Posted in Obituaries

Professor Gershon David Hundert, 1946-2023

Professor Gershon David Hundert, 1946-2023 Posted on June 11, 2024

President of the AAJR, 2014-2018

Gershon David Hundert, who passed away on October 27th, 2023, aged 77, was not just one of the most important Jewish historians of his generation, but a scholar of great energy and vision who also made a huge contribution to the development of the field of Jewish history as an academic endeavor in general.

Hundert was born in Toronto in 1946 to a deeply identifying Jewish family as a third-generation immigrant from eastern Europe. The love of Jewish learning with which he grew up also shaped his earliest days as a student: he received his first degree from JTS and Columbia in 1968 and wrote his MA thesis at Ohio State University on a major eighteenth-century Hasidic leader.

It was, however, during his doctoral studies back at Columbia that he took the major step that would define his research from that point on: he began to study the history of Polish Jewry in its Polish context and on the basis of Polish archival materials, using what were then considered “external” sources to shed new light on Polish Jewish society and culture. His 1978 thesis was entitled, “Security and Dependence: Perspectives on Seventeenth-Century Polish-Jewish Society Gained Through a Study of Jewish Merchants in Little Poland.” He published the fruits of this research in a series of landmark articles in, among other journals, the AJS Review, the Revue des études juives, and Jewish Social Studies.

In 1975, Hundert began teaching Jewish History at McGill University in Montreal, which remained his academic home for nearly fifty years. With the field of Jewish history still in its infancy in the American academy, he then undertook the first of a number of projects in which he would engage over his career to help create the research infrastructure that was still lacking. In 1984, in conjunction with Gershon Bacon of Bar Ilan University, he published a volume, The Jews in Poland and Russia: Bibliographical Essays, a key resource for scholars at that time.

His first research monograph, The Jews in a Polish Private Town: The Case of Opatów in the Eighteenth Century (1992), shed new light on Jewish society and culture in a small town, perhaps the major setting for Jewish life in eighteenth-century Poland-Lithuania, once again on the basis of sources mostly of Polish provenance. It was here that he coined one of the aphorisms with which he is still identified, “Jews and Other Poles.” He used it to point out that since Polish Jews had a specific Jewish identity shaped by the surroundings in which they lived, they should be seen as no less “Polish” than ethnic, non-Jewish Poles.

His next book, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (2004), was the first major synthetic work on the history of early modern Polish-Lithuanian Jewry for over a generation and set a new benchmark for the field. Among the new insights and perspectives it provided, one, in particular, stands out: Hundert argued that eastern European Jews as a group developed their own worldview and mentalité characterized by a positive sense of Jewish identity and superiority over their surroundings. He viewed this level of Jewishness as “magmatic” and saw in it a defining element of modern Jewish experience.

His next projects brought him back to the issue of research infrastructure. He took on the role as editor-in-chief of the award-winning YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (2008), a massive resource of 2,400 pages in print in two volumes, containing over 1,800 entries. In his editorial work, the astonishing breadth of his knowledge shone through, showing him at home with the scholarship on modern Jewish thought and literature as much as on early modern Jewish history and on the Jews of Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia as much as on the Jews of Poland and Russia. In remarkable fashion, he not only persuaded almost every major scholar in the field to contribute to the project but also used it as a way to mentor young scholars, an aspect of his academic activity he always took very seriously. For many, the Encyclopedia gave them their first opportunity to have work published.

What has made the YIVO Encyclopedia such an important resource is Hundert’s far-sighted insistence from the project’s earliest stages that, alongside the paper edition, it be published on-line and made freely available. This has opened it up to the broadest possible use not just by scholars and students but by the general public too.

In 2002, Hundert was appointed the Leanor Segal Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill and in 2011, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, having been elected to the American Academy of Jewish Research four years earlier. Between 2014-2018, he served as president of the AAJR, a post for which his vision, academic integrity, and unflagging good humor made him ideally suited.

During these years, he embarked upon a major project in the digital humanities together with his colleagues, Israel Bartal of the Hebrew University and Adam Teller of Brown University. They set themselves the goal of creating a virtual archive, open to all, of Jewish community pinkasim from early modern Europe. With the co-operation of the National Library of Israel and financial support from the Rothschild Foundation, the “Pinkasim Project” identified and scanned over 200 pinkasim from libraries and archives across the world. The Pinkasim Collection: The International Repository of Communal Ledgers was inaugurated on the National Library’s website in 2019.

His final project was to publish one of the most important sources for Jewish life in eighteenth-century eastern Europe: the works of Dov Ber Birkenthal from Bolechów, wine merchant, maskil, and social commentator on both Jewish and non-Jewish life. In a work of immense scholarship, Hundert reconstructed Birkenthal’s two books from newly discovered manuscripts, annotated them, and published them together with an introductory essay. Entitled, Dov Ber ben Yehudah Birkenthal, Divrei Binah-Zikhronot, edited with an introduction and notes by Gershon David Hundert (Jerusalem 2022), this publication opens up to scholars a unique set of sources whose value for research into the history of eastern European Jews can hardly be overstated.

With his passing, the world of academic Jewish Studies has lost one of its truly major figures while Gershon’s many friends, colleagues, and students mourn his loss for more personal reasons. His intellectual legacy remains to enrich us all. Yehi zikhro barukh!

Adam Teller
Brown University