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Digital Judaica

Jeffrey Veidlinger

Whether you believe that the digital turn is the panacea to all that ails the humanities, or regard the hype as part of the malady, it is clear that digital technology is impacting how we teach and how we do our research. By digital humanities, I mean simply the use of digital technology in humanities scholarship. Those of us who use word processors or the Internet in our research are already engaged in digital humanities, albeit not necessarily at the most cutting edge.

To most people, the digital humanities means putting digitized texts on the Internet. Vast libraries and archives are becoming increasingly available daily. HathiTrust and Google Books are among the largest repositories, but there are many other collections of particular use to scholars in Jewish Studies. Most online collections consist of digitized versions of existing library or archival collections. Some that I have used include Judaica FrankfurtThe Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, the Center for Jewish History Digital Collection, the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archive, and the YIVO Digital Archive on Jewish Life in Poland. Other useful resources are agglomerated sites, creating vast libraries that do not exist outside of the digital realm., for instance, presents digitized versions of hundreds of public domain Hebrew books.

Most of the above resources are not fully searchable; usually search functions are limited to the metadata. But Historical Jewish Press offers fully searchable online access to nearly fifty titles in seven languages and the Bar Ilan University Responsa-Global Jewish Database presents a fully searchable database of rabbinic texts. Still another strand of projects present digitized oral history interviews, many of which have focused on the Holocaust (USC Shoah FoundationVoices of the HolocaustYahad-in Unum). It remains a challenge to fully index audio and video sources, particularly those in less-common languages like Hebrew and Yiddish.

Most of the above websites have user interfaces structured like familiar library search tools, but there are other sites that seek to present curated information on the model of museum exhibits. Yad Vashem's The Untold Stories triangulates multiple sources on specific Holocaust-era massacres by combining German Einsatzgruppen reports, Soviet Extraordinary Commission reports, oral and written testimonies, and location information for individual execution sites. This type of aggregation is useful not only for researchers but also for teachers seeking a multiplicity of sources from different perspectives for classroom use. Mapping Jewish Los Angeles is a highly sophisticated multimedia digital archive of Jewish LA, utilizing HyperCities, a digital platform that allows users to explore historical layers of a city. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has also experimented with digital spatial analysis in its Geographies of the Holocaust project. The Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories, a project I co-directed with Dov-Ber Kerler, presents a curated website of Yiddish-language oral history interviews we conducted in Eastern Europe, arranged by subject, location and person.

But digital humanities is not limited to making materials accessible online. Some projects are leveraging technology to aid in other aspects of research. For instance, the Friedberg Genizah Project developed software to automatically sort through over 100,000 document fragments from the Cairo Genizah and identify fragments suspected to derive from the same manuscript. The project then recruited volunteers to help verify the computer's selections. The recruitment of volunteers, or "crowdsourcing" in digital humanities lingo, is also another way of leveraging technology for research. Similar crowdsourcing techniques are being used by the website to translate memorial books into English (with mixed results). In addition, tools like Cytoscape, an open source software platform that maps complex networks, and the various proprietary or open source Geographic Information Systems (GIS) available, can help scholars and teachers visualize and present relationships in new ways. The National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities has been at the forefront of digital humanities in America, and a glance through their recent grant recipients illustrates some of the innovative ways that new technologies are being used, not all necessarily applicable to Jewish Studies. I am not sure, for instance, what we would do with an avatar of Spinoza interacting within a simulated digital environment of seventeenth-century Amsterdam.

Many universities offer workshops for faculty to learn how to use some of these new technologies. I have taken several myself. Even though I have yet to fully integrate most of these tools into my research, they have expanded my thinking about the possibilities of humanities research and influenced the way I conduct the type of research I have always done. Indeed, when Judaism adopted the codex it still held on to the scroll, recognizing that the new technology had not superseded the old. I hope that Judaic Studies will similarly embrace the digital humanities without sacrificing the core methodologies of textual reasoning and analysis that continue to serve it well.

Jeffrey Veidlinger is Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies and Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.