Salo Baron: The Past and Future of Jew­ish Stud­ies in America

Rebec­ca Kobrin

  • Review
By – July 31, 2022

Dur­ing the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry the admin­is­tra­tors of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty feared it was on the verge los­ing its iden­ti­ty as a redoubt of white Anglo-Sax­on Protes­tant cul­ture because of the influx of Jew­ish stu­dents. (A col­lege song of that time declared that Columbia’s run by Jews.… And when the lit­tle shee­nies die,/ Their souls will go to hell.”) Colum­bia, along with oth­er elite Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, respond­ed to this sup­posed Jew­ish inva­sion by estab­lish­ing quo­tas for Jew­ish stu­dents and lim­it­ing the num­ber of Jew­ish fac­ul­ty members.

No one could have pre­dict­ed that Colum­bia would even­tu­al­ly house the nation’s most impor­tant grad­u­ate pro­gram for spe­cial­ists in Jew­ish his­to­ry and become one of the world’s lead­ing cen­ters for Jew­ish stud­ies in all fields. This was due, in part, to the pres­ence of Salo W. Baron who was appoint­ed in 1929 to fill the new­ly estab­lished Nathan L. Miller chair in Jew­ish his­to­ry. This was the first chair in Jew­ish his­to­ry at a sec­u­lar west­ern uni­ver­si­ty and was estab­lished in Columbia’s Depart­ment of His­to­ry, rather than in a depart­ment of Semit­ics. Baron wel­comed this because he believed Jew­ish his­to­ry was not a dis­tinct dis­ci­pline but part of gen­er­al world history.

Baron (18951989) was born in Tarnow, then part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire. He received rab­bini­cal ordi­na­tion at the Israelitisch-The­ol­o­gis­chen Lehranstalt sem­i­nary in Vien­na in 1920 as well as three doc­tor­ates from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na in phi­los­o­phy (1917), polit­i­cal sci­ence (1922), and law (1923). His best known work is the ency­clo­pe­dic A Social and Reli­gious His­to­ry of the Jews in eigh­teen vol­umes, and he is con­sid­ered by many to be the most accom­plished Jew­ish his­to­ri­an of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. His approach to Jew­ish his­to­ry was encap­su­lat­ed in his con­tro­ver­sial 1928 essay in the Meno­rah Jour­nal Ghet­to and Eman­ci­pa­tion: Shall We Revise the Tra­di­tion­al View?” The essay crit­i­cized the empha­sis of pre­vi­ous Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans on pover­ty, anti­semitism, and flight from persecution.

Baron was also active in many orga­ni­za­tions and served as the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my for Jew­ish Research, the Con­fer­ence on Jew­ish Social Stud­ies, and the Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Recon­struc­tion. He also direct­ed Columbia’s Cen­ter of Israel and Jew­ish Stud­ies from 1950 to 1968. In 1979 the Salo Wittmay­er Baron Chair of Jew­ish His­to­ry, Cul­ture and Soci­ety was estab­lished at Colum­bia by friends, for­mer stu­dents, and admir­ers, a fit­ting trib­ute to one of the university’s most pro­duc­tive and influ­en­tial scholars.

This col­lec­tion of essays edit­ed by Rebec­ca Kobrin, her­self a promi­nent Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Jew­ish his­to­ri­an, is the place to start for those seek­ing to under­stand Baron’s place in mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ri­og­ra­phy. Their top­ics include, among oth­ers, Baron’s fam­i­ly life (Shoshana B. Tancer and Tobey B. Git­telle, Rec­ol­lec­tions from the Baron Daugh­ters”); his rela­tion­ship with his grad­u­ate stu­dents (Jane C. Ger­ber, Remem­ber­ing Pro­fes­sor Salo Baron: Per­son­al Rec­ol­lec­tions of a For­mer Stu­dent”); his role in mak­ing Colum­bia a cen­ter for Jew­ish schol­ar­ship (Kobrin, Salo Baron, Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Expan­sion of Jew­ish Stud­ies in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca,” Michelle Mar­go­lis Ches­ner, Build­ing the Foun­da­tions of Schol­ar­ship at Home: Salo Baron and the Judaica Col­lec­tions at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries,” and Bernard D. Coop­er­man, Orga­niz­ing the Jew­ish Past for Amer­i­can Stu­dents: Salo Baron at Colum­bia”); his tes­ti­mo­ny at the tri­al of Adolf Eich­mann in Israel (Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt, The Pro­fes­sor in the Court­room: Salo W. Baron at the Eich­mann Tri­al”); and his con­tin­u­ing cri­tique, even after the Holo­caust, of what he famous­ly termed the lachry­mose” inter­pre­ta­tion of Jew­ish his­to­ry (David Engel, Salo Baron on Anti-Semi­tism,” David Sorkin, Eman­ci­pa­tion: Salo Baron’s Achieve­ment,” and Pierre Birn­baum, From Europe to Pitts­burgh: Salo W. Baron and Yosef H. Yerushal­mi; Between the Lachry­mose The­o­ry and the End of the Ver­ti­cal Alliance”). The book con­cludes with a list com­piled by Men­achem But­ler of Baron’s near­ly six hun­dred pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing books, essays, book reviews, and oth­er items. This vol­ume is a fit­ting trib­ute to one of the tow­er­ing fig­ures in Jew­ish schol­ar­ship of the twen­ti­eth century.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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