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 (1895−1989) 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.