Minhag Italia: Variations of Jewishness in the Nineteenth Century as Reflected in Italian Prayer Books – A Digital Analysis
Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz
Minhag Italia is a 5-year project funded with institutional resources, which I aim to carry out at the Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz, within the Department of History of Religion run by Prof. Irene Dingel, co-director of the institute. The aim of this project is to carry out a digital and conceptual investigation of nineteenth-century Italian prayer books, with the purpose of utilizing them as objects of historical inquiry. It is part of a larger project, called “Minhag Europa”. “Minhag Europa” wishes to apply the same digital analysis I have described here to all Jewish prayer books printed in Europe from the inception of print up to the present day. However, as “Minhag Europa” has not yet received comprehensive European funding to start at least a reasonable number of national branches, it still relies on single projects carried out in different institutional settings. So far only two branches of it have started: the Dutch one, at the University of Amsterdam, and my own. The Dutch branch is led by Prof. Irene Zwiep and Dr. Bart Wallet and their team at the University of Amsterdam. With this project, I aim to obtain the so-called “Habilitation”, which is planned to be requested at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main, within the Department of Jewish Studies, headed by Prof. Elisabeth Hollender.
Prayer books encompass Jewish religious life, from everyday prayers, the Siddurim, to the special occasions of the High Holidays, the Mahzorim. They are the most frequently printed book in Judaism in terms of number of different editions as they are very diffused and repeatedly utilized on a daily basis. Although they are prominent in Jewish life, they have yet to receive the academic attention they warrant, and that which they have received has been mostly focused on the study of Jewish liturgy and the reconstruction of its origins, through the investigation of ancient and medieval manuscripts, but hardly as all-round historical sources.
As opposed to the manuscripts, the printed Mahzorim and Siddurim have generally been considered as stable factors, crystallized canonical texts, whose dynamics are unworthy of analysis. As canonical works, it is true that prayer books maintained a certain uniformity in space and time, particularly after the invention of printing. By contrast, the project’s point of departure is that the small changes within the many different editions can actually reflect substantial developments in the political and cultural (self)perception of a specific Jewry in a specific place and time. Considering the simultaneous presence of different Jewish groups and the Orthodox reactions to Reform in nineteenth-century Italy, through the prism of the prayer book, the project hopes to challenge essential categories in Jewish history, such as Italian, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, but also Orthodox and Reform. In fact, the expectation is that, once these little changes have been singled out and analyzed, we might notice that the borders among these categories are more blurred and less defined than we have thought so far. But to verify this, we will have to wait for the final results.
The tools I will use consist of an inventory and digitization of these prayer books, in order to enable a digital analysis with OCR software. The digital approach is necessary due to the size of the corpus and the small changes I aim to detect. Each prayer book generally consists of hundreds of pages, making an analogical analysis of even one volume unfeasible within a reasonable amount of time. For the long nineteenth century (ca. 1796-1914), I have singled out a corpus of over 23o different editions of Siddurim and Mahzorim printed for Jewish communities residing in the Italian peninsula. This includes the “Italkim” but also Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities living in the same cities. I am not going to examine the entire corpus, but I have selected a high number of representative prayer books, amounting to over 100 different editions.
I have now finished with the first part of the project, which entailed identification, location, and digitization of the sources. Obtaining digital files of such a large number of books has been so far the most difficult challenge for the project. This has to do with books’ availability and high digitization costs. Despite that, I am currently starting the digital phase, in which I am going to select and apply the software. I am still pondering between two options: Transkribus and eScriptorium. I am gaining familiarity with Transkribus, a HCR software, which presents three advantages. 1) Being originally programmed for hand-written texts, it can reach an even higher reliability when applied to printed texts. According to several frequent users of the software that I have met at different conferences, including Dr. Sinai Rusinek of the University of Haifa, it can reach a 98% transcription accuracy. Nineteenth-century Jewish prayer books often included introductions or instructions in the Rashi script, which requires almost the same accuracy as a handwritten text. 2) Transkribus can very well be applied to right-to-left languages, including Hebrew. 3) Users have already shared on Transkribus some tested models applied to Hebrew texts, which I could partly re-use. At this stage, I have not tested eScriptorium yet, but it has reached similarly excellent results on other printed and handwritten material and one advantage is that, unlike Transkribus, eScriptorium is entirely open source.
The ambition is that eventually “Minhag Europa” will be able to activate many more branches, ideally in every European country, perhaps financed in several different forms, thus becoming a potential game changer in Jewish Studies.