- On Muses and Mystics: Some Essays on Some Essays by Solomon SchechterEditor’s Introduction
“at least it is kosher”: solomon schechter’s studies in judaism
In early April 1896, after the first volume of his Studies in Judaism had already appeared in England, Solomon Schechter wrote to Mayer Sulzberger in Philadelphia, thanking him for his help in arranging to have the volume published in America by the newly established Jewish Publication Society, of which Sulzberger had been one of the founders. “I hope you will like the book,” wrote Schechter from Cambridge, adding that “the English was thoroughly reviewed by my friends [James] Frazer [of The Golden Bough] and [John] Sutherland Black [the translator of Wellhausen].”1 Both Scotsmen had been closely associated with their late countryman, the noted Orientalist William Robertson Smith, who had been Schechter’s colleague at Christ’s College. As Frazer’s biographer has noted, the Romanian-born rabbinic scholar became his “closest friend in the years following Smith’s death in 1894.”2 As we will see, the early [End Page 133] readers and reviewers of Studies in Judaism, both in England and the United States (to which Schechter would relocate in 1902), constitute a network of Jews and gentiles, both in and out of the academy, reflecting the core audience for whom the book was intended—and for whom JQR was launched in London several years earlier.
Later in his 1896 letter, Schechter mentioned to Sulzberger that “Zangwill is in Florence since some weeks,” inadvertently illustrating why he had needed Frazer and Black to review his English. “Zangwill,” of course, was the Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill (1864–1926), whose first novel, Children of the Ghetto (1892), had been written at Sulzberger’s suggestion and published in the United States by JPS. Sulzberger had been impressed by Zangwill’s controversial essay “English Judaism,” published in the first volume of this journal, and met him soon afterward in London.3 It is noteworthy that Schechter had asked Frazer and Black, but not his coreligionist Zangwill—who had by then published two more novels and wrote regularly for the Pall Mall Magazine4—to review the English of his essays. Perhaps one consideration was that although Zangwill had studied at London University, from which he received an honors degree, he was not a scholar. More to the point, however, would appear to be the gentile origins of the two learned Scotsmen. As Schechter wrote in a subsequent letter to Sulzberger, referring to the British edition of his Studies, “People who read, both ‘Juden’ and Goyim, paid me the compliment that the English is excellent, at least it is Kosher.” The Cambridge don may have feared that Zangwill’s English was dangerously adulterated by that of his ghetto schnorrers, possibly resulting in an editorial product insufficiently kosher for “Goyim.”
Shortly before Rosh Ha-Shanah of 1895 Zangwill wrote to Schechter expressing “joy about your coming collection of essays, which I always wanted to read again.” He had also thought of a suitable title for the collection, boasting that he was “very good at finding titles.” The one he proposed was “Jewish Mystics and Thinkers,” on the grounds that “there are always fools who buy books about mystics.”5 Although Schechter, or [End Page 134] his publishers, did not accept Zangwill’s suggestion, the latter included a glowing review of the book in his Pall Mall column for October 1896, describing it as “a mine of information and fresh ideas, conveyed in a style that is graceful and vivid and frequently witty.” The novelist, it would appear, was clearly aware of Schechter’s sensitivity about his writing and made a point of praising it effusively. “It seems only a few years ago since Mr. Schechter arrived in England in the interesting guise of a Roumanian exile,” added Zangwill, but he “now wields an English that many a Professor of English Literature might envy.”6
Earlier that same month Schechter had informed Sulzberger that “the English papers (among them the Times) so far reviewed the book very favourably,” although “one Scotch paper” had allegedly “resented that I did not acknowledge my indebtedness to Christianity...