MARCUS MORDECAI JASTROW was born on June 5, 1829 in the town of Rogassen, in eastern Prussia (Westpreussen), into a poly-lingual environment. He grew up in a Yiddish-speaking family, in a German-speaking province, in what formerly had been part of the Kingdom of Poland before its three partitions between 1772 and 1795. Initially home-schooled in Hebrew and rabbinic studies, Jastrow graduated from a Prussian Gymnasium (high school) in the provincial capital of Posen in 1852. He then left for Berlin, the cosmopolitan center of Prussian culture, where he attended Berlin University while also being tutored in traditional rabbinics. Jastrow next pursued graduate studies at the University of Halle and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1855, at the age of twenty-six. Two years later his rabbinical ordination (originally conferred in 1853 by Rabbi Moses Feilchenfeld), was confirmed and signed by Rabbi Wolf Landau, of Dresden. In 1858, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Jastrow moved to Warsaw to serve as a religious leader.
Now living in Poland’s capital, Jastrow devoted himself to the mastery of the Polish language. He also identified with and was active in the Polish independence movement. His involvement led to his arrest, imprisonment and eventual exile back to Prussia. In 1863, his decree of expulsion was revoked and Jastrow anticipated returning to his pulpit in Warsaw. With the outbreak of the Polish revolution that same year, however, his Prussian passport was abruptly canceled. Forced to earn a living elsewhere, Jastrow remained in Germany where he became the district rabbi of Worms. In 1866, at the age of thirty-seven, he accepted an invitation from Philadelphia to cross the Atlantic Ocean to become the officiating rabbi of that city’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom.
Jastrow introduced a new type of religious leadership and learning to America, one heavily influenced by the academic model of the German university, the spirit and methods of historical-critical inquiry, and the religious reform of Jewish theology and ritual observance. As David Werner Amram, a scholar of early Hebrew printing and friend, put it in a memorial address “[Jastrow’s] thought was a blend of Talmudism, classicism, and modernism.” Jastrow’s arrival meant that familiarity with the best of European scholarship would now enter the mainstream of American Jewish cultural life. Indeed, Jastrow’s three major scholarly contributions – his English-Aramaic rabbinic dictionary, his role in the creation of the first English-language Jewish Encyclopedia, his contribution to the first Jewish critical translation into English of the Hebrew Bible – as well as the scholarship of his son Morris, all bear witness to this revolutionary cultural and intellectual transfer.
This new translation of the Hebrew Bible was designed to provide the best modern Jewish critical Bible scholarship to an English-speaking audience and to revise previous English translations that reflected christological understandings of controversial passages. So, for example, the contested word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 is translated as “young woman” rather than the pre-figurative “virgin.” As the preface to the 1917 edition shows, Marcus Jastrow served on the original editorial committee and prepared a translation of the Book of Job for the Jewish Publication Society of America during the first stage of the project.
Morris Jastrow and Anglo-American Jewish Scholarship