HUC-JIR is pleased to announce that Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot, Ph.D., the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History at HUC-JIR/New York, has received the prestigious Jordan Schnitzer First Book Publication Award of the Association for Jewish Studies for his new book, First Impressions: Sefer Hasidim and Early Modern Hebrew Printing, published by Brandeis University Press (March, 2023).
First Impressions tells the story of how printing created the Jewish bookshelf as we know it: How Hebrew printers of the sixteenth-century adapted and transformed medieval manuscripts into books, and the social and cultural worlds that shaped those volumes. It focuses on the first two printed editions of Sefer Ḥasidim—a compendium of rituals, stories, and religious instruction originating in medieval Franco-Germany—in order to show how printers, Jewish and Christian, in Catholic Bologna and Protestant Basel, fashioned Sefer Ḥasidim into book that would come to shape Ashkenazic culture, and Jewish culture more broadly, over the next four centuries.
“In the sixteenth century,” Skloot writes in the introduction to the book, the medieval manuscripts of Sefer Ḥasidim underwent a “material and conceptual transformation. They became a book, a single treatise with a stable text, attributed to R. Judah he-Ḥasid of Regensburg (Judah the Pious, 1150–1217), a canonical work of religious and moral edification keyed to the concerns of early modernity…. This transformation occurred through the medium of printing, carried out by Hebrew printers in the cities of Bologna and Basel.”
First Impressions is Skloot’s first book-length work and its publication is a testament to HUC-JIR’s mission of cultivating and supporting the next generation of scholars in Jewish studies. The grandchild of an HUC alumnus, Skloot was ordained a rabbi at HUC-JIR and, after doctoral study at Columbia University, service to Washington Hebrew Congregation as an associate rabbi, he returned to HUC-JIR as an assistant professor.
“My rabbinical studies at HUC-JIR introduced me to the richness of diversity of Jewish religious literature and trained me to be a subtle reader of Hebrew texts,” said Skloot. “First Impressions would not have come to be without this invaluable preparation for a life of scholarship.”
Further, the research that undergirds First Impressions was carried out in the collections and with the assistance of the Klau Libraries at HUC-JIR, the largest repository of Hebraica and Judaica in the western hemisphere, including a nearly complete collection of sixteenth-century Hebrew printed books. Over ten images in First Impressions are drawn from the Klau Libraries holdings.
Skloot teaches courses in history and Jewish religious thought to students in the rabbinical school, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, and Pines School of Graduate Studies at HUC-JIR. As he does in First Impressions, so in his courses, he strives to help his students understand how sacred Jewish texts, long thought to be eternal and unchanging, are artifacts of historical agency and contingency, created by and for human beings.
“It’s my hope that upon recognizing how the Jews of the past fashioned Jewish culture in response to real and perceived needs in their times and places, our students will be inspired to fashion new expressions of Jewish culture, linked to the past, but meeting the needs of the Jews in the present and the future.”