It is a custom in Israel and all the lands of Israel, when an association is formed
They prepare a book of memories
To record all the events that occur
And call it a Pinkas, and therefore we, the members of Tifereth Jerusalem…
Have also made ourselves such a book
Where can be found the names of members
And other matters which shall necessarily be written.
May this society exist forever. Amen.

—Yechiel Herman, author of the Papineau Pinkas (translated by David Rome)

The Pinkas Project is a collaborative effort to build an online catalog of pinkasim from immigrant communities.  Our goals are:

  • to learn more about how this practice spread from its Eastern European origins to communities founded by immigrants from those places, and
  • to raise awareness about the styles of immigrant community records in order to spur scholarship in the broader area of Jewish communal records.

pinkas is a traditional ledger from a Jewish communal organization.  Most pinkasim from immigrant communities used standard ledger books of the day and contained handwritten, unadorned entries. Some incorporate calligraphy and illumination to elevate the community’s records beyond the standard practice. These pinkasim demonstrate a remarkable continuity of practice with the style of record-keeping that originated in Eastern Europe.

Upon the arrival in the United States of large numbers of Eastern European Jews that commenced in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, communal organizations modeled on European patterns were established in American Jewish communities. In the shtetlach (Yiddish for “small towns” or “villages”) of Eastern Europe, Jewish life was organized into ḥevrot, associations having specific religious, charitable, or trade functions. Each ḥevrah recorded its rules and regulations, the names of its founders and members, and the minutes of its meeting in a pinkas, or register. The members of the community treated the register with veneration. Because of their importance, the pages of early European pinkasim were often parchment and bound in fine leather with gold lettering, but most American pinkasim are standard large blank journal or account books purchased from commercial stationers. Professional scribes, or sofrim, often entered the proceedings of the ḥevra in the register, something employing the same style of lettering used in scrolls of the Torah. The title pages and section headings of a pinkas were frequently illuminated with fine ornamentation and drawings, fanciful folk figures of animals and zodiacal signs, and decorated Hebrew letters. A key to the communal affairs of Eastern European Jewry in the United States, the pinkas frequently represents a striking example of folk art itself. It was in the nature of American life that other forms of community organization would quickly supplant many traditional ḥevrot, but pinkasim recording their activities survive. In one example from 1911-1912, which documents a group within Philadelphia’s Congregation Atereth Israel, the artist, Benjamin J. Wexlar, surprisingly substituted a pair of northwest coast Indian totem poles as a decorative element in place of the more conventional columns.

…By the end of the first half of the twentieth century, many traditional Jewish folk art practices were lost, the result of assimilation and acculturation. In some cases, the production of folk art did not survive the immigrant generation.

Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, p. 304-5

This project was founded in 2018 by Tammy Hepps, a historian of the Jewish experience in Western Pennsylvania. The genesis of this project came with her unexpected discovery, four years prior, of a single illuminated and calligraphed pinkas amongst the many otherwise workaday record books of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation and its ḥevra kadisha. While Eastern European pinkasim have long been collected and studied in a systematic way, nothing of the sort has been attempted for immigrant pinkasim. After four years of informal discussions, she found little awareness that this art form carried over and scant information available for those who wish to study it.

Immigrant pinkasim are more than just curiosities. They capture, in a visually compelling way, the blend of the old and the new in the formation of immigrant communal organizations. Because record-keeping operates outside of halacha, Jewish law, every community developed its own practices. For example, American synagogue records from the period of mass migration merged practices from both the traditional kehilla and local fraternal societies. Later pinkasim became more like community history books, professionally published and widely distributed. Having a catalog through which to study the range and evolution of styles will permit scholars of individual communities to evaluate the degree to which their often young founders were familiar with traditional practices and sought to be continuous with them.

While the current goal of The Pinkas Project is to build an online catalog of these communal records, its larger purpose is to encourage deeper study of all Jewish immigrant community records. Beyond the names and events they capture, all the stylistic choices in these records, artistic or otherwise, provide a new lens towards understanding the formation and goals of these communities.