Celebrating the Princeton Geniza Project


On May 19, team members and friends of the Princeton Geniza Project (PGP) gathered to recognize the team’s accomplishments.

On the left is a green and white sign reading "Princeton Geniza Project"; on the left is a round table around which people are sitting and holding up glasses.

In summer 2020, the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) and the PGP, which is part of the Princeton Geniza Lab, kicked off a research partnership aimed at creating a new PGP database and website to offer users access to tens of thousands of the documents found in the geniza chamber of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo and now housed in libraries across the world.

The research partnership, led by co-PIs Marina Rustow, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, and Rebecca Sutton Koeser, lead developer at the CDH, launched a redesigned public site earlier this year.

At the event, CDH Associate Director Natalia Ermolaev and Rustow offered reflections on the PGP and the research partnership.

“In the last two years we at the CDH have learned to understand why people are so drawn to the Cairo Geniza, which on the surface seems like a crazy kaleidoscope of facts from a very far away time and place,” Ermolaev said. “But as soon as we started working with [the PGP team], we ourselves got hooked, and were drawn in through the voices, scenarios, and issues that come alive in the Geniza documents, and that manage to connect us to these people and places of the past.”

Two photos of Natasha Ermolaev (left) and Marina Rustow talking

Ermolaev (left) and Rustow shared examples of Geniza humor and appreciation for the collaboration.

Ermolaev cited as an example a Geniza fragment in which the writer needed a new outfit for a party because his clothes fell into the Nile River.

“This is obviously the kind of problem that spans millennia,” she said.

Rustow, who referred to the research partnership as a “pandemic baby,” highlighted how the experience of working with the Princeton Geniza Lab team and with CDH collaborators differs from the experience of traditional humanities research, where scholars work as “isolated individuals.”

“For us in the humanities, it’s a rare privilege to work collectively,” she said. “A research partnership with the CDH is a very special arrangement, because the humanists are learning from the developers and vice versa all the time; we can’t manage our content without their tools, but they build better tools that solve more problems when they’re presented with interesting, research driven use-cases.”

Four photos of team members, clockwise from top left: Rachel Richman, Alan Elbaum, Eve Krakowski; and Gissoo Doroudian

Among the team members on the scene were (clockwise from top left): project manager Rachel Richman; senior research assistant Alan Elbaum; principal collaborator Eve Krakowski, Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies and the Program in Judaic Studies; and Gissoo Doroudian, PGP and CDH User Experience Designer.

Both speakers also noted the long history of Geniza research—and of digital humanities—at Princeton. Researchers started transcribing Geniza documents on IBM computers in the 1980s.

Ermolaev, noting that the event fittingly took place during Princeton Reunions, closed her remarks by recognizing the “generations” of Princeton scholars who contributed to the Princeton Geniza Lab.

“I want to acknowledge and thank not just Marina—but also the wider Geniza Project community both current and past, not just for the great historical material you bring to light, but maybe even more for the amazing collective and collaborative spirit of the Princeton Geniza Project, which will surely sustain it for decades to come.”

The friendly spirit extended to the celebration, where guests enjoyed snacks and conversation on the Frist Campus Center Patio.

On the left is a plate of food, with grape leaves at the front; on the right is a white cake with the green Princeton Geniza Project logo.

Served alongside the Mediterranean-inspired food was a sheet cake decorated with the new Princeton Geniza Project logo, designed by Doroudian.

Guests even had chance to work on a puzzle made from an image of a Geniza document.

“The puzzle is there for all of you—all of us,” Rustow said, “who over the course of the pandemic forgot how to make small-talk and be relaxed at parties.”

Kavita Kulkarni and Emily McGinn sit at a table with puzzle pieces on it

CDH Postdoctoral Associate Kavita Kulkarni (left) and HC3 Curriculum Specialist Emily McGinn gave the puzzle their best effort!

Guests also marveled at a balloon version of the Princeton Geniza Lab logo, created on site by Greg Koeser.

The top image shows Greg Koeser with balloons; the bottom left image shows Rustow with a balloon creation; the bottom right image shows the logo.

The party offered the team an important opportunity not only to reflect on their successes but also to take a well deserved break. In a blog post from last year, Rebecca Koeser reported that as of May 2021 (a year ago!), the PGP team had already counted 120 GitHub issues; 357 Asana tasks; and 7,772 Slack messages and 2,528 reactions across 4 channels. At the celebration, Rustow noted that “the various parts of our team have something like 7 standing weekly meetings.”

“If I had known how much work this project was going to be,” Rustow said, “I might never have signed up for it. Had I known how deeply gratifying it would be, what a difference it would make in our collaborative work, what a fantastic group of individuals this was, I would have signed up for it much, much earlier.”

Congratulations to all those who have contributed to the collaboration! For the latest on the PGP, return to the CDH blog and follow @GenizaLab on Twitter.

The event was organized by Deena Abdel-Latif, Geniza Lab Coordinator; Jessica Parker, projector manager of the Lab’s Handwritten Text Recognition project; and Mana Winters, CDH Events and Office Coordinator. Photos are by Shelley Szwast.

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