Adolf Neubauer, scholar, author, librarian and bibliographer, was one of the first Jews to gain an academic appointment at Oxford University. He is primarily remembered for his achievements as a sub-librarian at the Bodleian Library which he enriched with many priceless acquisitions, including manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza.
He was a scholar of some repute and author of a substantial body of learned publications, including a major work on the geography of the Talmud and a summary of Jewish exegesis of Isaiah 53. According to Professor Stephan Reif*, Neubauer wrote at least twenty books and published over 300 articles on subjects ranging from ancient Palestinian inscriptions, Apocrypha, Samaritarianism, Hebrew grammar and poetics, and medieval Jewish history and travel. He also reviewed over 120 volumes.
Adolf Neubauer was born in Koteso, the son of a merchant. He studied Hebrew and rabbinic literature at home with his father and in the course of time, taught at the local Cheder. But he was attracted by the new scientific approach to the language, literature and history of the Jews and left home to study with the Chief Rabbi of Prague, Solomon Judah Leib Rapoport, a proponent of Judische Wissenschaft. He matriculated at the University of Prague in 1853 and went on to read oriental languages at the University of Munich from 1854 to 1856.
His main base was Paris during the ensuing decade. There, he pursued his research at the Bibliothèque Nationale, contributed to scholarly journals and mixed with distinguished Parisian orientalists. He travelled widely in these years. In 1860 he was in Turkish Palestine; in 1864 in St Petersburg, examining Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts, It was
particularly during these Paris years that he was commissioned to survey manuscript collections in France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, eking out a living, struggling from one commission to the next.
An end to his wanderings and the start of a more secure life-style came in 1868. He visited Oxford in 1866 and so impressed the Hebraists here that they offered him an appointment to describe the Hebrew manuscripts in the Bodleian at an annual salary of £200. The catalogue, which included more than 2,500 entries, appeared in 1886. By 1868 he was settled in the city and in 1873, after Jewish religious disabilities had been removed and Jews admitted to full membership of Oxford University, he was appointed sub-librarian at Bodley and granted an MA to give him the necessary Oxford status.
Even so, Neubauer’s Oxford career did not run entirely smoothly. In 1882, although a leading candidate when the University came to appoint a new Bodley’s librarian, he failed to obtain the post. One explanation, offered by Henry Bradshaw, Cambridge University Librarian, was ‘the necessity ‘to have an ordinary Englishman at the head of a large English library’. Neubauet was very upset, but was mollified in 1884, when the new Oriental School was founded and he was appointed Reader in Rabbinic Hebrew. In 1890 he was elected to an honorary fellowship of Exeter College, where he had for many years been a member of the senior common room.
Neubauer was only in his sixties when his health began to fail and his eyesight and mental acuity to deteriorate. ‘Old Nob’ resigned from the sub-librarianship in 1899 and from the readership the following year. In 1901 he left Oxford.
* For this statistic and for much of the material in this profile, I have drawn heavily on the Richard D. Barnett Memorial Lecture delivered to the Jewish Historical Society of England by Professor Stephan C. Reif on 20 January 2005.
The author has added the following note:
Adolf Neubauer was the uncle of my grandfather, Adolf Buchler, the son of his sister, Netta.
This may seem a remote connection, but Neubauer had no children of his own – he never married – and a particularly close relationship seems to have existed between uncle and nephew.. They also had similar interests, though this quite possibly was a result of their intimacy rather than a reason for it. A stream of almost indecipherable postcards on scholarly issues flowed between them. A selection of these is in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. The bond must have strengthened in 1891 and again in 1893 when Neubauer invited the younger man to Oxford to work with him at the Bodleian deciphering and analysing Geniza fragments and preparing his results for publication. It is not surprising therefore that in 1901 the confused, forgetful, almost blind Neubauer went to live with my grandfather in Vienna and equally that when Grandpa was appointed principal of Jews College in 1906 and brought his household to London Neubauer was automatically included. He died there that year and is buried in Willesden cemetery.