Defining the WikiJew
The ethnoreligious identity that anyone can edit: an article of mine in this week's Forward.
Who is a Jew? Let’s see what Wikipedia says about it. Or, rather, what the Wikipedias say, since the online encyclopedia is available in more than 100 languages. The answer to our question in English neither offends nor omits anyone: “[A] follower of Judaism, or [a member] of the Jewish people, an ethno-religious group descended from the ancient Israelites and from converts who joined their religion. The term also includes those who have undergone an officially recognized formal process of conversion to Judaism.” The Hebrew version (“Jews are an ethnic group of Semitic origin, in which membership is based on the Jewish religion”) is clearer, with a refreshing Israeli directness, but one will look in vain for the word “convert” — it isn’t mentioned in the article. And in Yiddish: “A Jew is a person who belongs to the Jewish people.” QED.
The English Wikipedia includes more than a million articles, and the Hebrew version about 45,000. Yiddish Wikipedia includes a little more than 2,000 articles, which makes it bigger than its counterpart in Tajik but smaller than Limburgian. So comparisons between these versions are not entirely fair.
Even so, the differences are illuminating. The English Wikipedia is a collaboration of thousands. Entries on non-trivial topics generally converge to a quasi-official style, with any unconventional stand revised out of existence. For its part, Hebrew is a Jewish language — but as far as Wikipedia (and modern Israel) are concerned, it is a national language, unceremoniously banishing to the sidelines the cozy bits of culture that Diaspora Jews hold dear. “Kugel” has no entry of its own, but languishes in the general entry “Pastries,” rubbing elbows awkwardly with “lasagna” and “pie.” Click on “Period of the Exile” in the Hebrew article “Jewish People” and you will be urged to (in Wikipedia-speak) “Edit ‘Period of the Exile.’” In other words, there’s nothing there.
And the Yiddish version? It’s Wikipedia moonshine, brewed by a bunch of bloggers, mostly Hasidic, with too much time on their hands. (I’m among the contributors.) Its entertainment-to-reliability ratio is far and away the highest of the three.
But there’s more to this comparison than clichéd Israel-Diaspora differences. The readers of each language have the benefit of a view denied to the others, so one can triangulate a version that benefits from all. What is Israel, for example? Says the English version, with overtones of propaganda: “The Middle East’s only parliamentary democracy and the nation state of the indigenous people of Eretz Yisrael.” Hebrew: “[A] parliamentary democracy found in the Middle East… defined as a Jewish, democratic state.” Yiddish Wikipedia reminds you first — before you’re even told about the State of Israel — that Yisroel can refer to a Jew, someone not of priestly lineage or a member of the Ten Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel. There is also a separate Yiddish article on what it means for there to be a Jewish state (a subject, as far as this reader can tell, undiscussed in the other Wikipedias).
Or, to take another example of a topic that gets different treatment, what is secular Jewish culture? The indulgent English-language article on the topic is apparently meant to catalog every movie, symphony, novel and TV show that Jews have had a hand in, while “Judaism as Culture” (in Hebrew) is a bare-bones — but useful — comparison of three philosophies of Jewish cultural peoplehood.
Other subjects, though not intrinsically Jewish, might be considered Jewish by association. “Homosexuality in Judaism” (English) is by and large given over to the positions of the three major Jewish movements, with obligatory hat-tips to Orthodox struggles with science, Conservative back-and-forthing and Reform cutting of the Gordian knot. Let us thank Herzl that there is no such article in the Hebrew Wikipedia. Homosexuality in (Israeli) Judaism is, in great measure, what the Jewish state makes of homosexuality. The items on the agenda in the United States are also matters of discussion in Israel. (The Yiddish reader looking up “Homosexuality” in her Wikipedia must first click through a notice that the content is only suitable for adults, before being told flatly that homosexuality “is not a Jewish concept.”)
The reader who uses these Wikipedias for Jewish research realizes that each of them has its particular virtues. The English Wikipedia is broad and detailed. The Hebrew version is relatively solid as a source for basic information on Israeli culture, literary and otherwise. The Yiddish version could be called Charedipedia. If you want the latest information on the Satmar succession struggle, the life history of the rabbis Teitelbaum, or diagrams of Hasidic dynasties, look no further. (Its treatment of religious topics, though fundamentalist, is also informative.)
But, as with any encyclopedia, Wikipedia (for Jewish topics as for anything else) should be used with care: There are large parts of the Jewish world that are ignored, glossed over or misunderstood in its pages. Hebrew Wikipedia knows nothing about the Jews of North America; until very recently, English Wikipedia was ignorant about Yiddish literature (as the Hebrew version still is); and Yiddish Wikipedia says little about nonreligious Jewish creativity, or intellectual endeavor in general. In the final analysis, the response to the user coming upon these deficiencies should not be a list of complaints, but a paraphrase of Hillel’s famous words to the convert: “Go and edit.”
Zackary Sholem Berger is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Wikipedia can change fast; some content referred to here might have changed since the article was written.