Cecil Roth 1899 – 1970

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Celia Roth

Cecil Roth, the youngest of the four sons of Joseph and Etty Roth, was born in 1899. His father, who had emigrated to this country from Poland, was a well-read businessman of the type traditionally styled in Jewish parlance a maskir, i.e. one committed to an interest in Hebrew with an ability to handle it (and other Jewish texts) competently at an amateur level; his mother, whose family name was Jacobs, was English-born, and came from Sheffield. The choice of the name Bezalel as the Hebrew counterpart of Cecil was perhaps significant, since it does not figure in his paternal ancestry: the biblical Bezalel was the artificer of the objects of silver and gold for the tabernacle, suggesting that his parents may have entertained aspirations which, as an art-historian and collector, he would in due course in some sense fulfil.

He received a first-class education, both at the city of London School and, in Hebrew, from private tutors at home, whose names it is right to record; from Moses Vilensky, active in Jewish primary education and journalism and from Jacob Mann who would later make his name as a scholar specialising in the study of material from the Cairo genizah. There was also the stimulus of his brother Leon destined for distinction as a philosopher and exponent of Maimonides.

Before Cecil could take up his “postmastership”, i.e. entrance scholarship to Merton College, Oxford he served his country as a soldier in Flanders. When he went up to read history he took with him a good enough knowledge of Latin both for later research and to enable him to acquire fluency in several romance languages, in particular Italian but he was never particularly interested in linguistic disciplines for their own sake.  Contemporaries, like himself nearly all ex-servicemen, included Israel Brodie, later to be Chief Rabbi; and the Jews amongst them gained much from contact with Herbert Loewe, who held a lectureship in post-biblical Hebrew. His undergraduate career was marked by two achievements, one moral and one intellectual. Although Oxford provided for Jewish examination-candidates who conscientiously refused to sit papers on the sabbath or Jewish festivals, this then involved missing one or even two papers, and could affect the class attained: happily, this has since been satisfactorily re-arranged. His own college expected him to win laurels and he was put under pressure by his tutors not to imperil his results, but he stood firm, missing the paper(s) and nevertheless emerging with first class honours. Whilst still an undergraduate he identified Duarte Brandao, who enjoyed an exiguous pension in the London House for Converted Jews, with Sir Edward Brampton, protege of Edward IV and himself patron of Perkin Warbeck. It was with considerable hesitation that the leadership of the Jewish Historical Society agreed to publish his lecture (Transactions, ix, 1922, pp. 143-62), but further research substantiated his claims.

Proceeding to post-graduate research, Cecil spent some time in Italy – a country that won his heart – and earned his D. Phil. with a study of the last Florentine Republic. Although it found a publisher straightway under that title (1925) and established his reputation as a renaissance schorar, it did not, as he seemed to have half-expected that it would, lead to any university appointment as an historian. It is possible that some prejudice, on personal rather than antisemitic grounds, may have played a part, but it has to be recognised that lectureships in medieval history were then few and far between. He had no private means, and whilst taking such opportunities as came his way, he had to rethink his future.

Whilst working on his doctoral thesis in Italy he had established friendship and good contacts both within the Jewish community and in academic circles, and had realised the significance, for the study of positive Jewish reaction to environmental culture, of ritual objets d’art. He had also developed a capacity to speak engagingly in public, and he had a fluent pen. He was thus able to maintain himself by journalism devoting himself to Jewish history and aspects of culture, and by lecture-tours principally in America, whilst at the same time financing the foundation of his own remarkable collection of Jewish ritualia by acting, in a small way, as a dealer and agent for collectors outside Italy possessed of significant means. Jewish art remained a major interest thoughout his life, and an engaging example of his study of its reflecting the interplay of community and environment is his article on “The Cardinals”‘ Hanukkah Lamps (Jewish Monthly, December 1949, and serialised). We may mention here, by slight anticipation, that it was Cecil who conceived the notion of establishing a Jewish Museum in London and, with the help of his friend Wilfred Samuel, brought it into being in 1932. In regard to journalism, mention must be made of the Menorah Journal published in New York. Started in l9l5 and edited, until his death in 1961, by Henry Hurwitz it set itself to stimulate amongst American Jewry an informed interest in Jewish history and culture from the first contacts with Greek thought until modern times. Hurwitz was glad to give Cecil a platform ahd probably assisted in arranging his lecturing tours; and some of his articles that appeared in the Menorah Journal became the basis of biographies and some studies wider ranging later published between hard covers.

