Moses Gaster: The scholar, the legend, the man

Very few people have heard of Moses Gaster, nor of his enticing work for the revival and modernization of Hebrew within Romania, as well as the publication of numerous brilliant history books on Romanian and Jewish history. He also translated the Siddur into Romanian for those Romanian Jews who did not know Hebrew. However, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was his ability to collect.


Gaster had a rather impressive collection manuscripts, mainly in Judeo-Arabic from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. However among the manuscripts there were also a great deal of works surrounding the Pentateuch which were priceless at the time. Unfortunately this great recorded conglomeration of Jewish culture did not surprisingly perish at the hands of the Nazis, at least not directly. The collection was moved from Bucharest to London before World War Two commenced, yet they were gravely damaged by water during London fires.

Depite his work, Gaster’s life is one which is not only interesting but makes one question the prolific activities of this man. Being born in Bucharest in 1856, he studied history and managed to gain a doctorate. He then published his first work on the history of Romanian popular literature. Soon afterwards he immigrated to England, after really being expelled from Romanian after being wrongly accused of radical political activity. Interestingly, the government let him return and even gave him an Order of Merit, nonetheless he continued to live in London, and for good reason.

During his stay in London, Gaster became a hakham at a Sephardi Synagogue in London, and later was appointed on the board of the ever so famous YIVO. And if it wasn’t enough, he was also one of the most prolific and active leaders of the Zionist movement tin England and Romanian.  Moses Gaster was a very active Jew. He continually pushed himself to achieve more and get involved in the most important events of his contemporary.

It is in my own personal opinion that Gaster was a man who not only concentrated on one aspect of his heritage, but rather both. While he was a great advocate of Zionism and studied Jewish manuscripts profusely, he still found the time to publish numerous works on Romanian history and the Romanian people. This of course being a testament to his devotion to the place he was born, Bucharest. This, it without a doubt a very valuable lesson.

Despite the fact that many Jews knew that Israel was their true home, many felt and still feel attached to the places where they were born and grew up. If one asks any Ashkenazi or Mizrahi if they still care for the places they came from( despite Eretz Israel) they would answer that they did- as is normal of human nature.

Moses Gaster is not only an example of a hard working man, but a real humanist, and someone who did not forget the great complexity and duality of his origins- something which in fact made him proud. This same attitude can still be seen among contemporary Jews. I have asked many Jews why they do not want to move to Israel, and their answer is that they are home where they are.

I am not advocating that living in exile is good, nor am I saying that all Jews should move to Israel. I am merely bringing to light the sheer complexity of being Jewish in this world. In this vast globalizing-small world it is becoming clear that perhaps the old notions of nation building and formation are not the same as the precepts and fundamentals that once existed are changing and becoming increasingly complex.

About the Author
I am a historian that concentrates on many different aspects of material history, but also Jewish history as a whole.
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