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David Patterson

Hebrew scholar who founded from scratch the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

David Patterson, Hebrew scholar: born Liverpool 10 June 1922; Assistant Lecturer in Modern Hebrew Literature, Manchester University 1953-56; Cowley Lecturer in Post-Biblical Hebrew, Oxford University 1956-72; Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford 1965-2005; President, Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies (later Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies) 1972-91 (President Emeritus); CBE 2003; married 1950 José Lovestone (two sons, two daughters); died Oxford 10 December 2005.

David Patterson's greatest achievement was the establishment of the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies - now the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies - as a part of Oxford University in 1972.

His considerable published work consisted mainly of scholarly books and articles on the beginnings of modern Hebrew literature in Europe, and particularly the Hebrew novel in Tsarist Russia, and of accomplished literary translations from the Hebrew upon which he was occupied until his death. The material he worked on was little known, but important: the literary movement of the Hebrew enlightenment of which it formed part was to give birth both to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language and to modern Jewish nationalism.

When Patterson first presented his idea for a new centre of Jewish learning at Oxford it failed to gain financial support from the university; he was given the go-ahead but with the proviso that he raise the funds himself. This was his great chance, for he proved to be a brilliant fund-raiser as well as administrator. No one could have foreseen the meteoric rise of the institution.

Within a year of its inauguration the centre moved from one small room in the Oriental Institute into a splendid Jacobean manor-house in the small village of Yarnton just north of Oxford, which was purchased by the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust. The centre was later to acquire a very significant estate in and around Yarnton. The manor-house and estate buildings now house administrative offices, fellows' accommodation and one of the finest Jewish and Hebrew libraries in the world.

It is difficult to exaggerate the change the Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies wrought in the academic landscape of Oxford. Classical Hebrew had been given some prominence at Oxford at least since the time of Henry VIII but modern Jewish history, Jewish literatures and languages such as Yiddish, Ladino or Judeo Arabic were not systematically covered by the university. Patterson's lasting contribution was to fill some of these lacunae and significantly enhance the scope and excellence of the teaching of Jewish topics and the research of Jewish topics at Oxford.

Today the centre he set up is one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world. Patterson achieved this by working unimaginably long hours and by gathering around him a permanent core of good scholars and gifted librarians as well by raising very substantial sums of money. Within the university he was helped by a group of outstanding scholars that included Professor David Daube and Sir Isaiah Berlin.

David Patterson was born in Liverpool in 1922. His maternal grandfather - an observant Jew from Warsaw - had arrived in the city in about 1870; David's musical mother was born there in 1880. His father came from Kolo in what is today Poland, arriving in England in 1900. He ran a clothing store and after the Depression worked as a hairdresser. David studied at Oulton High School and got his Higher School Certificate in German, French, Latin and Greek. During the Second World War he worked as a draughtsman in factories producing first the Sten gun and later the Halifax bomber.

In 1945 he entered Manchester University, where he read modern and medieval Hebrew and Arabic. By this time he was a member of a socialist Zionist youth group, Ha-Bonim. As a keen Zionist he planned to emigrate to Palestine. Shortly after the establishment of the state of Israel, and following his marriage to José Lovestone, he settled, with other British members of Ha-Bonim, in a kibbutz on the Syrian border, engaged in exhausting manual stone clearance.

This was followed by a series of unsatisfactory jobs, some of them teaching in raw Israeli high schools. He often referred to the bruising awfulness of this experience. His modest manner and incomplete mastery of the Israeli Hebrew slang of the time were not qualities best suited to the educational front line of the fledgling state.

In 1953 Patterson was saved from this unpromising situation by the intervention of Professor H.H. Rowley, the distinguished Professor of Semitic Languages and Literatures at Manchester University, who invited him to return to Manchester to take up a newly created post as assistant lecturer in modern Hebrew literature, his lifelong love of which had been inspired during his undergraduate years. In 1956 he was appointed to the Cowley lectureship in Post-Biblical Hebrew at Oxford and in 1965 became a Founding Fellow of St Cross College.

Patterson had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour (and a mesmerising talent for remembering jokes). When he was appointed CBE two years ago - the first time that this honour had been bestowed for Jewish studies - the Queen complimented him on his success in setting up the centre and he allegedly replied: "Well, Ma'am, it's been better than working!"

Tudor Parfitt