Jacob Rader Marcus: Historian-Archivist of Jewish Middle America

By Rischin, Moses | American Jewish History, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Jacob Rader Marcus: Historian-Archivist of Jewish Middle America


Rischin, Moses, American Jewish History


This I Believe: Documents of American Jewish Life. Edited by Jacob R. Marcus. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1990. xxi +277 pp.

To Count a People: American Jewish Population Data, 1585-1984. By Jacob R. Marcus. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990. 274 pp.

United States Jewry 1776-1985. Vol. 1: The Sephardic Period. By Jacob R. Marcus. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989. 820 pp.

United States Jewry 1776-1985. Vol. 2: The Germanic Period. By Jacob R. Marcus. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. 419 pp.

United States Jewry 1776-1985. Vol. 3: The Germanic Period, Part 2. By Jacob R. Marcus. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 925 pp.

United States jewry 1776-1985. Vol. 4: The East European Period: The Emergence of the American Jew; Epilogue. By Jacob R. Marcus. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 955 pp.

The Jew in the American World: A Source Book. Edited by Jacob R. Marcus. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996. 663 pp.

No historian so fully incarnated an all-consuming self-conscious tradition of scholarship in American Jewish history than did Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995). Ever since turning to the teaching of the first required course in American Jewish history in 194z at the request of the President of the Hebrew Union College, Marcus determined to virtually recreate and retool the field within his parameters. And he did. In 1946 he was designated the Adolph Ochs Professor of American Jewish history at his Cincinnati alma mater and virtual lifelong address ever since enrolling there at the age of fifteen, except for two years in military service during World War I and four more pursuing his doctorate in Germany. In 1947, he founded the American Jewish Archives, followed in 1948 by its semi-annual of the same name, and in 1957, by the American Jewish Periodical Center, with the mandate to microfilm every newspaper and periodical published from 1823 to 1925 (and selectively thereafter) and to make them available with all records at the Archives to scholars wherever they might be. Within that decade, the merger of Marcus the archivist, and Marcus the historian, a key to appreciating the unique persona of Jacob Marcus, was fully consolidated.

For the next half century, the Cincinnati archivist-historian would benevolently collect, organize, catalogue, calendar, direct, fund, and tell the American Jewish story on a cornucopian scale singularly his own. He never quite retired from teaching and remained at his special listening post at the citadel of classic Reform Judaism to the end. By then, the oldest Reform rabbi in the world had taught and advised two thousand rabbincal students, long had been the honorary President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose meetings he faithfully attended and where he ever stood tall as Mr. American Jewish History.

Without slighting Marcus's perfervid 1916 declaration, "America: The Spiritual Center of Jewry," at age twenty, published in the Wheeling, West Virginia jewish Community Bulletin, his publications in American Jewish history did not begin to appear in earnest until 1951 with Early American Jewry. The first of two volumes, focusing mainly on the colonial era, they heralded the historian-archivist's distinctive voice. There followed Memoirs of American Jews, 1775-1865, American Jewry: Documents, Eighteenth Century, the seventeen hundred-page three-volume The Colonial American Jew, and taking a new Marcussian turn, in response to the "Women's Revolt" of the 1960s and "collegial" pressure, The American jewish Woman 1654-1980 (1981), a two-volume documentary and text, running to thirteen hundred pages. Already eighty-five years of age, Marcus was still on the threshold of completing his magnum opus, the four-volume United States Jewry 1776-1985, which he had outlined thirty years earlier. By then, Marcus long had seen himself sui generis, as the sole historian pledged to single-handedly doing a "full-bodied scientifically conceived history of the Jew in the United States . …

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