Take it from somebody who should know: Nobody can possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the Jewish people — at least not without a reference book or two at their disposal.
That's the opinion of Michael Berenbaum, the executive editor of the forthcoming 22-volume, 16-million-word Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd edition, who read through the entire tome several times, all the way from "Aachen" to "Zyrardow." He said that if he gleaned any larger truths from the many thousands of facts he studied and at times revised, it's that Jewish life in 2006 — as well as the study of Jewish history and culture — has become far too varied, creative and contentious for any one person to have utter comprehension of all the "small pixels" that make up "the big picture."
But with publication of the updated Encyclopaedia Judaica — which contains 2,664 entirely new entries, and more than 11,000 updates from the original 1972 version — explanations of everything from biblical archaeology to the Yiddish theatre are a simple page-turn or mouse-click away.
"The world of 1972 is dramatically different from the world of today," explained Berenbaum during a recent conference call with reporters. "We couldn't just patch up the encyclopedia; we needed a full-fledged second edition."
He pointed out that back in 1972, the Yom Kippur War hadn't happened yet; it looked as if the masses of Jews would never be able to flee the Soviet Union; American cities like Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas were far from hotbeds of Jewish life; and no one had heard of a film director named Steven Spielberg.
In the new edition, Berenbaum said that the editors have tried to do their best to encompass all the trends and controversies in Jewish life right up to the present day. In fact, the volumes were set to go to press this summer, when suddenly, hostilities broke out in the Middle East, and the the editors managed to add a few paragraphs to the sections devoted to "Israel" and "Hezbollah."
The 1972 edition represented a completion of a project begun 45 years earlier in Germany. That project's editor, Nahum Goldman, was the last surviving member of the German-language Encyclopaedia Judaica's editorial board, according to publicity materials.
Berenbaum said that updating the original meant much more than just filling in the gaps of historical events; it entailed adding what experts had learned in 34 years about subjects such as critical scholarship of the Talmud, and, of course, the Holocaust.
He also stated that the new version — out Dec. 8 — will better reflect the contribution that women have made to all facets of Jewish life and thought.
For example, he note, "the previous Encyclopaedia Judaica gave the halachah of mikvah, but it never gave the perspective and the experience of women going into the mikvah."
The new version will also reflect changes in the Philadelphia area.
"Camden had to be described dramatically differently," he said, adding that the volume renders the migration of Jews from Camden, N.J., farther east to places like Cherry Hill, N.J.
The updated entry on Philadelphia also details the transformation of educational institutions, such as Gratz College and the former Dropsie College — now the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies — as well as the emergence of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Jewish Renewal movement and the Shalom Center. And about 20 Philadelphia religious and communal leaders even have their very own entries.