JTS Remembers Professor Menahem Schmelzer

JTS and the world of Judaic studies lost a towering scholar and a beloved colleague and teacher with the death of Dr. Menaham Schmelzer, the Albert B. and Bernice Cohen Professor Emeritus of Medieval Hebrew Literature and Jewish Bibliography. 

Dr. Schmelzer spent four decades at JTS, retiring in 2003 after serving as Librarian of JTS’s renowned Judaic collection, as provost, and as a member of the faculty revered by students, colleagues, and scholars worldwide for his exceptional erudition and generosity of spirit. 

A master of piyyut (Jewish liturgical poetry) and of Jewish liturgy, he was a preeminent specialist in medieval Hebrew literature and published extensively on Ashkenazi piyyut. He taught classes in these areas to students in all of JTS’s schools. Transmitting his love of piyyut through his teaching, he ignited an appreciation for the genre among generations of students.  

Known for his depth of knowledge not only in the field of piyyut but also in the field of Hebrew manuscripts and Jewish bibliography, Dr. Schmelzer greatly advanced these fields. Dr. David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian, describes Dr. Schmelzer as “the incomparable expert on the JTS Library’s rare collections,” whose “astounding command” of the details of the collection made him “the ‘go-to’ person on questions of Jewish bibliography for researchers around the world.” 

Dr. Schmelzer was Librarian in 1966 when the JTS Library suffered a devastating fire that caused severe damage and loss, and he led the extraordinary effort to reopen it, restore it to health, and ultimately open a new Library building in 1983.  

A Holocaust survivor who was born in Hungary, Dr. Schmelzer was often described as a link to the lost world of European Judaic study before the Second World War. In a 2011 collection of scholarly essays dedicated to Dr. Schmelzer, The Experience of Jewish Liturgy, editor Dr. Debra Reed Blank writes that he “exemplifies that generation of American Judaica scholars born in pre-World War II Europe: polymaths distinguished by their command of multiple languages and literatures, broad classical education, and yeshiva-style mastery of the traditional Jewish corpus.” 

Adds Blank: “Credentials and biography do not capture what Schmelzer represents to scholars of Jewish liturgy: When books (and computers) fail to clarify a liturgical word, phrase, or practice, you call him; when you can’t trace a passage to its origins, he knows where to look; when you are baffled by a ritual curiosity, he can explain it.”   

Yet for all his reputation as “a scholar’s scholar,” Dr. Schmelzer was equally renowned for his kindness, mentorship, and generosity in aiding the work of fellow scholars. Ray Scheindlin, JTS Professor Emeritus of Medieval Hebrew Literature, recalls that Dr. Schmelzer was not only a good colleague and a kindly, friendly person, but “had a notable sense of humor and was always ready with a gentle quip or spur-of-the-moment bit of whimsy. He had a deep voice complementing a slight Hungarian accent and a charming trace of old-style European manners.”  

Dr. Schmelzer and his family survived the Holocaust in labor camps. In a preface to a collection of his essays published by JTS in 2005, he describes how in 1944, as the Nazis rounded up Hungarian Jews for deportation, he and his family were put in a cattle car headed to Auschwitz that was diverted at the last minute to a labor camp in Austria. After World War II, Dr. Schmelzer and his family moved to Budapest, where he continued both Jewish and secular studies, and later attended the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary. In 1953, he was arrested by the Communist regime for his activities in Bnei Akiva and spent a year in prison. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he fled to Switzerland and studied at the University of Basel. He earned an MA from the University of Copenhagen in 1960. In 1961, he and his wife, Ruth Blum, moved to New York, where he came to work and pursue his Ph.D. at JTS.  

In 1992, Dr. Schmelzer received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1999, he was the recipient of an honorary degree from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago. In 2004, he was appointed distinguished visiting senior scholar at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. In 2010, JTS awarded him an honorary Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree, and Hungary’s Ministry of Education and Culture awarded him the Alexander Scheiber Prize.