Thursday, August 29, 2002
I received the interesting news today that the Jewish Encylopaedia is now available on-line. This 12-volume work, originally published between 1901-1906, presents a fascinating view of the Jewish world through the eyes of American Jewish academics at the start of the 20th century: a world in which the majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe, a world in which little was known about many of the outlying Jewish communities, and a world in which a State of Israel was merely a dream. Of course, many of the articles are terribly out of date. The Cairo Geniza was discovered in 1896 and few of its incredible treasures had yet been published. The Dead Sea Scrolls were only discovered in 1947. Thousands of Jewish manuscripts lay in European libraries, many of them miscatalogued. And yet, in spite of all this, the Jewish Encyclopaedia has great charm. It was written by top-rate scholars, and its entries on Talmud and Jewish law (as well as lore) or still worth a look, even though they pre-date the Epstein-Lieberman era. Of course, the pieces on contemporary East European communities make for depressing reading now. As an historical document, it is well worth a glance, if only to see just how much things have changed.
A personal favourite of mine is the entry on Jewish Types (Anthropological), which concludes was a gestalt composite picture of what the average Jew looks like. Funnily enough, it looks like nobody I know.
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