Dr. Cecil Roth considered his greatest title of distinction the fact that he was included among those listed as the first five hundred that were to be arrested by the Nazis, when and if they succeeded in landing in England. His worldwide reputation as a historian and scholar rested, of course, upon a much more solid basis. The author of more than thirty books and hundreds of articles, Dr. Roth first studied history at Oxford University after his return from service in World War One.
His early specialization in Italian history resulted in the publication of The Last Florentine Republic in 1925. Since then, Dr. Roth has extended his historical interests and, in particular, has written about various aspects of Jewish history. He is known for his History of the Jews in Italy, History of the Marranos, Jewish Contribution to Civilization, History of the Jews in England, Life of Manasseh Ben Israel, Life of the Duke of Nazos, and Short history of the Jewish People, among others. Dr. Roth was actively involved in Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford for many years, beginning in 1939. He lectured intensively in Europe, Africa and America, and then moved to Israel. What follows are fragments of a conversation I had with Dr. Roth some years back.
BERKOWITZ: Professor Roth, inasmuch as it is more than four decades since your first visit to America, I thought it would be interesting if we spent some of the time on your views and your opinions about Jewish life in America as you have observed it during that time.
We know that American Judaism is divided into three branches. In fact, I would say that American Judaism is even further divided – into four, or five, or six branches. Do you believe that some day, perhaps in the far distant future, the three groups will merge into Am Yisroel Echod – into one peoplehood of Israel, religiously speaking?
ROTH: In fact, I do not. There is, unfortunately, a halacic difference among these various groups – let us say a difference on the point of Jewish law. One of the troubles that I see the Jewish world faced with today is the very fact that in marital matters we are becoming divided into more than one people.
Halachah, Jewish law, cannot be modified. In certain respects Jewish law could not be modified, even by a rabbinical assembly or beit din. And when the Jewish marital laws are completely neglected by a large element of Jewry, you will have very serious difficulties in the future. I remember that years ago I spoke to Rabbi Leo Baeck when he as at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and I wish that what he told me there had been recorded in its totality, because I think it is of such importance. Leo Baeck, as you know, is almost the “patron saint” of Reform Judaism, a truly venerated figure, but I have a vague idea that Reform does not have many venerated figures. He said to me that there are some things to which all Jews must adhere if we are to remain Jews. He cited circumcision as one example. He said, “I don’t know why. Rationally I cannot explain it, but if we give up the brit milah, we are finished as a people.” He said that we must control our marriage laws in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch, the traditional code of Jewish law. He said that Reform Jews would interpret it more liberally and the Orthodox would interpret it more strictly, but unless all Jews hold to it, by and large they will be divided into different peoples and different groups.
I am afraid that this is what is happening. We are getting to a stage where in all the countries of the world we are going to have a group of people whose immediate ancestors control their marriages in accordance with the traditional Jewish religious code, and another group whose parents were careless of such things as marriage with a woman who has not received a Jewish religious divorce – or get, or marriage of a Kohen and a widow, and similar things.
It may be highly regrettable, but the first group is already beginning to refuse to intermarry with the second group. I am afraid that American Judaism in the not very distant future is going to be divided between these two groups, who, if they do not intermarry with one another, will not be able to mix with one another in a normal fashion.
BERKOWITZ: I would like to quote a few sentences from your essay, “Proselytes of Righteousness.” You write, “The indication that proselytizing was a recognized institution in Jewish life, however much it may have been concealed, was fact.” Then you say, “The blood of some proselyte, more remote or less, must course in the veins of every Jew in the world today.” I wonder whether you think that Judaism will begin to seek actively to convert non-Jews, and whether in the next few years there will be a more aggressive mission to the Christian community.
ROTH: Of course, it must be obvious that the blood of converts courses in all of our veins. It has been calculated that we all had a million ancestors in the year 1066. We all have had two parents, and four grandparents. If you go back in geometric progression, you get to about a million in 1066. It is certain that among those million names there must be some non-Jews. It cannot possibly be otherwise. There cannot be such a thing as a Jew whose blood is absolutely pure. You must remember that there have been periods in Jewish history when the amount of conversion to Judaism was quite considerable. It was so at the time of the Second Temple; it was so in the Roman Empire; I think it was so at the beginning of the period of Jewish settlement in Europe. It was so in the period of the Khazars; it was so in Russia in the Czarist period.
