Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Summary of Working Group meeting in Toronto

As promised, here is a report on our meeting in Toronto at the Association for Jewish Studies conference.

Our chair, Joe Davis (Gratz College), was snowed out, so we chaired ourselves, as it were. I began by describing how the meeting had come about. At a conference on the Jewish book at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in May 2006, David Stern (University of Pennsylvania) had lamented the lack of institutional frameworks for the study of Jewish books. At the time, Joe Davis, David Stern, and I talked a little about organizing something to promote the field. Before this year's AJS call for papers deadline, Hindy Najman (Toronto), Jeremy Stolow (McMaster), and Heidi Lerner (Stanford) joined the discussion, and this lunch-time meeting was the result.

David Stern then spoke about some of the problems and prospects for the field, noting very few opportunities to study Hebrew bibliography and codicology. He also pointed out the advantages of using material texts in pedagogy.

Hindy Najman then spoke from the perspective of a scholar of Judaism in late antiquity and discussed the issue of the "book" in a pre-book culture. On the one hand, she pointed out that medieval and early modern studies generate interesting questions about the role of written texts that can be used to interrogate and investigate the ancient period. She also pointed out that books seemed to have played a role in the Jewish imagination before physical books (codices) were used.

Jeremy Stolow spoke from the perspective of someone in communication studies focusing on the question of the role of the medium. He pointed out the ways in which communication scholars research not only the means of production and transmission of texts, but also the interaction of the "end-user" with the medium.

I spoke from my perspective as a cultural and intellectual historian, focused on early modern Jews and pointed out the importance of integrating the study of books as both texts and material objects into more general historical research. While many in Jewish studies have examined the materiality of books to assess the "reliability" of the texts inside, I suggested that we need to not only look at what's inside, but also at the vessel (cf. Mishnah Avot 4:20).

I also summarized remarks by Heidi Lerner (who could not be in Toronto). Her remarks were from the point of view of a librarian and she emphasized the role of academic libraries in mediating access to texts in both electronic and paper forms. She emphasized the importance of digital resources in research and teaching but also the continued relevance of printed materials.

After this remarks, the discussion turned toward practical steps that might be taken in the future to promote the study of the "Jewish book."

(This blog was one of the suggestions.)

David Kraemer (of the Jewish Theological Seminary) was going to join the meeting to discuss a new journal, "Quntress: An Online Journal for the History, Art, and Culture of the Jewish Book." He could not be at the meeting but we discussed this journal and the important contribution it is expected to make to the field.

Miriam Bodian (Touro College) suggested that someone propose a review essay to AJS Review or another journal laying out the state of the field.

Many participants expressed an interest in planning sessions on the Jewish book at the Association for Jewish Studies and other meetings.

Susan Einbinder (Hebrew Union College) pointed out that there are sessions devoted to the history of the book at the annual Congress on Medieval Studies held at Kalamazoo every May. Those interested in participating in those sessions should contact her.

Another venue discussed was the American Academy of Religion. The coordinators of the Study of Judaism section are Aryeh Cohen (American Jewish University) and Martin Kavka (Florida State University). Those interested in proposing a session on the history of the Jewish book at AAR should contact them.

Finally, Vivian Mann (JTS) and Jane Trigere (independent scholar) both reminded the group to focus on decorative and aesthetic aspects of Jewish books, Jane Trigere suggested that we bring into the conversation people who make books as well as those who study them.

That's a rough summary of the meeting. No formal action was taken--no constitutions were drawn up, nobody was elected to anything, etc. I volunteered to create a blog and post this summary.

The blog is here to facilitate discussion and action. Use the comments as you see fit.

Also feel free to send me announcements or remarks suitable for separate posts--calls for papers, announcements of programs and events, etc.

Respectfully submitted,

Adam Shear

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