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September 01, 2011 - Image 36

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2011-09-01

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Yaron Tsur. Photo by D. C. Go ings

Rescuing Jewish Journalistic Heritage:
Yaron Tsur and the Historical Jewish Press Website

During the late 1990s, Israeli
tech company Olive approached Tel Aviv
University Professor Ron Zweig seeking to
move into newspaper and press digitization.
Together, Zweig and Olive digitized The
Palestine Post. This achievement proved to
be a breakthrough, as it both preserved the
original form of the paper and enabled a
free-text search of its contents.
In the fall of 2004, the project fell
into the hands of Yaron Tsur, a professor of
history at Tel Aviv University (and a 2010-
2011 fellow at the Frankel Institute). Fueled
by memories of newspapers disintegrating
to dust during his own research, as well as a
desire to have centrally located archives that
would be accessible to most, Tsur launched
the exhaustive Historical Jewish Press website
(www j p ress o rg. il/view-english. asp) . Since
2005, it has been a joint initiative of Tel
Aviv University and the National Library
of Israel. "The website benefitted from
the Library's treasures of microfilms and
rare newspapers as well as from its highly
professional teams," says Tsur, who now
shares the project's management with the
National library's chief information officer,
Alon Strasman.
Six years after its inception, the
website includes more than 400,000 pages;
during the next three years, it will pass
the million-page mark. The Historical
Jewish Press houses 20 newspapers from
11 countries: Israel, France, Morocco,
Prussia, Poland, Austria, England, Egypt,
Russia, Hungary, and Germany. The site
also enables free-text search in an impressive
five languages: English, Hebrew, French,
Hungarian, and Judxo-Arabic.
Among the collection's highlights
(1948), the famous Israeli
daily; Davar (1924-1996), the Histadrut
newspaper; Hamagid (1856-1903), one of
the first and the most influential Hebrew
newspapers; Hatzvi (1884-1915), founded

by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda; and the bulletin de
l'Alliance Israelite Universelle (1860-1913),
the organ of the great philanthropic French
Jewish society to which Jews from all over
the world reported.
The Historical Jewish Press is the
first website dedicated to the press of Jewish
communities worldwide, which necessitates
that it be multilingual. Between 1840 and
1880, when Jewish journalism was in its
nascent stages, German, English, French,
and Hebrew were the main languages of
Jewish newspapers. These languages did
not, however, accurately represent the full
linguistic portrait of world Jewry. Most Jews
in Europe spoke Yiddish, and those in the
Middle East and North Africa spoke Judxo-
Arabic and Ladino. After 1880, the picture
changed and newspapers in the under-
represented Jewish languages "sprang up
like mushrooms after the rain," says Tsur.
"In Poland, there were dozens of Yiddish
newspapers; Tunisia produced many in
Judxo-Arabic dailies, and the Greek city
of Thessaloniki printed multiple papers
in Ladino."
The history of printed Jewish papers
presented Tsur and his colleagues at Israel's
National Library with a unique set of
challenges. While scanning and displaying
the newspapers was a simple task, creating
searchable content required sophisticated
programming known as "optical character
recognition" (OCR). Until recently, the
Latin alphabet was searchable with OCR,
but not the Hebrew alphabet—used by
Hebrew, Yiddish, Judxo-Arabic, Ladino,
and other Jewish languages. "Every set of
letters requires the development of special
OCR tools. However, the companies
investing in OCR rank an alphabet highly
only if there is a promising market for their
product," Tsur says. "There was, therefore,
a threat—and it has still not entirely
disappeared—that a technological barrier
would be created that would check our
ability to present the whole spectrum of
Jewish press on the Internet."
Fortunately, an effective OCR for
the Hebrew alphabet was recently developed,
making it possible to upload newspapers
covering approximately 150 years of Hebrew
journalism. "Right now, the website is
dominated by Hebrew, but we hope soon to
change it and to open portals for Yiddish,
American Jewish, Russian Jewish, Judxo-
Arabic, and Ladino journalism. Our French
Jewish collection is rather developed and
contains seven periodicals. It seems to me,"

Tsur continues, "that only a multilingual
website can reflect the 'Jewish situation'
during what we may term the 'classic
era of Jewish journalism, between 1880
and 1980. It will also allow, in the near
future, searching keywords simultaneously
throughout the entire spectrum of languages
and newspapers.
Naturally, such lofty goals require
the help of multiple collaborative partners.
"Our policy is to identify our best potential
partners, wherever they are found. The
website is not planned to be a project of
one or two institutions, but rather one of
international cooperation for the benefit
of the whole Internet community. Our
first partner was the library of Alliance
Israelite Universelle in Paris, with whom
we established the French collection.
The project is funded mainly by the Yad
Hanadiv foundation. One cannot imagine
the website's impressive development
without their encouragement and backing,
but they invest primarily in preservation of
the Hebrew press. We are actively seeking
additional partners and donors for the other
languages. Our collaborative efforts with
cultural and academic institutions in Israel
and elsewhere are the project's lifeblood.
We are partnering with Shalom Aleichem
House in Tel Aviv and cooperating with
YIVO in New York City for the site's
Yiddish section, and we have a joint project
with the University of Pennsylvania library
to upload The Occident, the first American-
Jewish general periodical (1843 – 1869).
We are negotiating similar projects with
other universities, and we receive help from
other philanthropic foundations such as
Matanel in Luxumbourg."
The website serves scholars and
students from all over the world and from
a variety of disciplines: history, literature,
linguistics, communications, and more. It
crosses not only linguistic and geographical
divides, but also religious and political lines.
"A newspaper provides a window into a
period's zeitgeist that no other vehicle can
provide. Tsur and his colleagues' goal is to
benefit the entire education system—to give
teachers a tool through which to connect
their pupils directly with yesterday's events
and discoveries. For example, students
can study contemporary responses to
the delivery of an historical speech or the
publication of a classic piece of poetry. "We
work for the whole community," concludes
Tsur . "Isn't it the advantage of rescuing that
kind of popular media from oblivion?"


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