Commentary Magazine

Cecil Roth: Historian without Tears, by Irene Roth

Scholar and Collector

Cecil Roth: Historian without Tears.
by Irene Roth.
Sepher-Hermon Press, 257 pp. $14.95.

As England is the land of eccentrics, it is wholly in character that the outstanding historian Cecil Roth, who adored being English, brought a special kind of eccentricity to his lifelong devotion to Jewish history. He died, sadly, at the age of seventy-one in 1970, the year in which the first volume of the massive, 16-volume Encyclopaedia Judaica, which he had been editing with great élan, began to appear. Yet one sees his legacy less in this magisterial work than in writings that reflect his love of elegance and oddity, expressed with particular charm in his books on the Jews of Italy. He covered everything in Jewish history, but this is where his heart lay.

The memoir which his widow Irene has produced catches the flavor of the man to perfection. As her subtitle indicates, her aim is not to expound his scholarship but to offer a picture of her husband “as a very human being possessing a keen sense of humor and a knack of attuning himself to the interests of minds less brilliant than his own.” Some of the many friends who appear anecdotally in the book may raise their eyebrows slightly at this last phrase. Perhaps it is more revealing of Roth’s style than she intended. But that would be equally true of the amusing stories she tells of their travels and social life, which indicate a pervading sense of fun behind the scholarship that is so abundantly attested elsewhere.

In his last lecture Roth himself asserted, perhaps tongue in cheek, that “fun” was his motivation for writing Jewish history:

It is frankly for the pleasure of the thing . . . the pure detective work . . . the discovery of historical byways hitherto unexpected or unexplored, the revealing of unknown characters and personalities—heroes, scholars, saints, charlatans, adventurers, scoundrels.

A learned professor, carrying the weight of Jewish history on his shoulders, once complained to me bitterly about Roth’s daring to use the word “fun” in this context. But there is more than one way of being serious.

This memoir gives an authentic picture in another respect, too. It documents an impression, already to be had in Roth’s writings, that although he had been born in England into a plain Ashkenazi background, something drew him very powerfully to the Sephardi side of Jewish life. One sees something of a parallel here with Evelyn Waugh, born into a plain Protestant background but surrendering (as in Brideshead Revisited) to an exotic dream world he located in England’s Old Catholic families. It would be easy to push this parallel further: Irene Roth tells many stories of the fabulous encounters with aristocracy that were always coming the Roths’ way in their travels around Europe, and almost always through links with Sephardi history. On a visit to Sardinia, they drop in on the Count and Contessa Boscoli, who promptly put their Venice palazzo at the Roths’ disposal, apologizing for the guards hovering in the background to protect a priceless Giorgione painting. At a pensione in Florence, one of their fellow guests is a cousin, “several times removed,” of Disraeli. Another is “a member of a prominent Jewish family in Livorno who had married the ne’er-do-well grandson of the Duke of Richmond.” Even the cook turns out to be “one of the few remaining descendants of the Portaleone family, which had played a leading role among the Jews of Renaissance Italy.”



But if Roth wrote books and articles on what might have seemed snobbish subjects—the Sassoon family, or the dynasty of Joseph Nasi who was created Duke of Naxos by the Sultan in 1566—this was largely bread-and-butter work that left him free to get on with research and his tireless art collecting. And there were cogent reasons behind his becoming a specialist on the glamorous side of the Sephardi background. He had done his first graduate work, in general history, on Italy. The European languages he knew gave him access to the ample raw material in the Sephardi field—in the form of manuscripts, marriage contracts, community records, tombstone inscriptions, and the like. It would have been very different if he had tried to go deeply from original sources into the Jewish history of Eastern Europe which demanded, as in the work of the great Salo Baron, Slavic languages, Yiddish in all its guises, and a deep personal knowledge of yeshivah life and Talmud studies. Nor could he have got very far in opening up the even more arcane history of ordinary Jews in the Near East, demanding among other things medieval Arabic, Geniza studies, and responsa literature, a field exploited so brilliantly by S.D. Goitein and his disciples.

Roth was lucky, too, in that, for almost the first time since the Bible, history as we know it began to be written by Jews after their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula at the end of the 15th century. In the new countries of their settlement around the Mediterranean, they soon became part, especially in Italy, of a sophisticated society which Roth was able to write about marvelously not merely because he was at home in the archives but also because he had good taste in art and antiquities. He and his wife soon built up a personal art collection, not through expensive purchases but through flair and guile, as is told most amusingly in this book.

A memoir of this kind is particularly interesting when it brings back to mind, through “fun” stories, characters one knows about in more serious guise. A good example in Mrs. Roth’s fund of light-hearted anecdote is the English collector/historian Elkan Adler, who was a son of the English Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, and who died in 1946 at the age of eighty-five. He was in the English tradition of wealthy bachelor-amateurs, amassing a splendid collection of art, books, and manuscripts, including some 25,000 fragments from the Cairo Geniza before it was opened up by Solomon Schechter in 1896. One can sense Roth’s slight envy in the brief biography of Adler he contributed to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, where he wrote: “He was a lawyer by profession and had unusual opportunities to travel under favorable conditions, and build up a remarkable library.” But the two were close friends; and in the same piece, Roth revealed the touching story of how the Adler treasures, including the Geniza fragments, later found their way into great institutional collections. A business colleague, apparently, had been an embezzler; and Adler, to make good the losses, sold his library in 1923 to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and much else to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, “thus helping to raise both of these libraries to positions of significance.”

In this memoir, Adler is simply beloved Uncle Elkan, and in one anecdote we see how collectors really have to work. At Sabbath lunch one day, Mrs. Roth admired a fine pair of antique gold filigree earrings which, according to Uncle Elkan, came from Spain before the expulsion of 1492. “It’s a good thing your ears aren’t pierced,” he said, “otherwise I’m sure you would want to put them on.” “As it happens, my ears are pierced,” she replied; whereupon, of course, he gave them to her. And this, she says in wifely fealty to Cecil Roth, is how these 15th-century earrings “joined his collection of Judaeo-Spanish Judaica.”

A disarming story, and characteristic of this effervescent book.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.