However, in the course of the Middle Ages it became almost second nature to the Jews to refuse to encourage proselytes. I do not think that we are ever likely to change this; Judaism is not going to become a proselytizing religion.
BERKOWITZ: I recall a leading rabbi observing that before there could be an aggressive mission to the Christian community, there should be one to the Jewish community. He made the very perceptive comment that the Jewish people have enough goyim in their midst, and, therefore, they should first convert the Jews themselves. This, I think, is a very telling observation.
Who Was Columbus?
On the subject of Jewish ancestry, you wrote a fascinating essay called, “Who was Columbus?” I have discussed it from the pulpit, as others have, You say, regarding the stories about Columbus being of Jewish ancestry, that, “...these inquiries convinced me, not that the theory was true, but that it must be taken seriously – that Columbus was a Spaniard and a Jew.” Would you briefly care to discuss this?
ROTH: You know that the question of the ancestry of Columbus has been discussed for many years. There is not too much doubt that he was born in Genoa, though I myself have visited no less than three of his “birthplaces.” The Spaniards wanted to claim him as a Spaniard, and the only method by which they were able to do it was by trying to demonstrate that he had no Jewish ancestry. Only yesterday I saw in a bibliography of articles published in Italy during the war in 1942, when Italy was still on the German side, an article titled, “The Jewish Conspiracy to Deprive Genoa of the Honor of Being the Birthplace of Columbus.”
A great deal has been written about Columbus. There was an old gentleman in New York who noticed that on the right-hand side on the top of some of Columbus’s letters there was a little squiggle, and he remembered that his father used to write Baruch HaShem at the top, right-hand corner of all his letters. He tried to read these marks as B’ezras HaSham and thus to show that Columbus tried to reveal his Judaism by putting two Hebrew letters at the top of every letter he wrote. He wasted quite a considerable fortune on this rather pathetic and ludicrous attempt.
But there was very much more to it than this. Just before the last war when my book on the Marranos had just appeared, I was approached by some people who were writing on Columbus and wanted to know what I thought about his Marrano ancestry. I must say that I did not think very much of it. However, I have read one or two things that I found remarkable and inexplicable. In his mystical signature, which he told his heirs always to use, Columbus used the three letters AAA, which was the Marrano abbreviation for A-do-noi. In all Marrano literature, when they wanted to use the name of G-d, there was always an A with a full stop before and after, in the same way that Columbus used it in his signature.
Then there was another curious point. It is difficult to tell anything about Columbus because he was certainly a most uncontrollable liar. One cannot believe a word he said, and he obviously had something to conceal. But sometimes something comes out of his concealment. We know that he sailed from Spain on the third of August, early in the morning, 1492. And no one was ever able to understand why he postponed his departure until the third of August, when the tides were favorable, and everything was ready on the second. But the second of August that year was Tisha B’Av and there is a rabbinical dictum: If anybody does any work on Tisha B’Av, he never has any blessing from that work.
That is probably only a coincidence, but one other thing is almost unanswerable. In one passage, Columbus says, “Up to the present year, which is the Year of Our Lord 1468, there have elapsed 1,400 years since the destruction of the Second House, La Secunda Casa.” La Secunda Casa is Bayit Sheinee which is the Second House, or Second Temple which is essentially a Jewish phrase. I cannot understand how a non-Jew could have used it: “There have been elapsed since the destruction of the Second House, 1,400 years.”
Now that means, since he was writing in 1468, that he regarded the Second Temple in Jerusalem as having been destroyed in the year 68. In fact, it was destroyed in the year 70. However, according to the ancient Jewish tradition, the destruction of Jerusalem was in the year 68, and not in the year 70.
So here is Columbus using a Jewish phrase and a Jewish calculation, and I really cannot imagine how a non-Jew could have done it. I must say that there is really a very great and increasing weight of evidence about the hypothesis of Columbus’s Jewish birth. Since the publication of my book, further evidence has been accumulated which seems to suggest that Cristofo Colón was a chuta of Majorca. That name was found among the archives of the island of Majorca. While I cannot be positive about it, I think the probability is that he was of Marrano birth.
BERKOWITZ: Whenever the name of Columbus comes up, I recall the story of the Jewish immigrant who appeared before the examiner and was exceedingly nervous. After he gave his name and address the next question was about when he had arrived in America. Instead of saying 1941, he said 1491. The examiner turned to him and said, “Why didn’t you wait another year; you could have come with Columbus!”
