It is the well-known Indiana Jones story of Jewish scholarship: Solomon Schechter, raider of the lost geniza. Schechter, then a professor at Cambridge, learned that fascinating manuscripts were being brought back from Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue, where they had been stashed in the geniza, or storeroom, for centuries. He put together an expedition and returned with hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper. The stash included letters from Moses Maimonides, manuscripts of the Talmud and other well-known Jewish texts, previously unknown lists of angels, and, to the excitement of generations of social historians, many wedding contracts and other such documents.
Yet while the finds from the geniza have revolutionized many fields of Jewish studies, not all of its secrets have come to light. Paper, after all, crumbles, and there remain more than a hundred thousand fragments that have yet to be sorted, cataloged, transcribed, or translated.
That’s where you come in.
The University of Pennsylvania Libraries, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library, and the Princeton Geniza Project have teamed up with Zooniverse to enable ordinary people to help sort the fragments.
Zooniverse was launched in 2007 to sort a million photographs of distant galaxies. This crowdsourcing brought thousands of pairs of eyes to bear on problems that would be insurmountable for any team of astronomers.
The geniza project is the 75th under the Zooniverse umbrella. Other options for citizen science at the site include categorizing geographical formations on Mars, transcribing Civil War records, and looking for endangered sea lions in the Aleutian Islands.
As the first stage of its geniza project, Zooniverse aims to sort the fragments. (This is in preparation of a future plan to transcribe them.) You will be asked to identify whether the fragment is written in Hebrew or Arabic script, whether the writing is formal or informal, and whether certain specific typographic features appear. You don’t need to actually know Hebrew or Arabic to do this. (If you do know Hebrew, don’t be surprised if you don’t understand the fragments you read: The Jews of Cairo wrote their dialect of Arabic with Hebrew characters.)
It’s a fascinating experience. Zoom in to read the writing. Rotate the picture so it’s right-side-up. Hebrew or Arabic? Formal or informal? And if it’s Hebrew, and if you can read Hebrew — is that the name Maimonides? Is that a page of Talmud? Is that a shopping list?
You can bookmark your favorite fragments for sharing with friends, or looking up later. Each fragment has its catalog number, which lists the collection it’s from. And each fragment is a new window into a distant realm of Jewish history.
Try it out at zooniverse.org/projects.