VANCOUVER — Though he broke his ankle on a slippery sidewalk in Montreal, McGill University professor Gershon Hundert still showed up in Vancouver recently to talk about the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, a 2,400-page book he edited in 2008.
The book represents the work of 500 scholars over seven years, and its goal was to mediate and reflect the entire civilization of eastern European Jewry. Hundert, the Leanor Siegel Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill and the Itta and Eliezer Zeisler Memorial Lecturer, spoke at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Feb. 4.
“We wanted to recover and represent the civilization of the ancestors of most of the Jews in the world today,” he said. “We tried to present eastern European Jewish life as accurately, fully and precisely as possible, without bias and nostalgia.” As editor-in-chief of the encyclopedia Hundert was careful about avoiding what he calls “the kitsch sometimes associated with eastern European culture.”
He and his team of 30 editors faced some difficult decisions over the seven years about what to include in the encyclopedia, where it should end, what it should encompass and others. They addressed questions including the geographical limits of eastern Europe, and struggled with how they should cover the Holocaust. “It could have swallowed the whole encyclopedia, and that’s not what we wanted to do,” Hundert said.
Instead he chose to treat the Holocaust within the framework of individual country entries, with attention to Jewish experience and Jewish responses. “There are no entries on specific concentration camps, which caused a great fuss. I got yelled at in Israel for not having an entry on Auschwitz,” he recalled.
“But the reason for our decision is that the main focus of this encyclopedia was on the life of the Jews, not their murder or murderers. It was our fundamental editorial principle that the Holocaust not be allowed to define the eastern European Jewish experience, and that we avoid seeing centuries of Jewish life through the lens of the Holocaust.”
The encyclopedia contains two million words, but even with that quantity it was still a concern who made it into the text. The editorial team decided there would be no entries about non-Jews, but that they would not exclude Jews whose behaviour might be condemned on ethical grounds. There’s a long entry on crime and criminals in the encyclopedia, for example. The criteria for Jewish inclusion included those who were considered Jews by others and who saw themselves as Jews, but to be included they needed to do something of significance during their time in eastern Europe.
Language and transliteration caused untold problems for the team and “drove us crazy,” Hundert said. “The Hebrew spoken in eastern Europe is not the modern Israeli Hebrew spoken today,” he explained. “Eastern European Jews spoke ‘Ashkenazic’ and pronounced things differently, and it was important to us to try and deal with this somehow. So every once in a while we put the name or entry in Ashkenazic, to remind people of the actual language and terminology.”
Another contentious issue was where to end the encyclopedia, in 1939 or in 2000. “That caused the deepest discussion, and there was a lot of back and forth about that,” he said. In the end, the year 2000 was chosen as the end point, to include those Jews who continued to live in eastern Europe after the war.
The encyclopedia weighs six kilograms, costs $400 and has 1,800 entries that cover, to name a few of its subjects, angels, birth and birthing, love, marriage, dress, pilgrimage, jesters, beggers, cartoons, Christmas, cookbooks, crime, dogs, humour, money, pigs and sport.
Proud of his labour of love, Hundert says it’s an unprecedented project. “That’s why I was able to recruit and enlist virtually every major and senior scholar to write in their area of expertise,” he said. “Their standing lends this project great authority and reliability.”
The YIVO encyclopedia is available for free online at www.yivoencyclopedia.org, where the editors have posted more images and included video, too. Hundert said when he last checked, the site was receiving 17,000 hits each month from all over the world.