Skip to content

Diglots: remembering the Schiff Library of Jewish Classics

January 6, 2012

Ever since I posted this morning on the new diglot publication programs of Harvard University Press, something has been nagging at me just beneath the layer of consciousness.

Finally, it came to me.  The Hackmey Hebrew Classical Library which aims to print 25 Hebrew/Aramaic classics in diglot form with an English translation is an old idea.  There already was an effort to do this.

The Schiff Library of Jewish Classics published a series of volumes – get this – modeled on the Loeb library classics (with similar dimensions) of Hebrew-English classics.  In fact, Loeb’s sister was the one who started the series!

The publication program was an effort Jewish Publication Society (which, we must admit, has seen better days.)  In fact, I own a set of Albo’s Sefer-ha-Ikkarim volumes that I picked a few years ago used (and I have to wonder why these have not been reprinted.)  If I I also remember spending time with a volume that reprinted Apocrypha from the Septuangint in Greek and English that appeared to be a volume from that library.  (There was some sort of connection with Dropsie University in that effort – now I want to go visit the library where I saw this volume.)

A number of those volumes were later reprinted by the Jewish Publication Society (usually in much fatter volumes – combining several of the original volumes in a single book or a double volume set.)  Some examples that come to mind immediately are Hebrew Ethical Wills and Mekhilta de Rabbi EliezerIn the introduction to the latter work, David Stern tells the story:

[This] publication was to be included in a new series entitled The Jewish Classics, whose purpose was to reproduce “in original and in the vernacular” the greatest and most important works of post-biblical Jewish literature.  The idea for the series was supposedly … that of Theresa Schiff, the wife of Jacob Schiff, the wealth New York Jewish businessman and philanthropist who was perhaps the earliest and most powerful support of JPS [the Jewish Publication Society.]

How Theresa Schiff got the idea for the series is a story worth retelling.  In 1910, James Loeb, Mrs. Schiff’s brother, undertook to publish new editions of all the Greek and roman classics in their original languages, with facing-page English translations, a project that eventually came to be known as the Loeb Classical library.  One day, as the story goes, several of the volumes of the new Loeb Classics were lying on the table in the Schiff home. Admiring them, Mrs. Schiff turned to her husband and said, “Jack, why couldn’t you do for the Jewish classics what Jimmie is doing for the Greek and Roman?”

In fact, the idea for such a series had already been under consideration for several years, but it was Schiff’s $50,000 endowment that actually made it possible.  (After Schiff’s death in 1920, his indispensible role in the creation of the library was recognized by JPS, which renamed the series the Schiff Library of Jewish Classics).  The series was explicitly modeled upon the Loeb Library, whose purpose was to preserve and transmit to the modern reader the classical heritage of Western civilization.  So, too, the volumes in the Schiff Library were intended to “awaken the interest and command the support of those who feel the obligation to see to it that the Jewish Classics which, with few exceptions have been unknown to English readers, shall come into their own, and take their rightful place among the classical literatures of all peoples.”  According to the original plan, twenty-five volumes were to be published, covering “the entire range of Jewish literature … up to some [indefinite] point in modern times.”…  Like the Loeb classics, the volumes were to be published in pocket-sized form, with an introduction, critically edited and annotated text, and facing English translation.

In the end, the Schiff Library fell somewhat short of its original ambitious goals.  A number of the volumes never materialized, others were deemed unworthy of being published and, ultimately, the cost of the series proved to be too great.  Nine volumes were published…

[Actually there were at least nine titles, and most of the titles were actually multi-volume sets.  See this Yale Library search.  However, I am fairly certain that there were more than just those nine titles; for example as mentioned above, I recall seeing a Greek-English Apocrypha volume from that series.]

The overall impact of the library was also less momentous than was originally hoped; commercially, it never rivaled the success of the Loeb Classical Library.

So now you can see what was bothering me.  In the case of both the Schiff Library and the Hackmey Library, the announced goal was to publish 25 Hebrew (or Aramaic)-English titles.  Both were directly inspired by the Loeb Library.  Both were funded by wealthy businessmen.  The parallels are uncanny.

And this, of course, raises the question:  what is the secret magic that Harvard University Press hopes to bring to the publication of Hackmey Library that the Jewish Publication Society was unable to bring to the publication of the Schiff Library?

In any case, both publication programs – even if they are not successes – are likely to lead to some interesting books.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: