Ten years ago 22 enthusiasts of Yiddish and of the internet (the latter
was hardly referred to by this word at that point) received an email that
Rekhtn fus s'iz take geveyn! And not only this. We all should be thankful for Noyekh's vision and perseverance, for Victor Bers' tireless work behind the scene, for dedication and support of all the subscribers. Today, Mendele is in the beginning of its second decade. Ten years is an extremely long period on the Internet time scale, especially for an enterprise without a budget and staff, without any institutional support or any formal organization behind it. Thousands of Internet projects, big and small, did not make it past their first, or second, or fifth anniversary. Mendele did not just survive, it hasMendele: Yiddish literature and language _______________________________________________________ Contents of Vol. 1 no. 1 May 15, 1991 Date: Wed, 15 May 91 From: Noyekh Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) Subject: Oyfn rekhtn fus At last Mendele is ready to go public. We have as of today a total of 22 subscribers (list on demand) and a very good roster it is. And while we're neither in Czernowitz or Vilna we may be at the start of something that none of us might have thought possible 10 years ago. Let us hope so. Noyekh Miller
Mendele's tenth birthday is a convenient occasion to recall its history, as well as the history of the Yiddish internet in general. The story below is not complete. I apologize if I missed any important events or people and would greatly appreciate all additions and corrections, that will be incorporated into the future versions.
Personal email was the first truly popular application of computer-mediated communication. In the 1980s, it was complemented by group communication in the form of mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups. The first generation of the Internet users, which consisted mostly of computer professionals and aficionados, scientists and engineers quickly realized that new media can be quite useful beyond the regular working hours. The growing Usenet was expanding into various subject areas, including religion and culture. Before long, there were active Jewish groups on the Net, including net.religion.jewish, and later, soc.culture.jewish and soc.genealogy.jewish.
While the messages on Yiddish-related topics started appearing in the general Jewish Internet media from the mid-80s, the first online public forum dedicated exclusively to Yiddish was created in October of 1988 by David Sherman from Toronto. A Yiddish mailing list (or mail.yiddish) was issued in digest form and gradually attracted a relatively diverse audience. The contributions to the list were written in English or transliterated Yiddish and covered a fairly broad range of topics, including reports of Yiddish events, songs, jokes, and news.
By the early 90s, several important developments affected the landscape of the Net. An increasing number of academics in humanities and social sciences were becoming email users, which prompted a need for a more scholarly media. In 1991, Noyekh Miller, a veteran mail.yiddish subscriber organized a list named after Mendele Moykher Sforim. For several months, Mendele and mail.yiddish peacefully coexisted, but eventually most mail.yiddish subscribers switched to Mendele and mail.yiddish became inactive. For the next ten years Mendele was steadily growing. It reached 500 subscribers in 1994, 1000 in 1996, 1500 in 1998, and 2000 in 2000.
To provide better channels for the different types of materials, Mendele created two spin-off publications, The Mendele Review and Mendele Personal Notes and Announcements. The Mendele Review (TMR) is a literary supplement to Mendele edited by Leonard Prager. TMR publishes book reviews, bibliographies, fiction, and literary criticism. Mendele Personal Notes and Announcements present a different facet of the Mendele community: materials of local and regional interest - festivals, concerts, exhibits, personal classifieds.
Mendele is a truly international community. As of today, we have 2,100
subscribers living on six continents, approximately two thirds of them
in the United States. (The exact numbers are unknown, because it is difficult
to attribute correctly addresses in .com, .net, and .org domains. The numbers
below reflect only the respective country domains -- .ca, .il, .de, .nl,
etc. The actual number of subscribers from some countries is significantly
Country domains with less than 5 subscribers include China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Iceland, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovakia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Uruguay.
When Mendele started ten years ago, all but one of the 22 subscribers were affiliated with the US universities. Since then their portion in the list has been steadily declining. Today, only 434 (21%) of all subscribers have e-mail addresses in the .edu domain (plus several hundred at foreign universities). Harvard and New York University boast the largest teams - 18 Mendelyaner each. They are followed by Stanford (17), Berkeley (16), U. of Michigan (15). U. of Chicago, U. of Maryland, MIT, Ohio State, U. of Pennsylvania, U. of Texas (11 each), UCLA, Columbia, and Yale (10 each). More than 100 other campuses around the world have fewer than 10 subscribers. Universities outside the US with more than 10 subscribers include U. of Toronto and Hebrew U. (both 13).
