One of the best parts of the holiday season here in Israel is that the local papers have to put out more supplemental material to keep everyone occupied. In addition to the regular weekend magazines, each holiday gets its own special section. This seems to mean more articles that relate to rabbinic literature, as editors scramble to fill these now numerous weekend and holiday editions. Two of them, from Saturday’s Haaretz, are worthy of discussion here.
In the book section, folklorist Eli Yasif has a review of a recent collection of papers given at the fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies’s session on Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of The Jews. The papers, originally delivered in honor of the passing of one hundred years since the start of the book’s publication, cover a wide variety of topics, some only tangentially related to Legends (videos of the lectures have been available online for quite some time now on Hebrew University’s youtube channel). Together they also provide ample room for Yasif to discuss the “American” characteristics of Legends, and hence the name of the article, “An American Legend”. Yasif seeks to better understand why the work has become a standard on bookshelves across America, often in its shortened Legends of The Bible version, whereas Israelis have for the most part gotten their dosage of aggadah exclusively from Bialik and Ravnitsky’s Sefer ha-Agadah (a point brieflly addressed on the Talmud Blog this past summer). He offers a few explanations, such as Legend‘s size and the lack of a Hebrew translation of the one volume Legends of the Bible. To his reasons I would add that Bialik would have still been a household name in Israel even if he hadn’t co-penned Sefer ha-Agadah. Bialik’s stature clearly played a role in his collection’s success while Ginzberg’s pedigree and position in the Conservative movement in America did not help in Israel. As Yasif mentions, the academic virtues of Legends far exceed those of Sefer ha-Agadah. I would venture that its relative slow appreciation in academic circles in Israel, also noted by Yasif, might be due in part to the rather late appearance of an index to the Hebrew edition. Although a Hebrew edition had already appeared in the sixties, the index was only published in the recent Shechter edition.
The other Haaretz article deals with the technological aspects of the Friedberg Genizah Project. Some of the most exciting parts of the article are its discussions of the project’s breadth and of the technology behinds the “joins” – cases where previously unconnected fragments can be shown to have actually stemmed from one artifact. Amazingly, project director Prof. Yaakov Shweka promises to have 99% of all genizah fragments online by the end of 2012. The article’s discussion of the technology behind fragment recognition is truly fascinating and well worth reading. It turns out that some of the programmers joined the team because of their work developing face-recognition programs for Google and Facebook. Similar technology is being used to recognize and piece together various fragments dispersed in libraries all over the globe. The hope is to one day apply this technology to sift through Qumran fragments as well.