In an essay, you wrote, “Far from being inassimilable, the Jews are – from the Jewish point of view – only too assimilable. That, however, is their own problem.” It has been said that the American climate of acceptance is hostile to our survival in this society as Jews. Why should a society as free as ours be detrimental to Jewish survival – or is it?
ROTH: You must realize that the above essay was written during the period of the rise of the Nazis and the constant charge that “Jews and Semites” and “Aryans” belonged to two completely different parts of the human race. One was said to be distinctly inferior to the other, and the Jews had shown themselves throughout history to be completely inassimilable. This was an essay in which I tried to demonstrate that this charge was untrue. Jews have been assimilable, and the Jews have assimilated as totally as they could, almost throughout history.
According to some people, during the peak of the Roman Empire, there were ten million Jews in the world. Now if these ten million Jews had continued to propagate, in a way one might normally have imagined, today there would have been hundreds or thousands of millions of Jews in the world. But the fact remains that the vast proportion of Jewry of that period became assimilated in one way or the other among their neighbors.
The same happened at other periods. One can think of the number of Jews who existed in the world at other periods. This erosion continued: In the Middle Ages, according to Salo Baron, the number of Jews wavered between a million and a half and a million, and I believe he suggests that in the seventeenth century there were even fewer than a million.
What happened to the rest? Some of them simply died out; some of them were, I suppose, massacred; but some of them simply became merged with their neighbors. In every country of the world, along with occasional Christian conversions to Judaism, you find massive conversions to Christianity. In England, at the time of the Expulsion of 1290, there were 120 former Jews in the home for converted Jews in London. The house of converted Jews in Rome always harbored its converts. If you look at the Jewish communities of the past, small Jewish communities here and there, you find that they have disappeared. In part it may have been by what you might call racial suicide –that is, failure to maintain their numbers – but to some extent it was simply by merging with their neighbors.
You can pinpoint dozens of communities where that has been true. The Jews of China disappeared. The Jews of Avignon nearly disappeared. The resettlement community in England almost disappeared. I know English Jewry intimately, and I know of only one family who can trace its descent authentically from a seventeenth-century family. In New York there is, I believe, only one family that can authentically trace its descent back to the settlers of 1654. What happened to the rest? A large majority of them simply became merged with the majority population.
Now, of course, in the case of England, we are speaking of a small minority; and in the case of Italy, a small minority subject to considerable outside pressure, both cultural and physical, who were unable to maintain their identity. In the case of the great communities of the Western world today, merging into the majority is quite out of the question. When people speak to me about what they consider to be the problematical future of American Jewry, I tell them I do not know what is going to happen to the smaller communities, but that it is a physical impossibility for New York Jewry to become assimilated in the foreseeable future, because marriage within the community, and the preservation of some degree of Jewish culture, are absolutely certain.
BERKOWITZ: You have taught on a number of college campuses. What about the commitment, the quality, the intensity of Jewish life among our collegians today?
ROTH: I believe that the situation now is better than it was a generation or two ago. My impression when I first came to America was that the younger generation was running away from Judaism as fast as it could go. That is certainly no longer true.
On the other hand, what one is faced with – even on the part of the well informed – is in some cases a most extraordinary and deplorable and tragic ignorance. In recent lectures I found one young man who did not know what was meant by the Messiah. I do not mean that he did not know what the idea meant philosophically or religiously, but simply that the word Messiah was entirely alien to him. He had spent some time in coming to a Jewish lecture, and he obviously had some inner urge, but what sort of Jews can we have in the future who are not familiar with even the basic idea that has kept us Jews going for two thousand years?
BERKOWITZ: There is a classic illustration of this. A few years ago a Christian professor at one of the universities, who had the responsibility of instructing Jewish students in Jewish matters, always gave them a little test. He would list about ten or fifteen names and ask the students to identify them. The first was Hillel, and I think that of the fifty boys and girls who took the test about forty five identified Hillel as an organization on American college campuses sponsored by B’nai B’rith. Some thirty of the fifty said that menorah was a journal. Most of them said that Daniel was a lion tamer. This lack of knowledge and its implications for the quality of adult Jewish life in the next generation is a perfect bridge to my next question. What changes, if any, have you seen in the education of adults? What changes, if any, have you seen in synagogue or life in America through almost half a century?
ROTH: I was not in very close contact with adult education when I was first here, but I do not believe that it was very well organized. In those days it was said that there was only one civilized Orthodox synagogue in New York. I suppose there was some truth in it, for only since then has the modern Orthodox synagogue with which most of us are now familiar come into being.
