15 September 2010

Morocco: Jewish documents to be digitalized

An Oregon anthropologist has received a grant to digitize Jewish Moroccan documents.

In Rabat, Morocco, on a 2005 Fulbright research grant, Lewis & Clark University assistant professor of anthropology Oren Kosansky worked with community leaders and discovered a genizah (photo left) - a room or depository found in synagogues, where old religious documents no longer needed are kept and then periodically buried.

Tracing the Tribe reminds readers that such collections are often rich resources for family information and provide details not available elsewhere, which will surely benefit genealogists and family history researchers looking for information on Jewish families in Rabat.

Kosansky has now won a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) to develop a digital archive of Jewish Moroccan documents from the 18th-20th centuries. The online archive will enable open access to international researchers interested in North African Jewish culture and allow them to share ideas and information. The project will also offer a new model for intercultural and international collaboration in the creation of technological resources to share historical information.

What is a genizah and what may be found in one? The most famous of course, is the Cairo Genizah.
“In Judaic tradition, documents containing references to God are forbidden from being destroyed,” Kosansky explained. “Most obviously books and papers on religious topics such as the Torah are deemed sacred and treated in a ceremonious fashion, but any item with religious or legal references—such as a wedding announcement or business contract—would also be kept.

“In this case, I found literally thousands of books and documents pertaining to virtually all facets of Jewish life in Morocco, especially as it was transformed during the 20th century. My first thought was, ‘How can I save these materials from burial, so that they can be consulted by community members and scholars.’”
The Rabat community once had thousands of residents, but decreased to less than 100 following major emigration to Israel, France and elsewhere. The research materials remained in Rabat.
“Written materials are very important in Judaism,” Kosansky explained. “It is a very textual culture. These documents offer great insight into a culture and a community of people that once thrived here. They offer an opportunity to investigate elements of a society that has not been fully explored by those of us in the academic field. For the Jewish community, it represents something perhaps even more valuable—an opportunity to reflect on how their traditions have been shaped by modern life, colonialism, technological change, and global networks of migration, communication, and commerce.”
The community leaders allowed Kosansky to go through hundreds of sacks containing thousands of documents to determine which documents were appropriate for burial and which represented significant historical texts suitable for preservation. They gave him the documents for preservation and he donated them to the Jewish Museum in Casablanca. The collection includes handwritten letters, unpublished manuscripts, community records, as well as published materials in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew and French.

The project raised questions on how to build such a specialized archive, and how to respect legal, ethical and social differences across societies:

“There are so many issues up for consideration,” Kosansky said. “For example, what, if any, are the copyright issues for such old documents? And what are the copyright laws in Morocco? Are their private documents we shouldn’t digitized out of respect for some individuals or the Jewish community? Who should be consulted on such ethical considerations?”
He will begin the project when he directs the university's first overseas program in Morocco in spring 2011. While there, he'll be locating experts in the US and in Morocco in digital archives, information access, intellectual property law and Jewish history to address the legal issues, begin digitization and build the website.

Read the complete article at the link above for more information.

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