Morris U. Schappes, a respected historian of American Jewry and longtime editor of the leftist journal Jewish Currents, died June 3 at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 97.
A longtime fixture in the world of American communism, Schappes first achieved prominence in 1941 when he was fired, along with 40 others, from the faculty of City College of New York for Communist Party membership. He later served 13 months in prison for perjury after refusing to name other party members before a New York State Legislature committee.
Schappes was part of a group of party activists who joined together in 1946 to found the magazine Jewish Life, which became an unofficial party organ. After Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin’s atrocities touched off a mass exodus of party members, the magazine was reorganized and relaunched in 1958 as Jewish Currents, with Schappes as its editor, a post he held for four decades. The magazine gradually broke with the Soviet Union and moved closer to Israel, especially after 1967.
Born Moishe Shapshilevich in 1907 in Kamenetz-Podolsk, Ukraine, Schappes was raised in Brazil and moved with his parents to New York in 1914. Earning his Bachelor of Arts at City College and his Master of Arts at Columbia University, he joined the faculty of City College as an English lecturer in 1928.
As a scholar, Schappes first achieved prominence for his work on the poetry and letters of Emma Lazarus, published in a series of books and monographs between 1944 and 1987. His broader historical studies include “A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875,” published in 1950 and still a standard reference work, and the popular “The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History, 1654 to the Present,” published in 1958.
A sought-after lecturer, Schappes had articles appear in Jewish Social Studies, The Saturday Review, Publications of the Modern Language Association and other journals. He was awarded the Torchbearer Award of the American Jewish Historical Society in 1993.
A sister-in-law, a niece and a cousin survive Schappes. His wife, Sonya, died in 1992.