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Treasures of the Past Made Vivid via the Magic of Digitizing

October 4, 2007 By:
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Back in the 1980s and '90s, when Rabbi Lance Sussman was researching the life of 19th-century Jewish leader Isaac Leeser, he would shuttle back and forth between institutes in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, the repositories where the bulk of Leeser's papers were stored. The rabbi kept his notes on thousands of index cards and stored his work on numerous floppy disks.

But soon, Sussman and anyone else with an interest in this seminal figure in Jewish history won't have to travel farther than their keyboards to access the private correspondence of the German-born Leeser. Via their computers, they'll also be able to electronically search the pages of more than 20 years of The Occident -- which was founded by Leeser and has long been considered the first successful Jewish newspaper to be published in the New World.

The idea behind what's known as the American Geniza Project is to make thousands of rare documents from 18th- and 19th-century American Jewish life available online: Leeser is serving merely as the test case. (The project was named after an earlier Penn-Cambridge Geniza online project that made available thousands of documents from the geniza -- or storehouse -- of Cairo's largest synagogue.)

The project, launched in 2006, comes under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania's library system, and also involves a number of other institutions, scholars and private collectors.

It counts Sussman, religious leader of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, and Brandeis University history professor Jonathan Sarna among its advisory board members.

Leeser, who served as the chazzan at Philadelphia's Congregation Mikveh Israel, is credited with introducing the English-language sermon into the service, founding the Jewish Publication Society, translating the Hebrew Bible into English and starting the first rabbinical school on U.S. soil.

"Leeser was the principal architect of Judaism in America," said Sussman, author of Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism, published in 1995. "From the perspective of having worked on Leeser for almost 10 years, this couldn't be better. This is a dream come true. Now, maybe more people will study Leeser, and he'll get the credit he's due."

Arthur Kiron, curator of Judaica collections at Penn's library, as well as at the university's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, explained that the college actually acquired many of Leeser's private papers when it merged in 1993 with the Annenberg Research Institute (the precursor of the Judaic-studies center). Somehow, much of that collection fell into private hands, according to Kiron. There are different accounts of just what transpired. Some say the material was discarded; some believe that it was sold; others think it was stolen, relayed Kiron.

Nevertheless, he added that a number of private collectors in possession of Leeser documents are cooperating, and have agreed to have the materials scanned and put online for general access.

As the American Geniza Project was starting to unfold, the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image at Penn -- which for the past 10 years has been digitizing rare, mostly medieval manuscripts -- received a gift to purchase copies of an Israeli-designed software called Olive, according to David McKnight, director of the center.

McKnight explained that the Schoenberg Center, with the new software in place, began several pilot projects, including scanning and making available the text of Shakespeare's first edition folio, as well as issues of The Occident, published monthly from 1843 to 1869.

Though The Occident project falls under the auspices of Schoenberg, Kiron said that it will be linked to the American Geniza Project. Both should be up and running some time next year.

The central component of the Olive software is a technology known as Optical Character Recognition, according to McKnight. In effect, rather than just scanning in a document, as in a PDF, the software learns to "read" the manuscript, store it, and then allows researchers to sift through it electronically in a manner similar to searching a word or topic on Google.

Olive Software, a seven-year-old Israeli high-tech firm, grosses about $10 million a year in sales, according to Yuval Rachmilevitz, president and CEO.

"The world is full of historical content," he remarked from his office in California. "You just need to make it available."

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