Gleanings: Essays in Jewish History, Letters, and Art.
by Cecil Roth.
Hermon Press for Bloch Publishing Company, 321 pp. $7.95.
Many years ago, when I was a schoolboy in Edinburgh, Cecil Roth came up from London to give a talk to the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society. The chairman of the meeting, an ill-informed and not very literate young man, introduced the speaker as “the editor of the Jewish Yearbook.” Roth, for whom editing this Anglo-Jewish reference book had been the merest parergon, was understandably indignant that the chairman was totally ignorant of his distinguished achievement as a historian and regarded him merely as a sort of hack compiler of reference books, and he prefaced his talk with a few icily ironic comments designed both to chasten and to inform the chairman. This incident is symbolic on two counts: the range and distinction—and the uniqueness—of Roth's contributions to history have been insufficiently realized by the majority of the British Jewish community, and Roth himself is a proud and somewhat touchy man who does not suffer gladly either fools or am ha'aretzim.
Roth went up to Oxford in 1919, fifteen years before I went up. Yet when I was there, there were still admiring stories going around in Oxford about his undergraduate achievements. It was said—and I have no reason at all to believe that this is not true—that as one of his final examinations was on a Saturday and the university authorities refused to alter it, Roth, as an Orthodox Jew, simply refused to take that paper. Yet his work in the other papers was so brilliant that he obtained the rare distinction of a first-class honors degree on the basis of his performance in the final examinations as a whole, even though he had had to be given a fail mark on the one he refused to take. Twenty years after his first arrival in Oxford as an undergraduate, the university appointed him Reader in Jewish Studies, a post which he held until his retirement in 1964. He now lives in Israel, although just now he is Visiting Professor of History at the City University of New York.
Roth began his career as a historian as an expert on Italian history (“my first and most constant love,” he says in the preface to this new volume). His first book was The Last Florentine Republic, published in 1925 and in an Italian translation in 1929. And then he began to bring together his historical research and his Jewish interests and knowledge to produce a series of works which give him a unique place in Jewish historiography. He has always been a practicing Orthodox Jew, and he has had the advantages of Jewish and Hebrew learning that a living Orthodox tradition on good terms with a healthy secular culture can provide. Indeed, I am tempted to believe that Cecil Roth is a product of a phase of Anglo-Jewish history now fast declining, a phase in which it was possible to combine Orthodoxy, secular scholarship, and Jewish learning known from within and regarded as a natural part of one's personal heritage. It is this inwardness with, for example, the history of Jewish liturgy or the structure of Jewish community life in different ages that enables him to read a medieval or Renaissance Hebrew manuscript with an easiness about its terms of reference, an almost effortless familiarity with the hinterland of language and custom and cultural behavior that lies behind the words of a given document. That he has the languages—Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German—goes without saying. More significant is the fact that he has a kind of commitment to the material with which he is dealing that gives a certain tone, a certain authority, an air of what might be called domestication in the material, which exists side-by-side with the historian's objectivity in the establishment of facts and even a dryness in the handling of subjects calculated to make Jewish blood pressure rise. Roth is not one of those who needed to be shocked by Hitler into an awareness of the tragic nature of Jewish history. In an essay on “European Jewry in the Dark Ages” which first appeared in 1950 he presents evidence that throws grave doubt on the conventional view that in the Dark Ages European Jews suffered from few or no disabilities, labored under no economic restrictions, and had little to fear from violence, and that it was only with the First Crusade in 1096 that the “Age of Martyrdom” began. In a dry, objective style, he adduces evidence about the ritual stoning of Jews at Easter (abolished, not begun, in some places during the epoch of the Crusades) and investigates the significance of an early 14th-century petition asking that Jews condemned to be hanged should be hanged by the neck and not in the traditional and customary way with Jews in Christian countries—by the feet (“not because the said Jews claim to have the same honor as Christians, but because a man hanged by the feet delays death two or three days, whereas if he is hanged by the neck he dies at once”).
