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  • Letters from England:A Contribution to the Intellectual Biography of Alexander Altmann
  • Ira Robinson (bio)


Jewish studies in the English language has been immeasurably enriched by the forced emigration from Nazi Germany of scholars like Alexander Altmann (1906–87)1 and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72)2 to England and the United States. Scholars who have engaged with Altmann's biography have thus far largely concentrated their attention on his career in Germany, cut short by his 1938 emigration to Manchester, England, and, to a lesser extent, on his American career at Brandeis University, starting in 1959. The period he spent as "Communal Rabbi of Manchester and District" from 1938 to 1959 has not yet received its scholarly due, though clearly it is in these decades that Altmann became one of the most influential Jewish studies scholars in the world.

In the course of research in the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers at Duke University, I found a file containing eight letters Altmann sent Heschel from England dated from 1940 to 1952.3 Copies of the letters [End Page 321] Heschel sent Altmann are not extant in the Heschel papers.4 The excerpts of the letters selected for this brief essay witness Altmann's English sojourn from two perspectives. The first is the human side: we see Altmann as he confronted German air raids on Manchester, supported the British home front, and faced the agony of knowing that his family was in mortal danger in German-occupied Holland. We also see his growing scholarly engagements with the British academic community, his tensions with the British rabbinical establishment, his efforts to create Jewish educational initiatives that would culminate in the Institute of Jewish Studies, and his relationships with Israeli scholars and the Hebrew University. The letters underline both Altmann's determination to grow as a scholar and his strong conviction that his intellectual endeavors, along with those of his fellow German Jewish refugees, were of great significance.

the letters: altmann to heschel5

2nd Dec[ember], 1940

My dear friend,

It is a long time that I have not written to you. But I had you in mind constantly, and it was especially in the days of Rosh Hashono that my good wishes went out to you—though silently—I hope they will be fulfilled … I hope your students will appreciate the ways of your thoughts and the methods of your teaching. I hope you will find happiness in your work and in your surroundings. How far have you advanced in your work on "Tefillah"? I feel that your thoughts must often wander across the Atlantic to your many friends especially in this country which is now so heroically fighting not only her own but even your battle. Alas, many of those who were so anxious to work in the spiritual field and who were your closest collaborators in the "Institute for Jewish Learning" are now [End Page 322] interned.6 All their work has consequently come to a standstill. My own scheme which I had initiated with great enthusiasm had also to be abandoned, at least "for the duration." My experience was very disappointing and, as I wrote to you, I believe, caused me even trouble and unpleasantness. The orthodox section of the London Rabbinate was very much annoyed about my activities. They felt that "spiritual revitalization" and "Science of Judaism" were dangerous issues, particularly in conjunction with people who are themselves non-orthodox. It is indeed surprising that I have to face here an orthodoxy which has no desire whatsoever to come to an understanding with the modern mentality.7 Nonetheless, I personally pursue my spiritual aims and interests, and spend many an hour in the [John] Rylands Library (which you ought to have visited when you were in Manchester).

My wife and family are [b"h, thank God] well. It was a terribly difficult and grim year which is drawing to its close now. I must not look back, and sometimes its horror seizes me again. But , [ḥasde ha-shem azkir, I will recall God's mercy].8 God has bestowed his mercy upon us. The illness has gone like a bad dream, and my wife...


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pp. 321-330
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