Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Random word play in the city

Just before I came to New York, I saw a short Israeli documentary film, made by an Israeli woman who explored some aspects of contemporary Jewish culture in New York. She was talking to a group of Jewish rappers, one of whom was explaining that he would have no qualms about marrying a "shiksa". The Israeli was quite taken aback by this usage, and couldn't bring herself to say the word. The etymology is so clear, and graphic, to a Hebrew speaker, that it is quite disturbing to hear it used.

After a couple of weeks in the US, I discovered that the semantic field that "shiksa" occupies is more specific than I thought. It emerges that "shiksa" is used specifically in a marital or sexual context. The more general term, for a woman who is not of the Jewish faith and is simply ironing the shirts, or taking the subway, is apparently "goyta" (my father says it is goye-teh). I don't know Yiddish, so maybe -ta is a Yiddish suffix. But it always makes me think of Goitein. Not sure what significance that might have.

Speaking of random associations - the name of the superintendent of the subway station next to where I work is Nag Hammadi. Sorry, I mean Chan Ghamandi.

By the way, the manuscript of Gad the Seer, refered to recently on Paleojudaica, is Cambridge University Library, Oo.1.20 (SCR 907). Oriental hand, 1756. According to the label on the flyleaf, it "was found in one of the Synagogues of the Black Jews of Cochin in India, by the Rav. Claudius Buchanan, in the year 1806". It also contains apocryphal additions to Megilat Esther and the dream "of a London clergyman of friendship and goodwill towards Jews".

Monday, July 25, 2005

And all the people saw the sounds

Interesting article in the New York Times yesterday, on synagogues geared towards the deaf. One sentence in particular bothered me.

Many aspects of society are not easy for the deaf to navigate, but synagogues
historically held particular challenges. Few people spoke both sign language and
Hebrew, so accurate translation was difficult. Moreover, a good deal of care and
education of the deaf population was traditionally done by nuns. Jewish
organizations helped the deaf, but many focused on social programs more than
religious education.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Prayerbooks for Women

Artscroll have published a siddur for women. I actually saw it in a bookstore last week, but forgot to blog about it. Avraham Bronstein did not. (by the way, dinner was great. Hope to see you again.) Of course, now there is (part of) a woman's siddur from a another, more enlightened age, available online.

But I am reminded of something that happened a couple of weeks ago, when I was visiting Hassidic relatives in the Catskills. I noticed several copies of Perek Shira lying around (you will notice that it is also included in the new Artscroll siddur), and mentioned Prof. Malachi Beit-Arie. Malachi, before creating the field of Hebrew codicology, heading the IMHM and the JNUL for years, and teaching at the (now defunct) HU School of Library Science, wrote his doctorate on Perek Shira, under Gershom Scholem.

My cousin was amazed. "I thought no-one had heard of Perek Shira until five years ago!". Well, noone in the Catskills, apparently. But it was a very popular work in the Middle Ages, and has attracted a moderate amount of scholarly attention over the years. Beit-Arie produced a critical edition based on all extant manuscripts, and linguists have written a couple of short pieces on its vocabulary.

So, it is nice that the Haredi world has rediscovered Perek Shira, which really is a beautiful little work. But if we depended on the Haredim to preserve Jewish culture, we'd be missing out on a lot.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Medieval Wish List

Wish lists seem to be this week's topic. Books you wish existed, or hope one day to discover do indeed exist. All the contributions so far seem to be from Late Antiquity, so it's time the medievalists said their piece.

Of course, this topic has already been dealt with extensively and magisterially by Simcha Emanuel, in his doctoral thesis Lost Halachic Books of the Tosafists. Hopefully, some day soon, it will appear as a book.

When I first started working with manuscripts, my friends - students of R Ezra Bick- requested the complete Talmudic commentary of R. David Bonfid. So far, I haven't been able to help with that.

Personally, I have long dreamt of the commentary of R Samson of Sens on Taharot coming to light in a medieval manuscript. The letter sent out by R. Ya'akov Sevara of Cracow - now that would be a find. I'll keep thinking. Feel free to contribute ideas.

How could I forget? More exciting (to me) than the first written Mishna, is the idea of a 7th century Talmud. Imagine finding the Talmud written by the mysterious Natronai, from memory, in Spain. And being able to compare it to, say, the version they were learning in Kairuan at the time.

Any talmudic or halachic material from pre-10th century Italy would be wonderful. Our main literary source for that period is Megillat Ahima'atz - a wonderful but not particularly historical document.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

No more marginal glosses?!

The Lieberman Institute has released the latest version of its bibliographic CD-ROM, which provides numerous references to scholarly literature on any given page in the Talmud (Bavli and Yerushalmi). It is available for the price of $150. If you hurry, you might be able to get it for less. Contact Asaf.

And the ladybugs?

The Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem announced this week that it is now possible again to borrow books. I'm not sure what that means about the infestation that caused the moratorium on lending last year.

Aristocracy on the Beach

I spent Shabbat in Westhampton. Certainly not a place I would ever feel comfortable in, but certainly an experience. The Hampton Synagogue is touted as Steven Speilberg's preferred place of worship. He wasn't around this week, though.

While there, I took a look at their library and found the fifth volume of Be-Mar'eh ha-Bazak. I have a firm belief that every obscure library (originally the theory related to synagogues on IDF bases, but I am considering an expansion) has a book that I have not found in any other library. Of course, this book probably is found elsewhere, but I couldn't find it when I wanted it.

Be-Mar'eh ha-Bazak is a collection of responsa issued by the students at the Eretz Hemda Institute, which trains judges for the religious courts in Israel. Of course, the religious court system in Israel is hopelessly nepotistic, and only Haredim are ever appointed. As far as I know, a small fraction of their graduates have achieved positions within the court system, and those mostly on the periphery.

What they do, though, is answer halachic questions sent to them from around the world, by fax (hence the "flash" in the title). This, latest, volume contains a series of questions relating to the Internet and Shabbat. They leave a great deal of room for manuevering, but my impression was that a commercial website should not be operating on Shabbat.

Interestingly, a look at the sitemeter for this blog shows that, consistently, hits drop to almost zero over Shabbat. And, since I am certainly not making any money here, I think I am perfectly justified in keeping my site open all week long.

In other news, someone has published a historical novel about Rashi's daughters. It looks like it's worth a closer look. Of course, even if they weren't revolutionary feminists, Rashi's daughters had a profound impact on the history of halacha. Virtually every major French tosafist was a descendent of Rashi. The obvious ones are Rashbam, Rabbenu Tam and R Yitshak of Dampiere. But there were many more. To the extent that it is hard to accept Avraham Grossman's claim that, unlike the hierarchical, plutocratic yeshivot of the Geonim, the Tosafist movement was profoundly democratic. True, there were plenty of students who were not of illustrious lineage. But the big names seem overwhelmingly well-born.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Shtibel with a view

I spent Shabbat with relatives at a bungalow colony named Har Nof, at Kameisha Lake, New York. An interesting experience, that's for sure. It rained all of Friday, which is also a new summer experience for me.

And I found a fragment of a Hebrew manuscript in the binding of a book. It was an Artscroll siddur, and the page was from an Artscroll haggadah. Proof that certain practices are universal, and that the re-use of Hebrew manuscripts as bindings was not a manifestation of anti-Semitism.

Hoping to get back to real manuscripts by Monday.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

University towns

I spent the American Independence Day weekend in the area of Boston and Cambridge. A new humra was revealed to me there, in the Cambridge Commons. It's not written anywhere, and it goes against the entire thrust of the relevant halacha, so I think it's a perfect candidate. Not walking through a doorway that does not carry a mezuza. Brilliant, isn't it?

Speaking of the halachot of mezuza, I noticed that the Yale Judaica Series published a new (2004) volume of their translation of Maimonides' Mishne Torah. It covers the second part of The Book of Love, including the laws of mezuza, and was translated by Prof. Menachem Kellner of Haifa University.

On the drive back, with my friend Lia, we stopped at a place in New Haven called Claire's Corner Copia. It is amazing. I can't recommend it highly enough. With a nice big kosher sign next to the counter.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


I miss Jerusalem. So this seems like the right opportunity to talk about one of the lesser known libraries in the city.

Yeshurun is one of the older synagogues in Jerusalem. Located on King George St., it was once one of the cultural centers of the city. Now, on weekdays, you can usually find an equal number of congregants and of their attendant SE Asian caregivers.

Adjacent to the synagogue and one floor up is the Yeshurun library. It has a nice range of books, and was once a meeting place for scholars like Shraga Abramson. I once read a description from the sixties, of how the librarian would take orders for books the library didn't possess. Then use his lunchbreak to travel over to the National Library and borrow them on his own name, so that in the afternoon he could present them to his readers. The library contains, among other things, books from the libraries of R Yissachar Dov Ritter of Rotterdam and of SZ Shragai, the Religious Zionist leader (including at least one Vonnegut novel).

In recent years the library has become moribund. One year, on the night of the Pesach Seder, a group of knowledgable thieves broke in and stole all the Venice printings. Beit Morasha, which used the premises of the synagogue for several years, has moved and has its own library now.

But nevertheless, the Yeshurun library is worth a visit. The librarian is a deeply knowledgeable and dedicated professional. The atmosphere is unique, with a blend of Beis Yaakov girls (whose school does not allow them access to most public libraries), aging scholars and curious Jerusalemites. And there are still gems hidden among the books - annotations in the hands of noted rabbis, obscure editions and a very rich collection of books on Eretz Yisrael.