increase in research activity across all three trends mentioned above, and an increasing adoption of digital approaches to source analysis to tackle Holocaust research questions.


Lev Israel and Russel Neiss (Sefaria)

Openness, practically and legally, is by far the most important trend.

As for Sefaria’s future, our goal is to acquire and load the entire core Hebrew canon by the end of 2018. This set of texts comprises 500 works and 140 million words, and we are nearly 40% of the way there. If done correctly, the work of digitizing the Jewish tradition, and bringing it into the public domain, will only be done once. At the same time, we will acquire critical translations. Most recently and notably, we released a complete English translation of Rashi on Torah with a Creative Commons license.

Sefaria’s first few years of product development were focused on prototyping and collecting user feedback. Now that the library is starting to take shape, our designers and engineers are focusing on creating the perfect interface for exploring and studying Jewish texts. In essence, we are rebuilding Sefaria from scratch using just the nuts and bolts and all the lessons learned from the current user experience. The redesign, which will launch in mid-2016, will include a new platform for the Web and mobile, as well as native applications for iOS and Android. Beyond 2016, the designers and engineers will continue updating the platform based on user feedback; focus on enhancing the social experience; add resources and tools to support teaching and learning; further explore data visualization, text mining, and digital mapping; and experiment with new forms of publishing.

In addition to the development of the site and the acquisition of the requisite texts for our library, Sefaria cares deeply about building the field of Jewish education — and believes that technology can and will be a major part of this effort. Yet as individuals steeped in technology, we know the pace of technological change is humbling. It is clear that the Jewish future — like all futures — will be digital, but it is not known what that will look like in ten years, let alone 25 or 50.

As such, Sefaria is building digital infrastructure that is both open and flexible – infrastructure that will be essential to the long-term vitality of the field of Jewish education. Not only is Sefaria creating a database of texts that will be used and reused for decades, but we are doing it in a way that promotes a culture of open access and sharing. To date, Sefaria has powered 12 third-party educational apps and researchers at universities are already beginning to leverage Sefaria’s data for independent projects. Supporting educators, technologists, researchers and the curious public is critical if the platform is going to truly maximize the impact of Jewish education efforts.