Dr Israel Davidson

Dr Israel Davidson

Jonava, Jonava District Municipality, Kaunas, Lithuania
Death 27 Jun 1939 (aged 69)
Great Neck, Nassau County, New York, USA
Burial Glendale, Queens County, New York, USA
Plot Dreyfuss Plot, Lot 396
Memorial ID 108266690 · View Source
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Teaching responsibility at the Jewish Theological Seminary was Associate Professor of History, Professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature, and Registrar.

Dr. Davidson died at the age of 69.

Israel Davidson (1870, Jonava, Lithuania - 1939, Great Neck, New York) was an American Jewish writer and publisher and has been recognized as one of the leading American Hebrew writers in his era. His magnum opus was the four volume Otsar ha-shirah veha-piyut = Thesaurus of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry (NY, 1924–1933).

Davidson studied in yeshivas in Jonava, Volozhin, and Slobodka. In 1898, he emigrated to New York, worked at a few occupations before earning a Ph.D from Columbia University.

Jewish Chronicle
Newark, NJ
September 15, 1939
p. 22-24
by Eleanor Ernst


In the year 5699 (1939) a great scholar and spiritual leader was called from our midst. Dr. Israel Davidson, whose rich and colorful life served as an inspiration to all who knew him and whose contributions to Hebrew literature, remain as immortal testimony to his greatness. In this brief, intimate study, the author who, for many years enjoyed personal contact with the man and his work, presents the highlights of his character and career. THE EDITOR

Singleness of purpose and faith in his own capacities marked the career of Israel Davidson, Hebrew scholar and teacher, who died at the age of sixty-nine on June 26th last. He would tell the incident in his college life which finally determined his place in Hebrew letters. Since he had come from Russia to America alone at the age of seventeen and had spent his first years here studying English and learning to earn his livelihood, he had not been able to finish his American college courses until he was twenty five. When he then consulted one of his professors about plans for the future, he was told that twenty-five was too advanced an age to start a career which might bring financial reward and that he would have to be satisfied with any opening in business which might present itself. Davidson was so much incensed at this cynical attitude that he determined on the spot to follow his own heart only to study Jewish knowledge and tradition for the reward in personal satisfaction and leave to others' considerations a career or a fortune. For the rest of his life, though he was tolerant of outward success in other professions, he kept his own work and that of other scholars in his field the most rigid and exacting standards of excellence.

The story of the poor, but learned, immigrant who came to a strange land and to win international fame eventually through his own efforts, will always be one of interest to us. So "self-made" was Israel Davidson that he even had to choose his own name, His father, David Wolf Movshovitz, and his mother, had died when he was a child and he was sent to another town in Russia, Grodno, to be brought up by an uncle, Rabbi Israel Klebansky. He was never told his first name or that he was the thirteenth child and none of his sisters and brother before him had survived. He was merely called "Alter", on who should never grow old.

After his education in the Cheder and Yeshivas of Grodno and Kovno, he made his escape from Russia to America, lacking a passport for Germany where he would have preferred to continue his studies. When the immigration authorities asked his name, he chose Israel Davidson to show that he was a Jew and the son of David.

Doctor Davidson used to tell an amusing tale of his first efforts at self support in America. He peddled notions; he was a grocery clerk from 5am to 10pm; he was night watchman in a dry goods store where he was allowed to sleep; he gave lessons in Hebrew and soon in English. The friends at the East Side Schule where he studied and attended services recognized his rare ability as a teacher and engaged him to teach their children. Meanwhile, he attended public school for a year and completed the work of all grades. Mr. Schirmer, who was his public school teacher, was principal speaker forty years later at the sixtieth birthday celebration held in Davidson's honor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the College of the City of New York he studied for the next five years while supporting himself by teaching. He won honors in English, a language which he had not known seven years before.

For the first time in America, Davidson could devote himself to his Semetic studies when he was awarded a fellowship at Columbia University. He received His Ph.D at Columbia in 1902, where he compiled the material for his first book, "Parody in Jewish Literature." For several years he was chaplain at Sing Sing prison. He enjoyed this work at the prison, although the poverty of the prisoners' families whom he visited, caused him much pain. He rejoiced in the friendship of the Protestant chaplain, the Reverend Francis H. Pierce. They continued a light hearted correspondence until Rev. Pierce's death a few years ago.

The fruit of his own researches was a long list of books crowned by the four volume "Thesaurus" which lists over 35,000 items of medieval Hebrew poetry. By publication of supplements, the work has been keep inclusive. The "Thesaurus" was a collection of a lifetime and and the actual publication took nine years to accomplish. Mrs. and Mrs. Nathan Miller, who made the publication possible, were impressed by Dr. Davidson's faith in continuing his work during the many years when there was little hope that it would ever reach book form.

One of the other books which Dr. Davidson added to the shelf of Hebrew classics and one of the most charming, is the "Sepher Shaashuim", a work of folk lore which he discovered as a palimpsest (a manuscript written over another manuscript) among the Genizah fragments. In editing and publishing the "Sepher", Davidson added an English introduction which is a literary work of equal interest. This was always Davidson's practice to write thorough and beautifully composed English essays to preface the Hebrew material which he was presenting.

One other side of Dr. Davidson's life should be noted in any account, however brief, of his life and work. His home in New York City had become the meeting place of every scholar, rabbi and layman who appreciated the Jewish way of life. Dr. Davidson married Carrie Dreyfuss in 1906, and their two daughters, Gladys and Jessica, have each made a career for herself, one in archaeology and one in law. The house on Morningside Avenue is lined with books and Friday nights always found interesting guests at the Sabbath table. Dr. Davidson was a man of deep religious feeling, who observed with pleasure, the ceremonies of Jewish traditions. But his primary pleasure was his studies and on the day of his death, he was making literary plans for the next few years. Knowing how precarious his heath was, however, he had taken the precaution of assigning literary executors to each of his projects so that we may expect works of his initiation for many years to come. END

Vol 7, #4
Autumn 1938
P. 496-499
(Published by the Phi Betta Kappa Society)

Content not yet added to this text 8/14/2013

Photos Courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio AMERICAN JEWISH ARCHIVES.ORG

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  • Created by: Brent Stevens
  • Added: 10 Apr 2013
  • Find a Grave Memorial 108266690
  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Dr Israel Davidson (27 May 1870–27 Jun 1939), Find a Grave Memorial no. 108266690, citing Mount Neboh Cemetery, Glendale, Queens County, New York, USA ; Maintained by Brent Stevens (contributor 47516363) .