Other currently existing Internet forums relevant to Yiddish include Yiddishnet (announcements mailing list), Virtual Ashkenaz (conference boards associated with the Ashkenaz festival, Toronto), alt.music.jewish (Usenet group), H-Judaic (JSN) and H-Holocaust (H-Net groups), Geschichte und Kultur der Juden (discussion list), Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi history and culture list), and EEJH (East European Jewish history list).
One of the problems of Yiddish communication on the Internet from its early days was the rendering of Yiddish letters. In late 80s and early 90s most Internet users were working on the terminals that supported only a single character set. The only way to display Yiddish letters on the non-Hebrew ASCII terminal was to "draw" them using several ASCII characters for each letter. The first program for converting transliterated Yiddish text into a "real" Yiddish, "yidtype", was written by Refoyl Finkel in summer of 1991. This program was designed to enable communication in Yiddish by e-mail and in principle could have served this purpose; however, more practical applications for Yiddish email did not appear until a later time. "Yidtype" gradually evolved into "Yidishe Shraybmashinke", a wonderful tool that permits composing Yiddish text in different formats by entering a transliteration through the Web interface.
In the late 90s, several programs using proprietary formats supported Yiddish e-mail, none of them gained wide popularity. Real progress in Yiddish computer communication is becoming possible only now, with the advent of Unicode, an international standard for multilingual text encoding. Mark David and a group of enthusiasts loosely organized around his mailing list UYIP (Understanding Yiddish Information Processing) played a great role in ensuring correct and full representation of Yiddish in the Unicode standard and in convincing Microsoft to support Yiddish in its browser and e- mail client. Current versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook support Yiddish encoding and are supplied with the fonts that contain most Yiddish letters and ligatures. These popular programs made possible the creation of the "real" Yiddish Web pages, including interfaces to the databases and other applications with interactive features. One of the examples of such development is the online catalog of the British Library. British Library is the first major library in the world that converted the bibliographic records of Yiddish books into Unicode format, making them available for display in a standard browser.
One of the earliest Yiddish collections on the Net was started by Ari Davidow in December of 1988 within the framework of the WELL virtual community. The Yiddish resource databank was created as part of WELL's online reference library. Access to the resource was limited to WELL members only. In May 1991 Noyekh Miller started archiving the newly-created Mendele mailing list. In addition to Mendele issues, the archive contained other documents, e.g. Noyekh Miller's own translation of Jacob Pat's "Shmuesen mit Yiddishe Shrayber". For several years the scope and usability of Yiddish archives remained limited. Only the new technologies that enabled global navigation of information space radically changed the situation.
The first serious attempt to collect and classify Yiddish resources
was launched in 1993 by Shtetl,
the major Yiddish navigation site and virtual library on the Internet.
Shtetl contains a large list of links to the Yiddish web sites around the
world as well as its own collection with many thousands documents on Yiddish
language, literature, culture, and history. Shtetl collections are grouped
into several categories, including Library, Synagogue, School, Kitchen,
Art Center. Collections include materials in various media: texts, images,
audio, interactive games. For a number of years Shtetl has been rated among
the best Yiddish Web sites by the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Encarta
and other Internet guides and directories. Shtetl is a popular site - in
2000 it has been visited by more than 100,000 web surfers and the rate
of access is growing. The dynamics of the monthly access to Shtetl (number
of unique visitors and number of pages served) is shown in this table:
Conventional media is making inroads into the digital age as well. Der Yidisher Tam-Tam, published bimonthly in Paris, was the first Yiddish newspaper on the Internet. Der Bavebter Yid is a quarterly Yiddish literary journal . Forverts publishes some of its materials on the web. Pakn Treger, a magazine published by the National Yiddish Book Center has been experimenting with the online materials. Forvets Sho, a weekly radio program on WEVD produced by Boris Sandler is broadcasted on the internet for more than a year. Another Yiddish radio weekly, The Yiddish Voice, has a longer history - it was a pioneer of the Internet Yiddish radio. At least three other Yiddish radio programs: from Australia, Canada, and Israel are available to the listeners worldwide.
Every year brings more good news. Yiddish education on the Internet
is making first significant steps: two projects were launched recently
in Florida and Germany.
- the first full text library of Yiddish classics is acquiring more and
more works. All these resources, old and new, professional and amateur,
multimedia and interactive, make the Internet, a world wide shtetl of our
days, a truly exciting place for the lovers of Yiddish.