Never-ending, this story
By Shiri Lev-Ari
The 22-volume second edition of the "Encyclopaedia Judaica" is now being inaugurated, both in print and digital Internet editions. The print edition consists of some 2,600 new and revised entries on Jewish history, culture, science and the Diaspora. The project is the fruit of cooperation between the Jerusalem-based Keter Publishing House and American publisher Thomson Gale. Overall management of the project was delegated to the Jerusalem Publishing House, owned by Shlomo (Yosh) Gafni, which specializes in the publication of encyclopedias on the Jewish world. The "Judaica" is being launched simultaneously in Israel (where Keter is responsible for the marketing), in Washington and New York.
The editor in chief of the new - as well as the previous - edition is Prof. Fred Skolnik of Jerusalem, who has also edited the special volume on Israel. The executive editor is Prof. Michael Berenbaum of the United States, a specialist in Holocaust studies. Among the entry- writers are experts like Prof. Avi Ravitzky, who specializes in Jewish thought and philosophy; Prof. Moshe Idel, an authority in kabbala and Hasidism; Prof. Judith Baskin, who has written about women in the Jewish world; Prof. Menachem Elon on Jewish law; and Prof. Anat Feinberg on Hebrew literature.
The story of "Encyclopaedia Judaica," an ambitious project whose objective is to consolidate all the accumulated knowledge of the Jewish world to date, is long and interesting. It had its beginning in Germany in the 1920s, when the first entries for the encyclopedia were written in German. However, with the Nazis’ rise to power the work was stopped. It was renewed later in an entirely different place and time - in New York of the 1950s, and was written instead in English. In 1966 the rights to "Encyclopaedia Judaica" were given to the Keter Publishing House. Some 2,500 people worked on the project. The funding came for the most part from German reparations monies. In 1996 the first edition of the "Judaica" was published in English. It consisted of 16 volumes and dealt with every possible topic connected to Judaism. Within a short time it became a classic, an essential item in every university library in the United States and a status symbol in every wealthy Jewish home.
Four years ago it was decided to update the "Judaica" for republication. For more than three years, about 1,200 researchers from all over the world worked on writing entries for the new edition, in which about $7 million was invested. At the moment, it appears that the project will also pay off economically. According to Keter CEO Yiftah Dekel, in early sales of the encyclopedia to universities, academic institutions and various organizations, some 3,000 sets of the volumes have already been sold at about $2,000 each. The price of the digital version of "Encyclopaedia Judaica" is higher, as it is slated to be updated in real time; it ranges between $2,400 and $10,000.
Last month the new "Judaica" won the Dartmouth Medal for 2006 in recognition for distinguished achievement related to the creation of works of reference; the prize was awarded by the American Library Association. Next week, at the International Book Fair in Jerusalem (on Monday at 8 P.M.) there will be a panel on "The Encyclopaedia Judaica," moderated by veteran Channel 1 personality Oren Nahari, with the participation of Prof. Berenbaum and Israeli academic researchers who participated in writing the entries.
An enduring Diaspora
A series of topics have been expanded in the new encyclopedia: women and gender in the Jewish world, Holocaust studies, Jewish law, kabbala research (in the period after Gershom Scholem), the Talmud, the Bible and Bible criticism, popular culture in the Jewish world (including Steven Spielberg) and more.
"The world has changed since the first edition of the ’Judaica,’" says Berenbaum. "Forty years ago the Soviet Union still existed, Israel was a smaller country, and the first ’Judaica ’was written before the Yom Kippur and Lebanon Wars, before the increasing ultra-Orthodoxy experienced in Judaism and before the development of Jewish studies. Holocaust research was only in diapers then. American Jewry has changed and so have the Jewish communities everywhere."
One of the main emphases in the current edition, says Berenbaum, is on women’s role in the Jewish world. "In the first edition, only 1.25 percent of all the entries were devoted to women. The ritual bath experience, for example, was written about by men. Now we have repaired this. About 2,600 of a total of about 14,000 new entries are about women."
The State of Israel receives the largest entry in the encyclopedia: an entire, separate volume. According to Berenbaum, Israel is an important entry and an important value, but "in our work there is no element of denial of the Diaspora," he says. "I have a great deal of respect for what the editors of the first edition did. Among them there were people with a Zionist stance who thought that the Diaspora’s time had past. We, however, view the phenomenon of the Diaspora as something serious that is enduring and will continue to endure."
How does the encyclopedia deal with the future of the Jewish community in the United States?
Berenbaum: "There are two parallel moves occurring in America - on the one hand a real and creative Jewish renaissance and on the other the phenomenon of assimilation. In the generation before us mixed marriages were perceived as a way out of the Jewish community; now they are in question with respect to where Judaism in America is heading. Is this a story that is going to end or is this a community with a huge contribution to American culture and to Israeli culture that will continue to exist?"
According to him, the definition of a standard Jewish family is also changing: "By definition, a family is a married couple with at least one child under the age of 18, who is living at home. What percentage of American Jewry fits this definition? Only 14 percent. Forty years ago it were 40 percent and more. Today there are Jews who marry gentiles or who live alone - there are couples who live together without marriage, elderly couples who cohabit, people who marry late and people who live together without children at home. This means that it is necessary to rethink the definition of the Jewish family. We have articles about this and also articles on the singles phenomenon.
"In the ’Judaica’ we also relate to homosexuals and lesbians in the Jewish community. We sought a picture that would depict the homosexual experience in the United States in the best way. Would this be a picture of a demonstration for equal rights? A picture of a single-sex wedding? In the end we chose a picture of the Jewish homosexual congregation in New York that hosts 6,000 homosexuals and lesbians on Rosh Hashanah."