The Man Behind a Legendary Effort


By Ilan Stavans

Published July 29, 2005, issue of July 29, 2005.
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Opportunities That Pass: An Historical Miscellany

By Cecil Roth, edited by Israel Finestein and Joseph F. Roth, foreword by Raphael Loewe

Vallentine Mitchell, 256 pages, $28.95.

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Of all the scholarly efforts in Jewish studies, none may be more influential than the 16-volume “Encyclopedia Judaica.” Since its publication in Jerusalem, in 1972, it emerged as the quintessential resource of Jewish civilization from pre-biblical times to the present. In an uneducated guess, I’ve estimated a length of 6 million words, illustrated by 8,000 photographs, maps and statistics. So frequented are the pages in my own copies that I have twice had them re-bound (despite the fact that a multimedia company in Shaker Heights, Ohio, released a CD-ROM a few years ago).

In fact, though, the “Encyclopedia Judaica” wasn’t the first work of its nature in Shakespeare’s tongue. One appeared before the Great War, another between 1939 and 1943. There were also similar projects in Russian and Hebrew — and one more was in gestation in German when the Nazis came to power. After World War II, the prospectus was revived in the United States. The German editors in exile were joined by some of the editors involved in the “Encyclopaedia Hebraica,” published in Israel after independence. Benzion Netanyahu, A.A. Newman and Alexander Altmann were involved early on, until, in the 1960s, Cecil Roth, an Oxford historian of the Italian Renaissance, came on board and pushed it to fruition.

By then, Roth was already an extraordinary figure in Jewish studies, as the author of “A History of the Marranos” (Schocken Books, 1974) a biography of philanthropist Doña Gracia Nasi, popular “national” histories (one on Italy, another on England) and one long-winded global survey (known in England as “A Bird’s-Eye View of Jewish History,” reprinted by Schocken in New York). He also wrote sharply about the Spanish Inquisition and misguidedly about the Dead Sea Scrolls. One bibliography of Roth’s oeuvre lists in excess of 700 entries.

Only a small handful of these would secure him a place in posterity, but Roth would become supremely influential through his role as commander in chief of the “Encyclopedia Judaica.” (Since he died in Jerusalem in 1970, a couple of years before the set reached a readership, Roth shared the credit with Geoffrey Wigoder.) I have quibbles with the “Encyclopedia Judaica” — most problematically its biases, which include an Ashkenazic slant (in spite of Roth’s intellectual interests); disproportionate emphasis on British Jewry at the expense of France, Turkey and Latin America; a general disinterest in the impact of modern popular culture, and a simplification of the religious experience. Yet I can’t help but be enchanted by the scores of mythical stories I’ve heard about Roth’s infinite energy, his rewritings of poorly crafted entries, the shaping of his own entries, his humor and, in general, his overall sense of direction for this gargantuan project.

So it is with some interest that I dipped into a sampler of Roth’s essays, recently published under a title that isn’t poetic, “Opportunities That Pass.” The pieces are generally brief, ranging in subject from early rituals in the celebration of Hanukkah to the coincidence of catastrophes on the Ninth of Av (the destruction of the First and Second Temples; the massacre in Alexandria; the expulsions from England, Spain, Manus and Vienna; the arrest of the Jews in France, the birth of Sabbatai Zevi, and the Arab riots it Palestine, among others), and the question of whether Hebrew was ever really a dead language. Roth’s literary manner is erudite, yet accessible. When theses matters are approached together, the book leaves a positive impression on the reader: Roth was a passionate, meticulous scholar committed to the understanding not only of the currents of Jewish history but, wisely, of its counter-currents, too.

Unfortunately, only one of the essays, the final one, is autobiographical: “Dealing in Higher Junk.” It ruminates on Roth’s adventures as a collector of Jewish artifacts. Its personal tone serves as a mapped survey of his existential dilemmas. The piece concludes with an uncanny sentence, one that made my mind spin: “Nothing would give me greater satisfaction after my demise than to attend, in the flesh, an auction sale of my own collection.”

Why not take him at his word? Let us summon Roth back from the dead through a critical biography, one exploring the man and his legacy. What kind of forces dueled in the encyclopedist’s heart? What were his sins? To what extent is he responsible for our current (mis)conceptions of Jewish history? Whatever the answers to these questions, it is clear that Roth’s ideas shouldn’t be underestimated. “Philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study,” Isaiah Berlin once suggested, “could destroy a civilization” — or rebuild it.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest book is “Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion” (Graywolf Press). He recently edited the four-volume set of “Encyclopedia Latina” (Scholastic).

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