The Jewish Studies Digital Humanities Showcase
The EAJS Digital Forum exists to supports scholars and digital initiatives. It seeks to foster teaching and training as well as methodological reflection and debate, and, in doing so, aims to facilitate productive links between Jewish Studies and the Digital Humanities. As part of this programme, the Digital Forum will be introducing projects of interest to the membership via the EAJS newsflash and website.
1: The Prenumeranten Project: Digitizing Pre-Subscriber Lists
Elli Fischer, University of Haifa/University of Wroclaw
In the 18th century, authors and publishers began including in their books a list of individuals and institutions who pre-ordered and thereby helped to fund the publication of each book. For the next 150 years, approximately 1,700 imprints of Hebrew books contained such lists, some of which include over a thousand names.
These lists of pre-subscribers, or prenumerantn, contain a wealth of historical information. They document c. 10,000 distinct places of Jewish residence, mainly in Europe, as well as the names of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Each subscription – a specific person, living in a specific place, buying a specific book in a specific year – is a data point in a vast network of cultural interactions.
To date, the only comprehensive attempt to systematize this data is Berl Kagan’s monumental Sefer Prenumerantn [Hebrew Subscription Lists] (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1975). Since most prenumerantn are organized by place, the bulk of this work is a Hebrew alphabetical listing of place names. Each entry contains variant spellings of the place, a list of books whose prenumerantn include that place, and the number of subscribers from that place for the given book. Some entries contain additional information, such as the names of significant personages who lived in that place and regional identifiers to disambiguate similarly spelled places. An index lists all the Hebrew books that Kagan documented, and another index represents Kagan’s attempt to identify each place with a Latin spelling.
Kagan’s work is magisterial but leaves much to be desired. As can be expected of a work compiled by manual labour, it is incomplete and there are misidentifications. Since it remains in book form or PDF, its utility is limited. It does not provide maps or coordinates, so even the Latin-character place names that it provides are not always easily plotted, especially given how much the map of Europe has changed since the book appeared in 1975. Several supplementary volumes of additions and corrections have appeared, most notably Shlomo Katsav, Sefer ha-ḥatumim, 3 vols. (Petaḥ Tikva, 1986–1995). They have not been integrated into Kagan’s original, leaving the full dataset scattered across several publications.
The Prenumeranten Project seeks to build on Kagan’s work in several stages. In the first stage, we will transform Kagan’s book and its supplements into a public, open-source database, which will make the information it contains searchable and retrievable by a variety of parameters. A by-product of this database will be an unequalled gazetteer of Hebrew place names. An in-progress version of this gazetteer can be viewed at: https://blog.hamapah.org/searchable-map-of-hebrew-place-names/ We will go beyond Kagan’s work in that we will record information about the hundreds of thousands of individual subscribers as well. The data we produce will be open source. We recognize that these lists represent only one facet of Jewish culture during the period under study. However, when analysed alongside other datasets – for instance, census records, networks of rabbinic and non-rabbinic correspondence, development of railroads and postal systems, etc. – it will certainly thicken our understanding of the dynamics of Jewish culture.
Users will thus be able to generate corresponding maps (or lists) that profile, for instance, each city and the subscriptions it was “buying” and “selling.” Subscriptions to books by authors from, say, Brody can be aggregated to produce a map. Likewise, subscriptions from Brody to other books can be mapped, whereupon the two maps can be either merged or contrasted. In addition, it will be possible to see chronological dynamics of each of these sets of data. Relationships between any two places, or group of places, will be easily detectable.
We have also found that prenumeranten contain information that Kagan and others have barely touched. For instance, we noticed that some lists are not arranged alphabetically, but instead record place names in a seemingly haphazard order. We hypothesized that in such cases, the order of places reflects the chronological order in which the bookseller visited these places. Thus far, our hypothesis has proven correct in all cases, and accordingly, we have reconstructed the travel routes of these booksellers through several regions of Europe.
The presence of women on these lists is another element that has not been studied. Women appear on these lists both as subscribers and as mothers of subscribers – that is, when subscribers self-identify by matronym instead of by patronym. From what we have gleaned, maskilic works are most likely to have women subscribers, whereas books produced by Hasidic masters are most likely to have subscribers who give their mothers’ names.
