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Modern Judaism 21.3 (2001) 216-237



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Creating "Jewish History for our Own Needs:"
The Evolution of Cecil Roth's Historical Vision, 1925-1935

Frederic Krome


It is often forgotten that Cecil Roth, one of the most prolific Jewish historians of the twentieth century, did not begin his career as a specialist in Jewish history. Indeed, his transformation into a Jewish historian was the result of a dynamic interaction with the intellectual life of the American Jewish community. A study of Cecil Roth's early career not only reveals a great deal about the shaping of a modern Jewish historian, but also about the forces that shaped the writing of Jewish history in the first half of the twentieth century.

As an historian Roth is remembered primarily for his work on Anglo-Jewish history (he served six terms as president of the Jewish Historical Society of England) as well as the history of the Jews in Renaissance Italy. Yet Roth's early career, specifically the years immediately after he received his doctorate from Oxford University (1925), invites scholarly attention for it was at that point that Roth enunciated a methodology of Jewish history that would be the hallmark of his writing. Indeed, the basic framework of his historical philosophy was expressed in a January 1927 letter to Henry Hurwitz, the Editor of the Menorah Journal, "As you know I do not belong to the dryasdust [sic] school of Jewish history, and I think that all historical work worthy of the name must be accessible to the public." 1

From a historiographical perspective Roth's career has not always fared well. Often dismissed as a "popularizer," or criticized as an "apologist," or "filiopietistic" by academic historians, Roth's contributions to the development and dissemination of Jewish history are not consistently held in high regard. 2 Yet during a career that spanned over forty years Roth authored hundreds of books, articles, and essays, in addition to serving as the first general editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica, which placed him in a position to further the dissemination of Jewish knowledge on a massive scale. In fact it was precisely to that purpose, the dissemination of Jewish history to a wide public, that Roth dedicated his career. 3

Of all the prolific Jewish historians of his generation, which included Salo Wittmayer Baron 4 and Jacob Rader Marcus, 5 Roth was the [End Page 216] only one who was not a product of one of the traditional Wissenschaft schools. Indeed, his Oxford University dissertation was not even on Jewish history, being a study of sixteenth-century Florence. 6 Thus his turn to Jewish history, and how he developed his historical philosophy, deserves examination. It is somewhat surprising that he was not a direct product of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, because in many ways Roth epitomized the Wissenschaft quest to reconcile adherence to traditional Jewish norms with an appreciation of the vibrant methods of modern historical and cultural studies drawn from the secular world. 7 Chaim Raphael argued that the "central element in all his [Roth's] historical writing was that while, as a fervent Jew, he drew on and expressed the continuity of the generations . . . his own attitude was heavily, almost excruciatingly, English." 8

Although very much in the mainstream of historical writing on most levels, Cecil Roth swam against the major currents of historical practice in several significant ways. As an academically trained historian Roth was joining a profession that had recently come to view "objectivity" as the highest academic goal. One way that academically trained, professional historians were supposed to achieve objectivity was through a redirection of their work towards a different audience. Accordingto Peter Novick, pre-professional historians directed their work outward, towards a general reading public, while professional historical work was "increasingly, though unlike other disciplines, never exclusively, directed to colleagues." Simply put, history was supposed to become "less of an 'intellectual' and more of an 'academic' enterprise." One result of this professionalization was the goal of achieving an attitude of "cool detachment, which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3273
Print ISSN
0276-1114
Pages
pp. 216-237
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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