Posted: 12/7/2008 5:39:00 PM
Author: Ruth Beloff
Source: This article originally apperared in the Jerusalem Post online edition.
Never at a loss for words
by Ruth Beloff
'I feel overwhelmed at times," says Susie Cohen. Small wonder. As editor of the most comprehensive bibliography of material about anti-Semitism in the world, it is surprising she doesn't feel overwhelmed all the time.
But then again, she has been doing the job for 25 years.
Cohen is the head of a special project at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University, Givat Ram Campus, established by Prof. Yehuda Bauer in 1982. Since 2002 the director of the center and academic adviser of the project has been Robert S. Wistrich, who holds the Neuberger Chair in Modern Jewish History at the Hebrew University. He is a world-renowned expert in the field of anti-Semitism.
The project, funded by British benefactor Felix Posen, is dedicated to listing every book, journal article and scholarly treatise on the subject of anti-Semitism written in any language and published anywhere in the world. This does not include films, fiction or newspaper articles.
The entries consist of the standard bibliographic information (title, author, publisher, date), as well as an explicit synopsis of the thrust of the book or article. No other bibliography in the field of Judaica includes such an elaborative element, says Cohen.
Her job is to find the material and, with a staff of eight abstractors working under her direction, check the synopses for factual accuracy and edit any errors in grammar and syntax.
There is new material that comes in every day, says Cohen, so they have their hands full all the time.
But, she says, they all love their work.
"It is so interesting," she adds. "We learn something new every day. We read new books all the time. And no one ever quits their job."
It is such intriguing work, "they don't want to leave," she marvels.
The material Cohen works with comprises anything written about anti-Semitism - but not the anti-Semitic vitriol itself. Thus books about the Holocaust, anti-Semitic events (such as the Dreyfus case) or anti-Zionist sentiment in the Arab world are all grist for her mill. Spanning millennia, the bibliography covers works on subjects dating back to what Cohen says is the first written reference to anti-Semitism: Haman in Persia circa 500 BCE. They add about 1,500 new entries a year.
Targeted mainly for scholars, historians and researchers, the bibliography is an invaluable resource, says Cohen. The synopses give scholars or students the opportunity to grasp the essence of a book or article at a glance without having to wade through all that material themselves. Or, based on the abstract, they can determine whether a particular publication is one they want to read in its entirety.
Cohen, who made aliya from New York in 1963, received her certification as a librarian from the Hebrew University. She then worked in the bibliography department of the National Library on the Givat Ram campus.
When the Vidal Sassoon Center came up with the concept for the bibliography in 1983, she was asked to head the project.
So what is a typical day in the life of the chief bibliographer? From her office in the basement of the Popick Building at Givat Ram, Cohen walks over to the National Library twice a week to select material, which is put aside for her to look at. She then returns to her office and inputs the appropriate publication information for each of her staff members. They access the books or articles from the library and get to work reading the material and writing the abstracts directly online. Once they are completed, Cohen reads through the synopses and edits them.
The bulk of the material is in German and English, says Cohen. The rest is in Hebrew, Yiddish, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian and other European languages.
Therefore, Cohen's staff is a multilingual melange of abstractors. They read articles in their entirety. As for the books, they scan them for theme and content by reading the preface and table of contents and leafing through the chapters. Thus a book can be summarized within an hour or two, says Cohen.
She reads each new abstract on line, book or article in hand, going over every detail. She corrects the English, checks the dates, verifies the historical facts and judges whether the gist of what the author wants to say has been conveyed accurately.
How can she tell whether the information is accurate if the book is in a foreign language? For one thing, she understands English, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Polish and Czech. "I can scan a page in any of those languages and get an idea of what it's about," she says. As for the details of the data, "I've been working at it for 25 years," says Cohen. "I have learned a lot of Jewish history."
The subject of anti-Semitism appears in many disciplines, Cohen explains. It comes up in history, literature, the arts. But people didn't know how to go about finding such references, so this compendium is a boon to any scholar, she says.
In addition to the on-line access, a hard-copy volume of the bibliography with selected entries is published once a year by the K.G. Saur publishing company in Munich, prepared by computer expert Sara Grosvald in the Givat Ram office.
"We are presenting historical data and helping scholars and students to do the research and learn history," states Cohen.
She says thousands of people use the bibliography. With all its 50,000 entries on line, the Web site (sicsa.huji.ac.il) receives hundreds of hits a day. "If you Google 'antisemitism' plus 'bibliography,' ours is one of the first sites to come up," she say proudly.
With such a wealth of experience behind her and a vast amount of work still ahead, Cohen says, "I don't ever want to retire."