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Memorial Addresses in Honour of Past Presidents: Moses Gaster

Cecil Roth

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Memorial Addresses IN HONOUR OF PAST PRESIDENTS Delivered before the Jewish Historical Society of England, April 13, 1939. 1. Moses Gaster By Cecil Roth There was profound insight in the old Jewish custom whereby memorial addresses on a departed scholar were delivered, not only during the week following the death, but also at the close of the thirty days of mourning. By then, the first anguish has passed, and the address, instead of being one of lamentation on the loss, can be one of appraisal of the life of the departed. We are still in the month of Nisan, when no Hesped should mar the festival spirit. But it is right, nevertheless, that the Jewish Historical Society should come together to honour the memory, and to hear an appreciation of the career, of those distinguished leaders of Anglo-Jewish intellec? tual life, who shed lustre upon us by their collaboration and who have been gathered to the Academy on High in such tragically rapid suc? cession during the past few months. It would take too long to give here even a brief account of the crowded life of Moses Gaster. That has been done elsewhere, on 247</page><page sequence="2">248 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES more thaaone occasion (those who are interested can find particularly important material in the " Festschrift " issued on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Orient and Occident). Here, in this theatre and before this audience, there is a single aspect of his activity upon which we must pause. For, in the work of our Society, and in the study of Anglo-Jewish history generally, Moses Gaster played a most impor? tant part, comparable to that of those great pioneers, Joseph Jacobs and Lucien Wolf. Fifty-two years ago, when the Anglo-Je wish Historical Exhibition was held at the Albert Flail, placing the study of Jewish history on a new footing and sowing the seed which was to result in the birth of this Society, the young but already distinguished Rumanian scholar was one of the extremely illustrious General Committee, of which he was, I believe, the last survivor; and he gave, moreover, one of the lectures in connexion with the Exhibition, on the Jewish sources and parallels to the English Arthurian Romances ?a study, printed in the Publications of the Exhibition, which is still unsuperseded. Ten years later, the Jewish Historical Society was established. Doubtless there is some secret history which explains the fact that Moses Gaster did not become a member until the new body had been in existence for a few years. From 1902, however, he was a member, not only of the Society, but also of its Council: and in the session of 1906-7 he served as President. He certainly made full compensation for his tardiness in joining the Society by the zeal which he devoted to its interests. He attended meetings with com? mendable regularity, even when he had attained an age when most men prefer to remain by their own firesides at night. He would join regularly in the discussion, and there were few subjects which he could not illumine from his amazingly well-stored mind. At the meetings of the Council, he was not only indefatigable in attendance but also a sage and trusty adviser, who raised our deliberations to what one might call senatorial dignity. And when, six years ago, this exquisite place of meeting was opened, and I had hoped to be privileged to give the first formal address in it, I am happy now to say that he anticipated me, giving the first lecture from this platform on</page><page sequence="3">MEMORIAL ADDRESSES January 30th, 1933. There are many of us who will think of Moses Gaster in this setting?that venerable appearance standing here where I am now, and that unbroken flood of eloquence all the more telling because of the background before which it was delivered. Moses Gaster's principal contribution to Anglo-Jewish history was, of course, his History of the Ancient Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Be vis Marias?an impressive volume issued in honour of the bicentenary of the historic esnoga in 1901. It was a tour de force: compiled in an extremely short time, but packed from cover to cover with information accessible in no other source. Its shortcomings were inevitable, in view of the short time which the author had available for his work. But its merits were no less obvious, although some critics, more criticorum, pointed them out with less avidity. Suffice it to say, that it remains to the present day one of the few absolutely indispensable books for the study of Anglo Jewish history, to which every person who does serious work on the subject must refer at every turn. His other contributions to the publications of the Society?his presidential address on David Nieto,1 and his paper on the Ketuboth of Bevis Marks2?were in their way by-products of this magnum opus, as was also an extremely important though overlooked series of articles, Leaves from the History of the Sephardim in England, which appeared in the Jewish Chronicle between May and August, 1901, and contains much curious informa? tion on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was not only a writer of history. He was also a part of history. Since the days of David Nieto, no more noteworthy char? acter had sat in the Haham's banco at the ancient synagogue whose destinies he chronicled. I cannot describe in detail here the amazing versatility of a man who came to this country only when he had made his reputation abroad, but who in his prime was one of the great English orators, and who could speak equally well in half a dozen other languages; who was known among Jews as an authority on Hebraic studies in all their manifold ramifications, but was at the same time famous in Rumania as the authority on Rumanian 1 Printed in Trans., vii. 2 Printed in Miscellanies, ii.