His reputation was growing. Overseas visits began to take in Palestine and particularly the Hebrew University, where his brother Leon held a chair in philosophy. Recognition of his scholarly ability beyond the Jewish community is attested by his having contributed, in 1932, a chapter entitled ,’The Jews in the Middle Ages‘ to vol. 7 of The Cambridge Medieval History – its inclusion there itself constituting a landmark in 20th-century historiography. By that date his life had become enriched by marriage, in 1928, to Irene Davis, who came to share his enthusiasm for Jewish art (one of his finest manuscripts, a sephardic liturgical assemblage, although it was presumably found by him, bears a presentational inscription from her). But it was not until 1939 that Cecil attained an academic position, the funds to endow a readership at Oxford having been privately collected, and, appointed Reader in Post-Biblical Jewish Studies, he was assigned to the faculty of history. That too was significant change. Those who previously, in Oxford and Cambridge, had held posts for what was loosely entitled ‘talmudic’ or ‘rabbinics’ had been located in the faculties of Oriental Languages, whilst also being welcomed by the theologians as colleagues with much to contribute both in research and teaching. They had mostly interpreted the remit of their appointment liberally, and had made valuable contributions to the study of Jewish history and involvement with the host society from the middle ages onwards; for example, by publishing documentary evidence (Latin and Hebrew) of Jewish financial transactions in England until the 1290 expulsion and its significance in facilitating credit and the royal revenue. They had all been, by training, philologists who, having left school well trained in Latin and Greek alongside their Jewish education, had studied semitics (mainly Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic) at the university. Roth’s historical training, and his genius for scenting matter of Jewish significance buried within archival material of heterogeneous provenance, made him better equipped than his predecessors to approach Jewish studies from the circumference rather than the centre, i.e. starting with the environment rather than an individual Jew or his local community. It was this method that it possible for him to write such wide-ranging studies as his Jewish contribution to Civilisation (1945) and Jews in the Renaissance (1959). Several of these were published in translation: his Short History of the Jewish People (1936) appeared also in Hebrew (1946) and, in an abbreviated form, in Japanese (1966). It also circulated clandestinely, in duplicated form, in Soviet Russia: and in his later years Cecil said that if it had proved the means of but one person there recovering a meaningful sense of his Jewish identity, that would be reward enough for his life’s work.

Cecil occupied his readership from 1939 until his retirement, and subsequent settlement in Jerusalem, in 1964. A glance at his published bibliography (for reference, see the end of this memoir) between those dates will show how positive his scholarship was during those Oxford years; but his activity there included other, hardly less significant facets. He acted as a sheet-anchor through the demographic transformation of Oxford Jewry, due to war-time evacuation and its permanent effects from an exiguous chapel of a handful of Jewish dons and ever-changing waves of undergraduates, into a provincial community that remains atypical, because of the great distinction of some of the professional academics who maintain various degrees of involvement in its synagogally-centred activities. Together with Irene, he afforded an unofficial, and for that very reason most valuable chaplaincy service to the increasing number of Jewish students at Oxford, for whom he kept open house on Saturday afternoons. For many – perhaps most – the warmth of the Roth’s hospitality, offered in a gracious home decorated throughout with manifold objects of Jewish and Italian ecclesiastical art (now in a Toronto museum), with a library containing choice Hebrew manuscripts and printed books of prime quality from the sixteenth century onwards (now in Leeds University library), and the chance of encountering there leading Jewish scholars from all over the world, meant exposure to an aspect of Judaism of which most of them had previously been quite unaware. The effect – cultural, spiritual and religious – on them, and, through them, perhaps, on their children, is imponderable, and it is appropriate to compare it with the influence of the legendary hospitality of the patriarch Abraham. A poignant item amongst his manuscripts may be referred to here, because of its meaningfulness to the young men and women to whom, as his guests, he sometimes he showed it. After the war, he made a round trip which, I believe, had some [semi-]official sponsorship, of some major Jewish centres in Europe that had been under German occupation to see what Jewish monuments remained alongside the pitiful survivors of their communities. In Greece, he picked up from a cobbler’s shop in Salonika two fragments of a Hebrew scroll, that had been shaped for use as the linings of soles for shoes. He recorded his visit there in Commentary (July, 1950).

