Posted in Obituaries

Isaac Eisenstein-Barzilay, 1915-2006

Isaac Eisenstein-Barzilay, 1915-2006 Posted on August 4, 2006

By Sharona and Joshua Barzilay, David B. Ruderman


Isaac Eisenstein-Barzilay was born in 1915 in the town of Vilkovishk (Vilkaviskis) in Lithuania where his mother was born and raised. As a child he was brought to Yashenofki (Jasionowka), in northeast Poland, where he grew up in the midst of his father’s extended family. He received a traditional Jewish education with a strong devotion to the Hebrew language imparted to him by his rabbinic father. It was already during these early years that Isaac began to use the name Barzilay. At the conclusion of his elementary studies, he was enrolled in the Tachkimoni middle school followed by the Hebrew Gymnasium in Bialystok. In this more cosmopolitan atmosphere, his traditional upbringing was challenged and enriched by new secular currents infecting the Jewish world of Eastern Europe, especially Socialism and Zionism. No doubt they left an indelible impact on the young Barzilay, on the formation of his identity and professional aspirations for years to come.

In 1933, a year after completing Gymnasium and a year of local Zionist activity, Barzilay enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he was exposed to this newly established center of Jewish academic learning. Barzilay studied with such luminaries as Dinur, Baer, Tur-Sinai, Roth, Stern, and others who sharpened his scholarly skills and prepared him for his own academic career. With the outbreak of the Second World War Barzilay joined the British navy where he served for more than two years. Following the war, his father and mother, who had by then immigrated to the United States, asked that he join them. He left Israel in 1947 to be with them and his three sisters.

Upon his arrival in New York, he was appointed to the faculty of Herzliah Hebrew Academy while beginning his doctoral studies at Columbia University under Professor Salo W. Baron. His doctoral thesis, submitted in 1955, was entitled: “The Enlightenment and the Jews: A Study of Haskalah and Nationalism.” It represented a highly ambitious undertaking of tracing the roots of Hebrew nationalistic literature through the Berlin and Eastern European Haskalah. As if this wide range were not enough, Barzilay followed the lead of his distinguished teacher in arguing for an Italian Haskalah that had emerged as early as the 16th and 17th centuries. This he described preliminarily in this thesis and contrasted with its later Berlin counterpart. This work surely represented the springboard of much of his later academic writing on Italian, German, Eastern European, and Yishuv/Israeli literature which would occupy him throughout his academic career. No doubt, the creative tensions between Jewish nationalistic and diasporic currents and between traditionalism and secularism reflected in these studies embodied similar tensions in his own life experience as well.

Following the completion of his doctoral studies and a brief teaching appointment at Wayne State University in Detroit, Barzilay was offered a regular academic position at Columbia University in 1959 where he remained until his retirement some twenty-five years later. His fascination with the roots of the Jewish enlightenment within Italy led to two of his most important books: Between Reason and Faith: Anti-Rationalsm in Italian Jewish Thought 1250-1650 and Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo [Yashar of Candia ]: His Life, Works and Times. In the first, he focused on a cluster of Italian Jewish thinkers whom he considered to be anti-rationalist, who opposed the intrusion of secular learning into Jewish culture. In the second, Barzilay composed a highly ambitious intellectual biography of a most recondite intellectual figure of the seventeenth century, trying to make sense of his seemingly simultaneous embrace of modern science and kabbalah. Barzilay’s conclusions in both books were challenged by later scholarship but his contribution in treating thinkers previously neglected and in raising important issues at the heart of early modern Jewish culture was enormous. Barzilay’s pioneering work inspired a younger group of scholars to look seriously at the intellectual history of Italian Jewry.

Following the programmatic outline of his doctoral dissertation, Barzilay published a series of well-known essays on the Berlin Haskalah and especially on Moses Mendelssohn himself. His study comparing the Italian with the Berlin Haskalah became a classic formulation of how one might account for the similarities and differences between early modern and modern Jewish cultures. He also made major contributions to the study of the Eastern European Haskalah, especially in his two books: Shlomo Yehudah Rappaport and His Contemporaries and Manasseh of Ilya: Precurser of Modernity among the Jews of Eastern Europe. Besides his books and articles written in English, Barzilay continued to write extensively in Hebrew, especially in Ha-Doar, dealing with a wide range of subjects of modern Hebrew literature. Especially noteworthy were his essays on Smolenskin, Brenner, Yizhar, Hazaz and Agnon.

Barzilay was an exciting and engaging teacher and attracted many fine students to his popular classes at Columbia. He was also an active leader of the American Academy for Jewish Research, serving for many years as its president. He and his beloved wife Chaya both played critical roles in building the academic community of American Jewish studies and will be remembered for their vital contributions for years to come. May the memory of Professor Barzilay be a blessing to us all.