By Raymond P. Scheindlin, Jewish Theological Seminary
Menahem Hayyim Schmelzer was born in 1934 in Kecel, Hungary. In childhood, he received a thorough religious and secular education. During World War II, he and his family were moved to a ghetto; later, they were placed in a cattle car intended for Auschwitz but were unexpectedly taken instead to a labor camp in Austria. After the war, the family settled in Budapest, where Schmelzer studied religious and secular subjects in various orthodox schools and yeshivot. After a failed attempt to leave Communist Hungary in 1949, he completed his gymnasium studies in 1952, while also studying Talmud and Hebrew with private teachers. At Eötvös Loránd University, he studied Arabic, Persian, Egyptology, and Assyriology. In the course of a government anti-Zionist campaign in 1953, Schmelzer was arrested and sentenced to three years of forced labor in a coal mine. Though his sentence was later considerably reduced, he was not permitted to return to the university; instead, he enrolled at the Rabbinical Seminary of Hungary, where he came under the influence of Professor Alexander Scheiber, whose works on liturgical poetry, Geniza manuscripts, and Hebrew book-lore were an important influence on Schmelzer’s own academic career. Schmelzer and Scheiber remained in close and mutually admiring scholarly contact until Scheiber’s death, in 1985. Later in his career, Schmelzer would pay tribute to Scheiber in a number of articles about him in Hebrew, English, and Hungarian.
Schmelzer left Hungary after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and studied Bible and Arabic at Basel University, concurrently serving as librarian of the Jewish community. He subsequently trained as a Judaica librarian in the Simonsen Collection of the Royal Library of Denmark in Copenhagen, receiving a librarian’s degree from the State Library School and an M.A. from the University of Copenhagen. In 1960–61, he worked briefly at the Thomas Mann archive in Zurich, and then in the manuscript division of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. He came to New York in 1961 to work in the JTS library and to serve on its faculty; he became associate librarian in 1963 and librarian in 1966, the first professionally trained librarian in the history of this renowned research library. He served in that capacity until 1987.
In April 1966, a fire broke out in the library stacks; the fire and the water used to extinguish it destroyed and damaged a large part of the circulating collection and rendered the tower that housed the stacks unusable. The books and offices were moved into a temporary structure for seventeen years, while a new library was designed, constructed, and put into operation under Schmelzer’s supervision. Thanks to the experience that he gained in the restoration of water-damaged books, he was invited to Florence to assist in the rehabilitation of books, archives, and Hebrew manuscripts damaged by the flooding of the Arno River in 1966.
The chaos created by the fire created the opportunity for Schmelzer, the professional librarian, to rebuild the library’s systems in accordance with modern standards, bringing the library into line with other American academic libraries. The Library of Congress classification system was introduced, and the library joined the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) for standardized cataloging and transliteration. Thanks to these initiatives, the JTS Library became part of a common system that could be accessed and understood by researchers anywhere.
Schmelzer’s expertise in Jewish bibliography and librarianship was called upon in connection with exhibitions by the Jewish Museum, the New York Public Library, the Berliner Festspiele, and the Braginsky Collection. He completed the publication of Aron Freimann’s Union Catalog of Hebrew Manuscripts and Their Location, verifying all the data that it contained and compiling the index volume. He edited the reports by Alexander Marx, his predecessor as JTS librarian, on the library’s acquisition of rare books and manuscripts, adding a list of books and manuscripts acquired during his own tenure as librarian. Schmelzer wrote a report on the manuscript and book collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary–University of Jewish Studies of Hungary. For the American Jewish Year Book, he wrote several extensive surveys of scholarly literature published in the United States.
Concurrently with his service in the JTS library, Schmelzer pursued research in the field of medieval Hebrew poetry. He was awarded a doctorate in 1965 for his dissertation on the poetry of Isaac Ibn Ghiyath, which he wrote at JTS under the supervision of Professor Shalom Spiegel. In 1980, Schmelzer published a critical edition of the poetry of Isaac Ibn Ezra from a unique manuscript in the JTS collection. In 1996, he published Avot ha-piyyut, a collection of Hebrew liturgical poems by Kallir and other early synagogue poets that had been transcribed from Geniza manuscripts and partially prepared for publication by Spiegel, as well as some essays relating to these poets’ work by Spiegel, all left incomplete at Spiegel’s death. From Spiegel’s files, Schmelzer selected and organized the materials that were suitable for publication, completed the necessary editing and commentary, and crafted a book that is a model of this kind of scholarship. Besides these books, Schmelzer wrote numerous articles and reviews relating to medieval Hebrew poetry and Jewish bibliography; many of these were collected in his Studies in Jewish
Bibliography and Medieval Hebrew Poetry (2006).
While serving as JTS librarian, Schmelzer was an active member of the JTS faculty, teaching courses on liturgy and medieval Hebrew poetry. He was named professor of medieval Hebrew literature and Jewish bibliography in 1987 and served as provost from 1994-97. In 2000, he became Albert B. and Bernice Cohen Professor of Medieval Jewish Literature, and in 2003, professor emeritus.
Schmelzer was associate division editor of the “Modern Jewish Scholarship” section of Encyclopaedia Judaica. He lectured at the Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1992 and an honorary doctorate from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago in 1999. He was distinguished visiting senior scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in 2004. He became a fellow of the AAJR in 2009; was awarded the Sandór Scheiber Award of the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture; and received an honorary doctorate from JTS in 2010. He was married to Ruth Blum, a descendent of a distinguished rabbinical family in Hungary, for sixty-one years; they had three children and eight grandchildren. He died in New
York in 2022.
* The author thanks David Kraemer, librarian, and the staff of the JTS library for their assistance
in composing this obituary.