During the week of April 21-28,2010, twelve scholars from Israel, the United States, France, and Morocco came together in the Judaic Studies Reading Room of the Sterling Memorial Library to study Yale’s collection of North African Jewish manuscripts. The collection, consisting of several thousand items purchased over the past ten years, includes books and documents dating from the 17th through mid-20th century. They are in Judeo-Arabic, Arabic, Hebrew, Haketia (North African Ladino), French, and Spanish, and come mainly from Morocco, but also from the other Maghrebi countries — Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The manuscripts vary from small scraps of paper to official documents, and from notebooks and registers in Sephardi cursive scripts to a folio-sized bound volume in beautiful calligraphic square script and multiple-colored inks. The last item is a magnificent exemplar of the 18thcentury
Constantine (Algeria) Mahzor for the use of the leader of the High Holy Day services. In addition to the standard Sephardi rite prayers, it contains piyyutim (liturgical poems) by Andalusian and Maghrebi poets for the embellishment of the services. The manuscripts come from most of the major centers of Jewish life, and some are autograph originals by important rabbinic figures such as Saul Abitbol (d. 1809) of Sefrou in Morocco, known as Rav Shisha, and author of the two-volume collection of responsa entitled Avne Shayish (Stones of Marble). What made the project unique was the team effort of the scholars. Leading the group was Professor Moshe Bar-Asher, the President of Israel’s Hebrew Language Academy and founder of the Center for the Study of Jewish Languages and Literatures at Hebrew University. The other members of the research team were: Rabbi Dr. Moshe Amar (Bar-Ilan University), Dr. Shalom Bar-Asher (Lifshitz College, Jerusalem), Professor Jacob Bentolila (Ben-Gurion University), Professor Joseph Chetrit (University of Haifa), Dr. Mohamed Elmedlaoui (Universite V Souissi Rabat, Morocco), Professor Efraim Hazan (Bar-Ilan University), Dr. Yehudit Henshke (Hebrew University), Professor Aharon Maman (Hebrew University), Dr. Simone Mrejen-O’hana (CNRS, Paris), Professor Norman Stillman (University of Oklahoma), and Dr. Ofra Tirosh-Becker (Hebrew University). For more information and photos of the speakers see http://v\r\vw.library.yale.edu/judaica/ site/conferences / northafricanjewry/about.php. The scholars worked morning till evening around a large seminar table in the Judaic Studies Reading
Room in the library. The project was conducted as a workshop. Each scholar was assigned a number of manuscripts to identify, describe, in some cases transcribe, translate, and annotate with the intention of bringing out a collective publication. Although all the participants were Judeo-Arabists and Hebraists with a background in Maghrebi studies, they also had different areas of expertise: history, linguistics, dialectology, poetry, rabbinics, liturgy, Judeo- Spanish, and Berber. Anyone encountering a problem could — and indeed did — turn to one or more colleagues sitting around the table for on-the-spot expert consultation. Thus, for example, Moshe Amar, a specialist in North African rabbinical texts might assist someone in deciphering the elaborate rabbinical signatures on responsa and court documents, and Jacob Bentolila, a leading expert on Haketia, could interpret Judeo-Spanish words and phrases inserted in Hebrew or Arabic texts. In addition to calling upon colleagues for assistance, the scholars also discussed their findings with one another. It was this cooperative academic effort and spirit of interchange that gave the workshop a unique dynamic that excited all the participants. Humanist textual scholars are used to working alone, often in solitude, and when they do seek advice from colleagues, it is usually via correspondence or at an occasional meeting. But here was instant access to fellow scholars with complementary expertise working on the same collection of material. In addition to the participants, Nanette Stahl, Curator of the Yale Judaic Studies Collection, and her staff were constantly on hand to provide all sorts of assistance ranging from specialized reference tools such as lexicons of rabbinic abbreviations to poetry thesauruses and responsa collections to high resolution photographs of some of the manuscripts. In tandem with the workshop in the library, the scholars took part in a day-long symposium, open to the public, entitled “Jews of the Maghreb: The History and Culture of North African Jewry” on April 25 in the Whitney Humanities Center. Each of the twelve participants delivered a lecture on some aspect of his or her current research. Their talks covered topics including music, poetry, tombstone inscriptions, the Hebrew component in Tunisian Judeo-Arabic, and the role of lineage and wealth in the Moroccan Jewish community. The symposium was organized by Moshe Bar-Asher, Nanette Stahl, and Steven Fraade, Chair of Yale’s Program in Judaic Studies. Another supplement to the workshop was a colloquium entitled “Jews in the Islamic World.” The event took place during the afternoon and evening of April 26 at the New York Public Library and was sponsored by its Dorot Jewish Division and the Yale Program in Judaic Studies. The colloquium marked the publication of the five volume Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World (Brill Academic Publishers), edited by Norman Stillman. The scholars, nearly all of whom contributed entries to the EJIW, were bused to New York City for the event. Professors Bar-Asher and Stillman gave presentations at the colloquium, and Professor Fraade chaired the afternoon session on “New Directions in the Study of Jews in the Islamic World.” All the participants finished the week of intensive study and interchange with the greatest enthusiasm and expressed their gratitude to Yale for having hosted such an original intellectual venture. They expressed the hope that there would be workshops of this kind in the future and look forward to the
publication that will result from the April gathering.
By Norman A. Stillman, Schusterman/Josey Professor of Judaic History, University of Oklahoma