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Book: Bouncing Back – and Forward, by Stefan C. Reif

Bouncing Back - and Forward
Bouncing Back – and Forward: From Immigrant Household to Cambridge Fellowship (Vallentine Mitchell & Co, 2021)
Sarah Sykes
Wed 23 Jun 2021
Bouncing Back - and Forward: From Immigrant Household to Cambridge Fellowship ● By Stefan C. Reif ● Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 2021

When you have lived such a busy and varied life as Stefan Reif, it behoves you to record it for future posterity! From humble beginnings in Edinburgh to Professor and College Fellow at Cambridge University, Stefan’s life journey has been one full of industry and determination. The book, originally conceived as a means to pass on the family history to his grandchildren became, as he was writing, a record as much for himself as for them, and a task he very much enjoyed. Indeed, it has made a change from his usual academic style – no footnotes needed!

In the preface of the book Stefan invites the reader to start by reading about his family’s past. He has gone to some trouble to research and relate the background and history of his parents, and so instead of starting at page one, skip through to the Appendices and read about the roots of his DNA and the history that lead to his arrival in this world. This is an extensive look back at the lives of both his parents and how the fortunes of those more distant – in time and place – led to his arrival in the world and the formation of the person he was to become.

Stefan remembers events and the passage of time in great detail, which is wonderful for the reader as we join him in his journey through life. From early family life and life as a school child, to the planting of those early seeds of interest and skills in teaching which, like an actor in rep, he honed in the synagogue to become the engaging lecturer he is today. We follow him to Jews College – a place where many connections were made which were to prove useful later in life – at the tender age of 16. Pretty young to be heading for London and essentially living independently from your parents and extended family in Scotland!

From London to Glasgow to teach and to build on the skills gained from teaching in Edinburgh and London shuls, work which supported him through his studies. He then moves on to America for a – briefer than anticipated – sojourn. We hear what it was like uprooting his family lock, stock and barrel first to travel to America, and then, when it turned out to not be quite what was hoped for, to return again to England and Cambridge where a new post saw him forging new connections and engaging interest in dusty, dirty piles of long-forgotten manuscripts, which some might have thought would only be of interest to those of Jewish heritage. He showed their hidden value not only for those studying Jewish medieval history, but to those studying social, economic and religious history. He opened eyes in the University Library to the treasure they did not realise was there. He raised the funds that the University was unable to afford or unable to see the value of, until the smelly pile of ‘rubbish’ was conserved into wonderful, handsome manuscripts. As they say, someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure!

Cambridge became heart and home, where the children grew up and then left for university and careers of their own. Ties with life and work in Israel were expanded and great achievements made in fundraising, conservation and research, as well as teaching and academic life in general. Until finally, moving on from Cambridge and splitting life between home in Israel and the UK, he has been able to pursue his own passions and interests; a continuation and expansion of his work before retirement.

Stefan’s autobiography is a mix of family and work memories which portray a life well-lived and take the reader from family roots in Eastern Europe, to the UK, to America, back to the UK and Israel. We meet family members, fellow students, work colleagues, friends. We hear about the young Jewish communities in Scotland, the early years of Jews College and the many students who have since gone on to make their mark both within the Jewish community and the wider community of business, education and philanthropy. We hear about the birth of the Genizah Research Unit and the work that went into establishing the world-renowned reputation of both it and the collection of manuscripts it cares for and studies. And of course, we read about life as an academic in Cambridge, America and latterly Israel. There are life lessons in applying yourself to hard work and reaping the rewards in both private and public life. And, we have a snapshot of social history spanning much of the 20th century into the 21st century, as well as a personal history.

A good brain and a drive and determination to succeed in his chosen field have propelled Stefan to where he is today and he is still doing the work he loves: studying manuscripts and sharing the benefit of his knowledge, while helping and supporting students and young scholars. And, despite age, he is still full of life and drive and happy to help the work of St John’s College, continue spreading the word about the world of the Genizah and watch over many grandchildren with encouragement and wise words.

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