BERKOWITZ: What do you think of the rise and growth of the day school movement? What effect will this have on Jewish survival in America?
ROTH: If the education is effective, it is going to have a very great influence. One trouble is, I think, that in some of the day schools they played around the edges of Judaism without getting down to the essentials.
BERKOWITZ: In your view, is there a real renaissance of religious life in America today, or is it superficial and lacking in depth and content?
ROTH: I always say that of the five million Jews in America, about ten percent are the dregs of the earth, 10 percent are the salt of the earth, and the other 80 percent are somewhere in between. But you must remember that the 10 percent who are the salt of the earth – 10 percent of five million – is half a million, five hundred thousand. Five hundred thousand is far more than the number of the total of European Jewry in the year 1100, the time of the Crusades. The Jewish world of Europe was far smaller than the totality of New York Jewry today.
The half million who today are really devoted to Jewish values and to Jewish life and to Jewish culture here are as many as made Jewish culture in the past. And this 10 percent is really capable of developing a very great Jewish civilization comparable to the civilization of the past. I always say that in the past our communities were not dependent on numbers.
But here you have not only the desire but also the numbers for development of a really strong Jewish life. And you know that one finds here an interest, an enthusiasm, and a devotion that one finds in few other places of the world. You ask me about the future of Jewry in America, and I say that half a million American Jews are capable of evolving a really great Jewish culture.
And if you take note of those around you, the bibliophiles, the students, the venerators of study, the supporters of study, the people who go out of their way to be friendly with scholars, the people who are building up collections of Jewish books, or collections of Jewish art in their homes, you are amazed at the concentration in this area of a high degree of culture such as one will find in very few other places in the world.
BERKOWITZ: Dr. Roth, one final question on the subject of commitment and involvement. The statement has been made that the community that maintained the laws of kashrut survived; the community that did not maintain the laws of kashrut died as a Jewish community. Do you find in your travels throughout America that kashrut is dying out, or is it being observed?
ROTH: What you say about communities dying or surviving is very likely true, but it is not because communities observed the law of kashrut that they survived. Because their Jewish outlook included the law of kashrut they survived. That is to say that they had the comprehensive Jewish outlook that regarded the maintenance of the Jewish home as important, is what gave them the strength for survival. I think that kashrut is more widely observed by the American-born Jew now than it was thirty or forty years ago. After all, Jewish public functions now tend to be kosher. Public functions twenty or thirty years ago tended not to be kosher. I remember speaking in Boston at a Jewish professional club where I was the only person in the room who had not been born in an Eastern European ghetto, yet I was the only person in the room who did not eat trefe. I do not think you will find that today.
BERKOWITZ: We often speak about the state of American Jewish leadership, and I have here a very perceptive comment: “There is a feeling today that the Jewish leaders of the past in America were giants compared to the leaders of today. Modern Jews no longer need leaders with new ideas: they do not have to be led. They want mechanisms through which they can give expression, and there has been a shift today in terms of the outlook of American Jewish leadership from the man to the organization man.”
ROTH: Of course, one always looks back on the characters of the past and thinks them giants. And one is very likely right. When I think of Jewish leaders on both sides of the Atlantic in my youth, I think that they were cut of a stronger metal and on a more gigantic scale than those of today. And perhaps that is so, although it may only be because of the way in which we always look back to the pygmies of long ago and make them giants.
On the other hand, the other point that you mentioned is, I think, a very serious one. There are so many Jewish organizations today in all countries, and so many people are living off them that it has become an economic necessity for a very large number of people to have these organizations continue. There may be, for example, an organization of lodge tailors in New York that started as a mutual assistance society and, in due course, acquired a secretary. Now there are no more lodge tailors in New York; they have acquired considerable fortunes. They no longer need any mutual benefits. But if the society folds up, the secretary will be left without a job and his wife will be left without a fur coat. So the secretary – inevitably – has to try to keep this organization alive, and even to make it expand and possibly to divert its purposes to something else – perhaps an organization for the support of the Falashas or Jewish orphans. A very large number of organizations today, in England as well as here, are kept going for the benefit of the Jewish civil service.
The Jewish civil service today has become enormous, and enormously lucrative. I would say that sixty years ago the total travel budget of all Jewish organizations throughout the world for a single year was perhaps a thousand British pounds. That may be an overestimate. Today I would think it must run into millions of American dollars. And in every other way this civil service has become organized, and possibly tends to dominate our lives, sometimes to our benefit but sometimes possibly not entirely to our benefit. I think it is a matter that we ought to take into consideration.
BERKOWITZ: What has brought you to the world of Jewish scholarship rather than the world of general scholarship?
ROTH : There are two factors. One is that I was brought up in a bookish household by a father who was devoted to Jewish studies and Jewish values, a household that was booklined and where I was encouraged to make use of the books. The other factor was absolutely accidental. In 1924 when I was living in Florence and I had just completed my book on the last Florentine Republic – an extremely goyishe work – a tragedy happened. I escorted a girl whose sister had died to relatives in the far north of Italy. I met her cousin, the Rabbi of Verona. I told him that I was interested in books, and asked if he could help me get some. Through him I acquired a sort of genizah, the miscellany of rubbish left in the loft of the rabbinical family. It consisted mainly of the letters and notebooks and poems of an Italian rabbi of the eighteenth century. While I was waiting for the publication of my goyishe book, I started putting these papers in some sort of order, and I wrote my first Jewish historical essay.
BERKOWITZ: Professor Roth, in any library, one of the classic books is the Jewish Encyclopedia, published in 1902, or thereabouts. In more recent years, there appeared the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. Now I understand that you were involved in producing a new Jewish Encyclopedia. Why?
ROTH: This new encyclopedia of some ten million words, divided into some twenty volumes, is the Encyclopedia Judaica. The reason for this one is that the old Jewish works of reference have lost their validity. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia is a praiseworthy work but not a great work. On the other hand, the old Jewish Encyclopedia was an amazing achievement. It was produced at a time when there could not have been more than, perhaps, two hundred thousand English-speaking Jews, and it was superb.
It is still the standard work of reference. Some of the articles are of great importance and perfection. On the other hand, it reflects the period in which it was produced. An encyclopedia cannot stand still. There is always additional research that must be embodied if an encyclopedia is to remain valid. In the case of the Jewish Encyclopedia, this is all the more important, because at the time the old Jewish Encyclopedia was published, almost all the modern writing on Jewish studies was in German, and German is inaccessible to the average American reader today. And there has been a vast amount of research since those days, largely in the English language. So the encyclopedia must not only be brought up to date, but it must be given an Anglo-American slant from the point of view of the literature.
Apart from the normal advance of learning, there have been revolutionary changes in Jewish studies. One was the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, which the old Jewish Encyclopedia could take only into partial account. There has been the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which revolutionized our ideas of Jewish life and of biblical antiquities at the beginning of the Christian era. And then there has been the discovery and investigation of medieval art, a whole new area of Jewish art which barely existed as a subject in 1900. Today it is a great subject.
In addition to this, American Jewry has emerged since 1900. And, as I say, the number of English-speaking Jews in the world then was probably about 200,000. Today it is something approaching six million. North American Jewry has emerged and in association with it the Spanish-speaking Jewry of South America.
So there is a new world to cope with, and a new world to describe. And, alas, the Old World has had its appalling tragic changes, with the annihilation of Eastern European Jewry and Central European Jewry, the loss of the great centers of the former Jewish scholarship and of the Jewish masses. A Jewish encyclopedia, if it is to reflect the world of today, must take into account this appalling tragedy, although it cannot allow this tragedy to overwhelm it. The old Jewish Encyclopedia, if it spoke of Warsaw or Moscow or St. Petersburg, reflected an entirely different world from the world that an encyclopedia today must reflect.
And then there has been the amazing resurgence of the State of Israel. Clearly our new encyclopedia devotes a very great deal of space and attention to the State of Israel, in quite another manner than Palestine was treated in the old Jewish Encyclopedia. The old Jewish Encyclopedia was a superb mirror of Jewish learning and Jewish life and the Jewish world as it was in 1900. But the Jewish world has radically changed since 1900. The average reader wants to have the world of today reflected in his works of reference. That is why a new Jewish encyclopedia became necessary.
BERKOWITZ: For four thousand years Jews have made the book their companion. We live by the book only because individuals in each generation, great and learned men took the book, interpreted it, reinterpreted it, added to it, and made each of us feel the worthwhileness and the dignity and the meaning of being a Jew. Unquestionably, Professor Cecil Roth is one who has accepted the book that our ancestors received on Mount Sinai, and is carrying it aloft in England, in Israel, in Italy, in France, and in America. By virtue of his mind, his personality and his pen, he is making us proud to say, “Who is like unto the people of Israel, one nation on earth.”