The Prenumeranten Project also builds on the work of its research team. The team is led by Prof. Marcin Wodzinski of the University of Wroclaw, whose Atlas of Hasidism and work on spheres of influence of Hasidic courts will enhance, and be enhanced by, the data from prenumeranten. Elli Fischer and Moshe Schorr, the other team members, created the HaMapah project (www.hamapah.org), now part of the E-lijah Lab at Haifa University, with the goal of aggregating and analysing the metadata of responsa, to better understand how networks of rabbinic legal correspondence function and how rabbinic hierarchy emerges.
2: MEDIATE: The Circulation of Books and Ideas in Eighteenth-Century Europe
Anna E. de Wilde, Radboud University Nijmegen
During the eighteenth century, private libraries of Jewish owners were regularly auctioned in the Dutch Republic, usually after the death of the former owner. To publicize these auctions, booksellers distributed printed catalogues listing the books to be sold. These – mostly Hebrew – private library catalogues are a rich source for the history of Jewish book culture and book trade. They document book ownership of Jewish collectors, and provide a peek into an early modern library, the owners, reading interests, and intellectual ambitions. At the same time, the catalogues represent the second-hand market of Jewish and Hebrew books, and we are only beginning to get a view of the large number of books that were circulating in the early modern period. While many auctions were held in the Dutch Republic, only a small percentage of the auction catalogues have survived.
The European Research Council-funded MEDIATE project (‘Measuring Enlightenment. Disseminating Ideas, Authors and Texts in Europe, 1665-1830’), led by prof. Alicia C. Montoya, studies the circulation of books and ideas in eighteenth-century Europe by drawing on a unique database of library auction catalogues, that is currently being developed. The public version of the MEDIATE database Sandbox will be launched in early 2022, during the MEDIATE project’s closing conference. Within this project, I focus on book ownership among the Jewish communities in the Dutch Republic, and I am responsible for the Jewish material in the database. At present, almost 40,000 transcribed and fully searchable descriptions of items – mostly books – from forty printed auction catalogues of Jewish-owned libraries are recorded in the MEDIATE database. This open access relational database brings together data from a corpus of six hundred catalogues of private libraries sold at auction in the Dutch Republic, France, the British Isles and Italy between 1665 and 1830. There are long-term plans to expand the corpus to two thousand collections. By including Jewish and Hebrew sources in the dataset, this project allows historians to integrate Jewish histories into a broader book-history research project.
Currently, the catalogues are made fully searchable by a combination of OCR-generated transcriptions, manual post-correction, and data enrichment. While recognizing and distinguishing between Hebrew characters has proved to be a challenge, the results are encouraging. Every single lot in the catalogues is matched to relevant external identifiers or authority files, including VIAF for authors and works, and the CERL Thesaurus for publishers and places. The data can be exported by end users as a simple Excel or CSV file. Furthermore, MEDIATE aims to link its data to other existing bibliographic and bibliometric databases.
Our bibliometric approach will make it possible to answer questions relating to the presence of specific works (titles and authors), particular editions (places and years of publication), and the materiality of the listed items (binding, paper, and annotations). For example, one can identify which book titles a specific collector possessed, or, more generally, which authors were likely to be found on the shelves of an eighteenth-century library. Focusing on my own research within this project on book ownership among the Jewish communities in the Dutch Republic, I will explore questions such as: what are the characteristics of a Jewish book collection, and what differences exist between Sephardi and Ashkenazi collections? What patterns of trans-regionality and what patterns of accumulated culture can be distinguished? To what extent do the books listed in catalogues reflect the polyglossia of Jewish culture? In addition, it will be possible to track diachronic developments: how Jewish book ownership changed over time, and how these changes may be related to broader cultural developments, including the emergence of new ‘Enlightenment’ ideas and books.
These detailed comparisons of the book collections can help historians get a more complete view of early modern book ownership on different levels: individual collectors, regional or national levels, and religious affiliations. Based on these catalogues, it will be possible to map the European second-hand book trade, as well as the intellectual and material cultures reflected in these libraries. More specifically, the database provides a means to better understand the unique role of Dutch Jewish communities within European book culture.
The MEDIATE project (2016-2022) is based at the Radboud University (Nijmegen, The Netherlands). Other team members are Helwi Blom, Evelien Chayes, Rindert Jagersma, Juliette Reboul and Joanna Rozendaal. For publications see here.
MEDIATE database sandbox, Reshima mi-sefarim … Daniel Cohen d’Azevedo (Amsterdam: Proops, 1823). Copy from Ets Haim-Livraria Montezinos, Amsterdam
3: Minhag Italia: Variations of Jewishness in the nineteenth century as reflected in Italian prayer books; A digital analysis
Dr. Alessandro Grazi, Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz (Department of History of Religion)
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.