Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia

Question: Our family has an illustrated encyclopedia, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. I seldom see references to this set and I wonder if it is of any use today.

Answer: The articles in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia are not as scholarly as those in the Jewish Encyclopedia (originally published 1901-1906) or as those in the Encyclopedia Judaica (originally published in 1972, and now available in an updated second edition--2007--in printed format and electronically to JTS faculty, students and other subscribers). The intended readers of the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia were laymen.

Important goals of its editors were to combat antisemitism and to improve Jewish-Gentile relations, and therefore its articles emphasized interfaith relations. In fact, the main editor, Isaac Landman, had organized an interfaith group, the Permanent Commission on Better Understanding between Christians and Jews, as a result of his awareness of the vulnerability of Eastern European Jewry at the close of World War I.

As a result of this perspective, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia provides an important window into American Jewish life in the 1930's and the beginning of World World II. In addition, it provides information on events and people who were of importance at the time, but whose significance was eclipsed in later decades. It would of particular use to a student of American Jewish history, or of political and social aspects of the American Jewish community.

Although publication of this encyclopedia was completed in 1944, its text was completed approximately two years earlier. Therefore the articles describe only the beginnings of the destruction of European Jewry. The juxtapostion of its emphasis on American Jewry with the facts of World War II which were ocurring as the printing presses were rolling, is disturbing.

More information about this enyclopedia, and other Jewish encyclopedias, is available in Shimeon Brisman's A History and Guide to Judaic Encyclopedias and Lexicons (1987). The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (10 volumes, New York, 1939-1944) is available in the Encyclopedia Room of the Reference Collection, DS102.8 .U5 in The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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