</page><page sequence="4">250 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES language and literature and among folklorists as a foremost specialist in that subject, and who when I once accompanied him to visit an eminent Oxford theologian plunged into an erudite discussion of gipsy studies; a man who played, too, a great part?when it was not only unfashionable but even dangerous?in the early days of Zionism, and later on in the negotiations that led up to the Balfour Declara? tion. It is given to few men to excel in so many spheres. But such versatility brings its own penalty; and, if Moses Gaster fell short of unquestioned primacy in any of his multitudinous activities, it was for the very reason that his enormous ability was diverted through so many channels and brought him such high distinction in all. The personality that carried this weight of erudition and this astonishing versatility was greater than any individual achievement Without a doubt, Moses Gaster was one of the most colourful per? sonalities in the Jewish life of our day. We who knew him will never forget the impressive figure in the brown velveteen jacket and red tar bush, holding perpetual court; the constant stream of eloquent conversation, in more languages than some of us could recognise; the ready, and invariably helpful, advice on any problem of scholar? ship, on almost any subject on which the other might be engaged; the vast and amazingly accurate bibliographical knowledge; the scholar's pride in the great library, concerning the upbuilding of which so many legends circulated and to which the wise visitor brought self-chosen tribute rather than await the inevitable exaction; the telling aphorisms on current affairs; the uplifted forefinger and the vibrant comment of omniscience?" What did I tell you? " It was easy to laugh; but it was the laughter bred of affection, not of mockery?the laughter which might have been directed at a Samuel Johnson, with whose personality (save for the fact that, unfortunately, he lacked his Boswell) that of Moses Gaster had so much in common. And there were some of us?I speak in particular and with profound gratitude of my own case?who could not but remem? ber constantly how Moses Gaster was not one of those who waited until a student had received a certain degree of notice before becoming aware of his existence, but gave from the beginning that advice, en</page><page sequence="5">MEMORIAL ADDRESSES 25I couragement, and recognition which the young man can find so desperately important. Not long ago I was re-reading Gladstone's tribute to Disraeli, his lifelong political opponent. He said that if a young man asked him what lesson he could draw from the other's career, he would tell him to mark and imitate the courage of that admission of identity with the people from which he drew his origin, which characterised his great rival's public life even when it might have done him most harm. If I were asked what lesson could be drawn from Moses Gaster's career, I would say that it is the manner in which a great spirit can triumph over great adversity. Overwhelmed by the most severe affliction that can overtake a student or a scholar, the loss of his sight, he rose superior to the blow. In a way he almost turned it to advantage. From his blindness he drew added dignity and impressiveness. His other faculties developed preternaturally. A memory which was already remarkable became nothing short of prodigious. He had an uncanny faculty for using other men's eyes in place of his own, for piecing together scattered scraps of infor? mation which had to be acquired vicariously, for building up a con? sistent theory on the basis of information which in the nature of things could only be sporadic and partial. He saw more through other men's vision than most men can through their own. No more remarkable instance, no more encouraging instance, could be found of the triumph of the spirit over the shortcomings of the flesh. We will long remember him. Those of us who knew his foibles the most intimately will cherish his memory the longest, as one of the most vivid Jewish personalities, one of the most eminent Jewish scholars, one of the greatest Jewish orators of our day. Long after his shortcomings have been forgotten, there will be those of us who will thank God for having been privileged to know him. But now, the ache in our hearts is still fresh, and one thinks rather of the void that the passing of this great figure in Israel has left. There are lines in the introduction to Marmion which seem to come irresistibly to one's mind at the present moment. They were written by Scott in memory of Pitt. They were repeated by Gladstone in his memo</page><page sequence="6">252 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES rial oration on Peel. To us, who remember that silvery voice, that ready flow of eloquence, that warm and courageous sympathy with every Jewish cause, they are equally in keeping with the character of our departed friend: Now is the stately column broke; The beacon light is quenched in smoke; The trumpet's silver voice is still; The Warder silent on the hill.</page></plain_text>