One of the perks of studying in Jerusalem is “winter break”. No, not our winter break, but rather, those of foreign universities, during which many scholars end up visiting Jerusalem. For the Talmud Blog, this allowed us to hear Ron in person (the day before Stephen Greenblatt, in a lecture on Lucretius at Hebrew University, commented that the Talmud can be likened to Bruno Latour’s concept of “compositionist”), and here in the HUJI Talmud department, this meant that we were privileged to hear a presentation by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger of the Sorbonne.
Olszowy-Schlanger heads a pan-European project entitled “Books within Books” that seeks to locate, photograph, and describe every Hebrew manuscript that can be found in the bindings of mostly Latin books now in libraries across Europe. The name of the project, “Books within Books”, comes as a correction to the misleading term “European Genizah” often used in describing these manuscripts. “I’ve worked with the Cairo Genizah,” Olszowy-Schlanger said, “and this is not a Genizah.” Examples of such material has already been known of since the end of the 19th century. Indeed, some countries have already been sifting through their fragments for some time. Italy started to do so more than thirty years ago, and Austria and others already have their own websites.
Olszowy-Schlanger discussed the many technical difficulties in separating the manuscripts from their “host volumes.” As some of the scholars in the room were already aware, the price of separating a piece of parchment from the binding can run upwards of 1,000 Euro. Paper manuscripts were often pasted together twenty pages at a time, creating a carton that would be strong enough to serve as a binding. Thanks to another costly procedure, these pages can now be salvaged in their entirety. Other problems include the very basic issue of convincing librarians to allow the bindings of their books be ripped open so that Hebrew manuscripts can be extracted from them.
Dr. Olszowy-Schlanger in front of a slide that depicts part of the procedure used to separate a binding made of glued paper pages.
Yet despite all of these difficulties, the incredible benefit of amassing this material is unquestionable. Olszowy-Schlanger brought examples of mahzorim, ketubbot, historical documents, and even Talmudic manuscripts which have been discovered since the publication of Sussman’s catalogue. The sheer number of findings was hard to fathom- “Barely a day goes by when we don’t find another fragment.”
After seven years of working jointly with other teams of codicologists and paleographers from Europe and Israel, Olszowy-Schlanger’s web-based database is about to be launched in mid-January. The BwB site already has links to those collections, like the Austrian one mentioned above, that are already available online. The current stage of the website will only contain new material in its own database from countries such as France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and more. It turns out that England, famous for its thousands of Cairo Genizah fragments, has proven particularly difficult to catalog due to the wide dispersion of the “books within books” that may be found there. In, England, manuscripts (not just Hebrew ones) were already used as bindings as early as the twelfth century. Also, some of the fragments that were clearly pulled from European bindings have somehow found their way into such British collections of Cairo Genizah material like the famous Taylor-Schechter collection.
The website is browsable by title and by library, and each photographed fragment is accompanied by an exhaustive amount of details pertaining to its codicological and paleographic characteristics, references to secondary literature, and even the contact information of the scholar who provided the information. Additionally, the website has a list of “mutual books”- fragments of the same original manuscripts that are now found in the bindings of different books, often times even in different libraries (what in Genizah-speak is usually termed “joins”). Overall, the site seems to be easy to use while still providing a large amount of information. It will no doubt become an irreplaceable tool for scholars upon its release (signup will be free, like the FGP site).
Yet the most impressive part of the presentation was not the website, but rather, Olszowy-Schlanger’s inspiring devotion to the overall project. The number of libraries- public, private, church- that she and her team have reached out to, and the amount of hours of painstaking restoration and description of manuscripts, are simply innumerable. Thus, it is fitting that at the end of the lecture, Prof. Simcha Emanuel, who had invited her to come speak as part of his seminar on the European Genizah, called Olszowy-Schlanger “a modern-day Schechter.”