A Yiddish takeover of Wikipedia
Published on Friday, March 03, 2017 By Max Sparber
I used to contribute to Wikipedia now and then. I'd just write up posts on things I thought were interesting, and the forget about them. I went to read up on Nudie Cohn, the creator of the rhinestone cowboy look, and then remembered that I had written the article, although it has been expanded upon and improved in the ensuing years. I also wrote the original article about sideshow performer Johnny Eck, and sort of forgot to finish it. Other people finished it for me.
I occasionally write that I always meant this blog to be activist: It was intended to encourage people to walk away and do something Yiddish. I don't know how successful I have been at that, as I tend to fall back on the sort of things I have always done: Writing about movies, pontificating about politics, etc.
But I decided to personally become more activist this year, in that I would do Yiddish things away from the blog and report back on them. One of these things has been to start writing Wikipedia articles again. So far I have authored an article on Yiddish cabaret performer Pepi Litman and an article on an alternative to Zionism that never really took off, called Golus nationalism.
I'd like to encourage readers to do likewise. Like it or not, Wikipedia is the fifth most-visited website in the world, and certainly the most popular reference source. Speaking as a newsman, you'd be surprised how many news articles are pieced together from various Wikipedia articles. I'm sure this is also true of high school essays, works of historical fiction, and, I don't know, maybe lyrics to popular songs. I suspect bits of Wikipedia get everywhere, like those weird bits of code in DNA that come from worms or viruses or whatever.
So, in a very real way, if something isn't on Wikipedia, it doesn't exist in the same way. It doesn't come up in searches in the same way, it is invisible to a lot of people who use the web, and it doesn't get to weave its way into the larger discussion the way Wikipedia articles do.
I'm not the first to discuss this. If you look up WikiProject, you'll find a variety of attempts to address what has missing or minimized on the site. As an example, women scientists. There's also the Women in Red project, which was developed in response to the fact that only 15 percent of the biographies on Wikipedia were about women. There have been projects, with varying levels of success, to add and improve articles on the LGBT community, ethnic groups in general, and various niche interests, including specific televisions shows, the subject of martial arts, and the game of snooker.
There aren't that many Wikipedia pages about Yiddish or Yiddishkeit. There's what you would expect: A general introduction to the language, English words derived from Yiddish, and then some superficial introductions to Yiddish's most famous topics, like theater, klezmer, and literature. Some of these are well-written, some are stubs, and they tend to suffer from the same failings as the rest of the site.
There is a tendency to focus on men, as an example, although not the the extent of the rest of the site: On the Yiddish theater performers site, there are about 32 women to 55 men, so 36 percent, if you ignore the fact that the Barry Sisters are represented three times on the page.
Still, there is always room for improvement. Until I added Golus nationalism, Zionism was the only example of Jewish nationalism on Wikipedia, and Zionism rejected both Yiddish and the Diaspora experience, both of which Golus nationalism embraced. And while Golus nationalism never found the following Zionism did, if we are to discuss alternatives to Zionism for Jews who have no intentions of moving to Israel, and want to be able to maintain a Jewish identity as part of a minority inside a largely non-Jewish nation, it helps to have access to previous generations of thought about the subject. Especially when, like me, your concern is Yiddish, and that thinker addressed the subject of Yiddish.
I don't know what else I will add to Wikipedia, but I have committed to adding 25 new articles on Yiddish topics. This is something anybody can do -- one need not be an expect on a topic to start a Wikipedia page, and, as with my Johnny Eck page, you can even forget to complete it and somebody will come by and fill in what you missed.
Wikipedia is not terribly difficult to use, although they have their own conventions, which they will try to walk you through. I haven't mastered them, and every so often I notice a Wikipedia adminstrator has left a note on my page telling me that I forgot to do something, or should add something, and I generally do whatever they say.
Wikipedia has some general guidelines for what makes a good article, and they are worth familiarizing yourself with, because, boy, they will delete an article that doesn't fulfill these requirements. That being said, Wikipedia admins do not seem nearly so trigger happy with deletions anymore, and the site generally gives users the opportunity to fix an article before it is deleted, assuming the article isn't total garbage.
There is also a Yiddish-language version of Wikipedia for advanced speakers. I am nowhere near ready to tackle that, but perhaps someday.
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