Scholars Visit JTS Library to Examine Handwritten Notes in Books 

Scholars and students examined volumes in JTS’s Rare Book Room, learning to decipher handwritten inscriptions in centuries-old books.

A group of 20 scholars and graduate students gathered in the JTS Library’s Rare Book Room for two days last month, learning to decipher handwritten inscriptions in centuries-old printed books. The workshop was part of a project called Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place, which uses these types of handwritten notes to create a database of everyone who bought, sold, gifted, donated, expurgated, or collected copies of Jewish books between 1450 and 1800. The idea is that by studying the notes that people left in books, scholars can gain greater insight into the history of Jewish life and culture.  

Footprints already has nearly 20,000 records in its database, but with so many books in print, the co-directors of the projects, including Professor Marjorie Lehman of JTS, plan to add many more. That means training more students and scholars in early modern paleography, or the skill of deciphering handwritten notes in printed material. At last month’s workshop, Dr. Noam Sienna of St. Olaf’s College used volumes from JTS’s rare book collection to train participants in examining Hebrew writing by Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.  

“The group’s excitement was palpable,” Professor Lehman said. “By the second day of the workshop we were able to read materials that seemed barely legible when we began. We were able to rely on the knowledge of everyone in the room to input data into Footprints.” 

This is the second such workshop Footprints has held. The first, held at Columbia University in February 2020, focused on deciphering Ashkenazi handwriting. 

Footprints is co-directed by Lehman of JTS, Michelle Margolis of Columbia University, Adam Shear of the University of Pittsburgh, and Joshua Teplitsky of the University of Pennsylvania. They work in partnership with the digital humanities experts at the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. JTS also congratulates Footprints on receiving the Digital Innovation Award (2023) from the Renaissance Society of America. 

Participants in the paleography workshop included: Francesca Bregoli; Roni Cohen; Sophie Edelhart; Kyra Gerber; Haim Gottschalk; Konstanze Kunst; Marjorie Lehman (JTS); Michelle Margolis; Israel Mizrahi; Louis (Chaim) Meiselman; Yechiel Rozenberg; Yitz Landes (JTS); Mordy Schwartz (Rare Book Room director); Nadav Sharon; Adam Shear; Noam Sienna; Joseph Skloot; Joshua Teplitsky; Tali Winkler; David Wachtel; and Shai Zamir. David Kraemer and Naomi Steinberger of the JTS Library also joined the group.

The May paleography workshop was sponsored by:  

  • JTS 
  • CUNY Graduate Center, Center for Jewish Studies 
  • Fordham University, Center for Jewish Studies 
  • Northwestern University, Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies 
  • Princeton University, Program in Judaic Studies 
  • Rutgers University, Department of Jewish Studies 
  • University of Pennsylvania, Jewish Studies Program 
  • University of Pittsburgh, Jewish Studies Program 
  • Washington University, Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies