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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: The Schechter Loan saga, with Melonie Schmierer-Lee

T-S Misc. 36.209
T-S Misc. 36.209 (verso): This 'bonus' fragment returned to Cambridge in 1969.
Ben Outhwaite and Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Wed 8 Dec 2021

Mel, what are you working on today?

I’ve been reading through a folder of correspondence between Cambridge and the Jewish Theological Seminary covering quite a few decades in the 20th century. I can’t really call it work though – it’s more like snooping. The letters and other documentation are about 251 Genizah fragments which Schechter took with him to America in 1902, when he departed Cambridge to become President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wanted to continue working on the fragments, and Cambridge agreed to let him borrow them for a period of time. But then he died, and the fragments stayed in America, and the folder I’m looking through contains increasingly irate letters from the UL’s librarians over the years, trying to get the fragments returned.

What’s the timeline of events?

On 18 Aug 1902 Schechter takes 251 fragments to New York (41 in glass from the 12, 16, 20 and 24 parts of the collection – a range of mainly parchment letters and legal documents; and 210 ‘unbound’ – items that had not yet been catalogued and conserved). On 23 Feb 1906 Charles Taylor makes his feelings known about it in a note in his own hand on St John’s note paper: ‘It was not contemplated that he (Dr. Schechter) should have unrestricted licence to take away MSS. to N.Y. or the antipodes’.

That’s interesting. We tend to think of Taylor as the ‘silent partner’ in the arrangement, but this shows he took an interest in the collection and had quite firm opinions on what should happen to it almost 10 years after he provided the initial funds for Schechter to travel and secure the collection.

Indeed, and that part of the letter is underlined with some feeling. Before this, though, he writes that he would have liked to answer jointly with Schechter, and that he’d like to see Schechter’s reply when it comes. On 28 June 1909 Francis Jenkinson, the University Librarian, asks Schechter to return pieces ‘that have been utilized’. On 3 July 1910 Schechter returns 3 fragments. On 30 Nov 1915 the Librarian of JTS (Alexander Marx) writes of Schechter’s recent death (on 19 November), saying that before his death Schechter ‘had caused all the fragments to be copied, with the intention of publishing them in the near future’. The fragments are safe, being kept in a ‘special iron case... which is entirely fire-proof’. As the copies are not yet collated, JTS requests to retain the fragments for some time yet until they are published. Jenkinson agrees, but tries to set a time limit. In 1916, JTS suggest delaying return until after the War. There is also a letter from Mathilde Schechter to Jenkinson, from January 1916, thanking him for his message of sympathy and appreciation for Schechter’s personal and scholarly qualities. She writes of how Schechter missed the Genizah and Cambridge. He had worked too hard and worried dreadfully over the War: ‘This War is killing me and breaking my heart’ he said a couple of hours before he died suddenly of heart failure, Mathilde writes. She also mentions in this letter the issues of JTS and the fragments, trying to further the conversation between the institutions.

In 1923 there are further delays – Marx writes of a plan to establish a new Press which will be involved in the publication in the not too distant future (his letter to the new UL Librarian, A. F. Scholfield, is annotated with red ink underlining and exclamation points apparently added by Scholfield. With Jenkinson's passing, the situation is no longer overseen by anyone with a personal connection to Schechter or the manuscripts, and might have been more understanding). 1924 sees a flurry of letters between the Syndics seeking ‘definite information’ and JTS trying to find an agent to return the items. Scholfield adds personal notes at the bottom of the JTS letters that are increasingly irritated and sarcastic, though his outgoing correspondence remains polite. On 8 Nov 1924 40 fragments arrive back in Cambridge. On 27 Nov 1924 Scholfield writes on behalf of the Syndics of the UL, asking for immediate return of the fragments on receipt of the letter – the Syndics will not allow the loan to be further extended. The return letter from Cyrus Adler, President of the JTS, asks ‘whether you would be willing to add to your previous goodness and allow the Seminary some definite time in which to publish these texts’. The letter is annotated by Scholfield with several sarcastic comments – 'this, after 22 years!'. Adler asks whether the 40 fragments sent earlier had been received safely, and Scholfield remarks ‘they were acknowledged long ago and he must know that perfectly well’. Scholfield sends a terse note insisting on the return of the rest of the manuscripts, and on 9 February 1925 Adler replies that the rest of the fragments have been boxed to be shipped to Cambridge.

Most of these fragments were then assigned the classmarks T-S Misc. 35 and 36. Is that the end of the story with all fragments returned?

Not quite. In March 1925 Scholfield writes that the shipment arrived safely, but that five fragments are missing from the shipment. After several letters chasing a reply, in Feb 1926 Adler replies with a message from the Librarian, Marx. He has conducted a detailed search ‘in every nook and cranny I could think of and my only hope is that I will come across them accidentally.’

Did they ever come to light?

Skipping forward a few decades, in Dec 1968, Louis Finkelstein of JTS writes with a development. The story of the missing fragments had been passed down to a new generation, and Menahem Schmelzer, the JTS Librarian, had discovered them while looking through some papers. He offered to travel to Cambridge to deliver them personally. At this time, Henry Knopf was overseeing the Genizah Collection at Cambridge, and he annotated Finkelstein’s letter noting his delight and satisfaction.

So that ends the saga – all 5 fragments came back to Cambridge?

Yes, the final five were returned by Schmelzer on 10 February 1969. They now have the classmarks T-S Misc. 35.47, 35.91, 35.92, 36.161, and 36.184. With these was included a bonus sixth fragment which is now catalogued as T-S Misc. 36.209. There is a note stating it was ‘apparently not amongst the fragments sent to America 18 Aug. 1902. Bears no “Univ. Lib. Camb” stamp. Could well have been taken by S. Schechter.’ I’ve had a look at that manuscript, and it does look just like a Genizah fragment. It’s a bifolium of a halakhic work, probably from the Kitāb al-šahadāt wa-l-waṯāʾiq (‘Book of testimonies and documents’) by Saadya Gaon, and is also labelled in pencil 'Loan 100' (which it was not – the fragment assigned the number Loan 100 in the original list of loan items from 1902 would become T-S Misc. 35.100). Thus ends the saga. You can see, though, why reading the correspondence feels like snooping – the sarcastic and irritated notes weren’t meant for other eyes to see.

I'll be sure not to leave my own sarcastic notes for future snoopers... thanks Mel!


Great piece. Thank you for sharing. I’m Schechter’s biographer. At the moment writing on the relationships between him and the Giblews on the one hand and Cambridge on the other. The saga of the texts forms a kind of life text for Schechter. His personal issues like money (his lack of money prevented him from purchasing/collecting texts), his professional concerns (relations with fellow Orientalists in and out of the university), and his Jewish/public intellectual interests in who participated in much less controlled narrating and analyzing cultural issues like the historicity of Scripture and the relationship between philology and history.

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