OBITUARY: Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus

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Jacob Rader Marcus was the outstanding historian of American Jewish history for most of this century. A week ago, I received a letter from him intended to raise funds for the American Jewish Archives, which he founded in 1947. In his typical, lively and politically incorrect style, it commenced:

People do ask me how I account for my longevity, such as it is. The secret is that I never smoked, drank or ran around with girls until I was 12 years of age: "I am kind to women, children, worms / I speak of God in the highest terms." In other words, I am an Anglo-Saxon Hebrew, a Reform Jew who believes in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighbourhood of Cincinnati. I learned to discipline myself. The only fiction I now read is my own historical writings. I am alert and find it easy to remember many things that never happened.

He was unjust to himself in that appraisal. There was no other historian in the United States who paid as much attention to the minutiae found in the correspondence, archives, and other records of Jewish organisations and institutions. Marcus went to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati as a 15-year-old student in 1911, and started publishing his work in 1916. After his military service, and a Berlin PhD (magna cum laude) on the trade patterns between England and Germany, he began teaching at the Hebrew Union College in 1920, and continued to teach there until last week. The first phase of his work saw him examine European history with rare perception, and The Jew in the Medieval World (1938) and Communal Sick Care in the German Ghetto (1947) are still valuable texts. An earlier book on German Jewish history, The Rise and Destiny of the German Jew (1934), was flawed by his expressed hope that Hitler would be a passing phenomenon, but gave a sound account of the development of German Jewry.

Once Marcus began to concentrate on the American Jewish scene, he created a unique body of work which made the American Jewish Archives the true centre of American Jewish historiography. In 1956, he also established the American Jewish Periodical Center, vital to American Jewish research. His three-volume collection Memoirs of American Jews: 1775-1865 (1955), his American Jewry: documents, 18th century (1958) and his four-volume United States Jewry 1776-1985 (1989-93) are evidence of a questing mind and an enormous capacity for work.

Jacob Rader Marcus was a gregarious, fun-loving rabbi and teacher. As President of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) from 1949 he would wander around the Conference and inquire among the rabbis, "Where are you located now?" Then he might place his hand on the rabbi's shoulder and tell him, "I got you that job, my boy!" Quite often, it was true.

He was a great politician, and gave practical advice to the graduates of the college, who looked upon him as a father figure. His favourite student, Bertram Korn (the historian of Jewish life in the American Civil War), once wrote of him,

Words like "warmth", "geniality" . . . "honour", "dignity", remain words and cannot convey the experience of being with the man, sharing his thoughts, knowing his idealism, receiving his help, and learning . . . not only of Jewish history, but also of the human situation and the role of man in God's world.

Marcus was the typical American Jew he chronicled. Born in Pennsylvania, he found his first private school in the Carnegie Library in the town of Homestead, and his Orthodox Hebrew school across the Monongahela river in Pittsburgh. Aspects of traditionalism remained part of his life, as the history teacher of the Reform rabbinate. It is intriguing that his first task at the Hebrew Union College was as instructor in Bible and Rabbinics. The roots of his tradition helped him to define the American Jew within all of the cultural influences of that environment, even when he felt that the Jew "is a cultural entity, has always been one, and will always remain one . . . not completely subject to his general environment". That, too, describes Jacob Rader Marcus, who was a unique teacher and a great human soul.

Albert H. Friedlander

Jacob Rader Marcus, historian: born Connellsville, Pennsylvania 5 March 1896; assistant professor of Jewish History, Hebrew Union College 1926- 29, associate professor 1929-34, Professor of Jewish History 1934-59, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of American Jewish History 1929-65, Milton and Hattie Kutz Distinguished Service Professor of American History 1965-95; Director, American Jewish Archives, 1947-95; married 1925 Antoinette Brody (died 1953; one daughter deceased); died Cincinnati 14 November 1995.