Roth does not labor the horrors revealed by such a document, he merely coolly draws our attention to the obvious inference. Similarly, when in other essays he looks for sources that will throw light on the life of the ordinary Jew of the Middle Ages—as distinct from the scholars and the teachers and the martyrs—he shows that Jews could be fornicators and drunkards as well as the goyim. But he sees these things in perspective. In his account of the famous disputation about the truth of Christianity between Fray Pablo Cristiá and Nahmanides he makes no bones about the irrelevance and meaningless-ness of the arguments on both sides. But this does not disturb him. Superstition, confusion, ignorance, plain silliness, on the part of Jewish religious leaders in the past are recorded with quiet exactness; but underneath there is the implication that the writer can do this because he knows what the true Jewish tradition is, is confident of its survival, and himself adheres to it.
These are but a few examples, taken from the book under review, of Roth's role as a historian of European Jewry, whose development can be traced through a rich variety of works, including History of the Jews in Venice (1930), History of the Marranos (1932), A Short History of the Jewish People (1936—his most widely known work), History of the Jews in England, (1941), History of the Jews in Italy (1946), The Jews in the Italian Renaissance (1959), and many more, including biographies and family histories, local histories, and several editions of the Haggadah. In spite of his origins in a golden moment of Anglo-Jewish culture, Roth is essentially a European as well as deeply and almost aggressively Jewish. He is at ease in European history, yet always as a Jew, looking at that history from his own special perspective. We see Spaniards, Venetians, Florentines, Englishmen, Germans moving through his pages with the precision and accuracy that only exact historical knowledge can yield, but sooner or later we are made aware of how they look from the doorway of a house where the Sabbath lights are being kindled (perhaps secretly), from the rabbi's study, the Jewish merchant's counting house, the ghetto window. This, it seems to me, is the point of view maintained in the bulk of Roth's wide-ranging historical work, even when Jews do not directly enter into it. It may of course be a personal prejudice of my own, but I imagine him, when I read his account of events and situations in Italy or Portugal or Holland or wherever it is, looking at the scene with the eyes of a Jewish traveler of the time, who takes note of the great world around him but who knows where he comes from and where he will have to return to. It seems natural that in the end Roth should have settled in Israel.
The volume under review is a very miscellaneous collection indeed, some fifteen essays written at different times over a period of nearly forty years, and all previously published in periodicals. In addition to those already referred to, there are essays on “Jewish Intellectual Life in Medieval Sicily,” “The Religion of the Marranos,” and “Forced Baptisms in Italy.” There is a description of the Kennicott Bible, that “masterpiece of medieval Spanish-Jewish art,” with some fine plates (unfortunately not in color), the text of a Hebrew elegy on the Martyrs of Toledo (1391), and an account of a very ordinary rabbi, Menachem Navarra (1717-1777), presented as “a chapter in the history of the Jews of Verona.” From many of the essays there emerges Roth's concern to recover and depict for us the life of ordinary people—not just the distinguished and memorable—of the past.
Yet this is not a book to be recommended as an introduction to Roth's work: its range is too limited and its material often too scrappy. We are given here little more than the shavings from the carpenter's bench, or, as the title puts it, “gleanings” from fields already harvested. And though I hate to end on a sour note, especially as this review is intended as a tribute to a great Jewish historian, I must say that as a piece of physical book-making it is shocking. Apparently each article has been reproduced photographically from the periodical in which it first appeared, with the result that there is no uniformity of type or style. The varieties of Hebrew type found in the book are even greater than of English. The result is ugly and distracting. The publishers have not even bothered to straighten out some of the footnotes—for example, on page 180 we have a footnote reading “See below, p. 80” and other references on the same page to “below” pages 81 and 78. These, of course, referred to the pagination of the periodical in which the essay first appeared. It is a pity that a distinguished historian should be so badly served by his publishers.