Cecil’s work falls under four main headings: historical research, production of works of reference, biography together with outline period studies, some of these aimed primarily at a general readership and based largery on biography; and finally, art history. The period which he made his own was the late middle ages and the Italian renaissance, but he was hardly less at home with modern history particularly in regard to Great Britain and the development of the empire; and during the dark days of the war he lectured and published on themes reflecting the Jewish contribution to England’s heyday. Aware of his linguistic limitations, with one exception he did not involve himself in the ancient world. In the years following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, when scholars looking for a form of Judaism from which they might have emanated were being drawn towards an Essenic provenance – the view that is now generally accepted – Roth thought that he had solved the problem by looking in a completely different direction. Assuming that some of the major texts contained references to events of 66-72 C.E. in the course of which the temple was destroyed by the Romans, he tried to dove-tail the material into Josephus’ history of the war by identifying the heroes of the texts with Josephus’ villains, and vice versa. Although, at the time, he convinced G.R.Driver and they published their joint research, it received virtually no endorsement, and it is now generally regarded as an aberration. The germ of the idea probably sprang from his own zionist ideals, and his corollary distaste for Josephus as being, in his view, a mere renegade.

Scholars, no less than students and general readers seeking information are beneficiaries of Roth’s awareness of the importance of providing and updating works of reference – bibliographies, encyclopaedias, catalogues. His enlarged Anglo-Jewish bibliography (1937) of printed items to 1840 has served as a model for continuations. In 1962 he produced, as editor, a one-volume Standard Jewish Encyclopaedia; but his chef d’oeuvre in this respect was the l6-volume English Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971). The project of replacing the 12-volume Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-6) had been initiated after the second world war, but had made little progress due (inter alia) to uncertain terms of reference and to the lack in the successive directors, of the requisite combination of experience, drive, and intellectual self-discipline. Cecil, who had been associated with the enterprise from an early stage, took over as editor-in-chief on his retirement, and it appeared, following his death, in 1971. Its advance on its predecessors is signalised by the fact that the first volume largely consists, apart from some most valuable tables, of a magnificent index.

Cecil was himself fully aware that some of his biographical studies were haute vulgarisation. They are not to be disparaged for that reason, inasmuch as they could stimulate some readers to look further. As a practised public lecturer he understood well how to present his subject, as also (where appropriate) self-presentation. His wide connections brought manifold information regarding the latest research to his desk, and these factors combined marked the stirling service that he rendered to the Jewish Historical Society of England, of which he was many times president. Appropriately enough his last public appearance in England was at anniversary dinner of the society in 1969, held in Inigo Jones’ banqueting-house in Whitehall.

In his later years Cecil became more involved in art history particularly that of the Passover haggadah. Of manuscripts and printed editions of this he published several facsimiles, notably (in 1963) one of the l4th-century Sephardi haggadah in the Sarajevo museum. That the haggadah illustrated by Arthur Szyk under his editorship (1940), dedicated to George VI, is typological tour de force will be granted by all, even though the illustrative and decorative matter may not be to their taste. He also interested himself in a possible Jewish contribution to early Christian art, of which he thought that he could descry traces in illustrations of the Codex Amiatinus, one of the major manuscript authorities for the Latin Bible. Whilst his thesis demonstrably holds good regarding Christian bible-illustration the high middle ages, by which time Jewish exegetic embellishment of the biblical narrative had become known through Rashi’s midrashic citations, to some Christian exegetes in the west, art-historians have not endorsed his tentative suggestions regarding the earlier period.

After the lapse of 32 years since Cecil’s death scholars are beginning to see his remarkable career and scholarly achievements in perspective. Numerous obituary tributes – some of them perceptive – appeared in the Jewish and general press, and some years before her own death Irene Roth published a personal memoir of her husband (Cecil Roth Historian without Tears, l982). For biographical details omitted here reference may be made to the entry in a supplementary volume of the Dictionary of National Biography sub-titled Missing persons, 1993, p. 571, by Vivian Lipman or to his article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol 14, 326-8 and the publishers’ preface to vol. 1. A bibliography of Roth’s writings by O.K. Rabinowitz appeared in the volume presented to him by the Jewish Historical Society of England (Remember The Days, ed. J.M. Shaftesley, 1966, pp.35l-87), supplemented by R. Singerman in Transactions, xxv – Miscellanies x of the Society , 1977, pp. 243-51. In Transactions, xxxiv, 1997, pp. r-16, Professor Geoffrey Alderman published the first chapter (“The young Cecil Roth, 1899-1924”) of what promises to be an impressive study by a modern historian. An article by Frederick Krome under the title “Creating Jewish History by our own Needs: the Evolution of Cecil Roth’s Historical Vision l925 – 1935” appeared in Modern Judaism, 21, 2001, pp. 216-37. Relevant, too, in view of Roth’s journalism in the 1920s and 30s, is L. Fried’s article in American Jewish Archives, 2001, pp. 147-74, (‘Creating Hebraism Confronting Hellenism: the Menorah Journal and, its Struggle for the Jewish Imagination”).

R. L.

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