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260,000 digitized images of Jewish art and artifacts now online

The Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art has launched the world’s largest index of Jewish Art, a collection of more than 260,000 digitized images of Jewish objects and artifacts from all over the world. The Index preserves the rich artistic heritage of the Jewish people throughout time and across the globe.

Image from the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art: Tripartite Mahzor, Lake Constance Area, ca. 1322 (Oxford, Bodleian Library) – The Tripartite Mahzor is a magnificent illuminated manuscript divided into three volumes, adorned by paintings in colors and gold, produced in a non-Jewish workshop. Here the initial word: כל (“All”) opening the Eve of Yom Kippur prayers is written within a colorful panel adorned with hybrid creatures. (Credit: Hebrew University / Center for Jewish Art)

The Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art is a collection of digitized images and information about Jewish artifacts from all over the world. The online collection includes over 260,000 images of objects and artifacts from 700 museums, synagogues and private collections in 41 different countries, as well as architectural drawings of 1,500 synagogues and Jewish ritual buildings from antiquity to the modern day.

The public can access the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art and start exploring the world of Jewish art at http://cja.huji.ac.il/browser.php. Amateur or professional researchers easily access more than a quarter of a million images, with accompanying details and descriptions, either by simple keyword search or according to such categories as Iconographical Subject, Origin, Artist, Object, Community, Collection or Location.

Vladimir Levin, Director of the Center for Jewish Art, commented “Jewish culture is largely perceived as a culture of texts and ideas, not of images. As the largest virtual Jewish museum in the world, the Index of Jewish Art is a sophisticated tool for studying visual aspects of Jewish heritage. We hope that making this Index available will lead to further in-depth study of primary sources, and serve as an enduring launching pad for the study of the historical and cultural significance of Jewish art for many years to come.”

The extensive collection contains over 100,000 entries in the Jewish Ritual Architecture category alone. “We cannot physically preserve all Jewish buildings everywhere, but we can preserve them visually through documentation and drawings,” said Dr. Levin.

Image from the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art: Mosaic Floor, Synagogue in Hammath Tiberias, Israel, 286-337 CE.(Credit: Hebrew University / Center for Jewish Art)

The digitization of the Center for Jewish Art archives became possible in the framework of a joint project with the National Library of Israel and Judaica Division of Harvard University Library. It was generously funded by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, “Landmarks” Program of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, Judaica Book Fund endowments established by David B. Keidan (Harvard), as well as by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, The Morris and Beverly Baker Foundation, Mrs. Josephine Urban and Mr. William Gross.

Some of the pieces documented are no longer in existence, but have a permanent place in the vast index that has taken more than thirty years to collect and six years to digitize. In some cases, the researchers were able to document an object just in time, such as right before a crumbling East European synagogue collapsed to its foundation, or a ritual object disappeared into obscurity at an auction.

One such expedition that researchers from the Center went on occurred in Siberia in 2015. While researchers give extra attention to areas of Europe where Jewish communities were ravaged during World War Two and have inherited the worst crisis of heritage preservation in the aftermath of the destruction brought on by the Holocaust, the former Soviet Union’s Jewish communities in the far north have also fared poorly.

Researchers on the expedition found that many synagogues, long since abandoned, were on the verge of collapse. Many Jewish cemeteries had been destroyed over the years, or were in such a state of dilapidation and neglect that they were in danger of disappearing. While the expedition team worked tirelessly at documenting the objects that they could find, they also attempted to raise awareness among the locals of the importance of preserving Jewish heritage sites, not just for Jewish communities, but also as a significant part of their own history and culture.

The Center has more exciting projects lined up in the coming months. The monograph Synagogues of Ukraine: Volhynia, by Dr. Sergey Kravtsov and Dr. Vladimir Levin, is due to be published this summer. “Historic Synagogues of Europe,” a joint project with the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, will be opened to the public in November 2017. It will offer, for the first time, an inventory of all of the historic synagogues of Europe, rating them according to their significance and condition, therefore providing a comprehensive and strategic perspective for the preservation of European Jewish heritage.

Click here to visit the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art

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