Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jacobs, Joseph (1854–1916)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916), scholar and historian, was born on 29 August 1854 in Sydney, sixth surviving son of John Jacobs, a publican who had migrated from London about 1837, and his wife Sarah, née Myers. Entering Sydney Grammar School in 1867, he won the (Sir Edward) Knox prize twice and was school captain in 1871. Next year, on a scholarship, he studied arts at the University of Sydney and won many prizes. In October 1873 he was admitted as a pensioner to St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1877, senior moralist).

In an essay, 'Mordecai', in Macmillan's Magazine in 1877, Jacobs had replied to criticism of the Jewish part of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda; later Eliot became a close friend. That year Jacobs studied in Berlin under the famous Jewish scholars Moritz Steinschneider and Moritz Lazarus. Returning to England he was secretary of the Society of Hebrew Literature in 1878-84. At the St Pancras registry office, London, on 3 April 1880 he married Georgina Horne, daughter of a livery-stable keeper; she bore him two sons and a daughter. In January 1882 he wrote articles for The Times on the persecution of the Jews in Russia and became honorary secretary until 1900 of what became the Russo-Jewish Committee. This connexion led him to investigate the general Jewish question in articles to the Jewish Chronicle and the Journal of the (Royal) Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

With Lucien Wolf, Jacobs prepared the Catalogue of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition of 1887 and Bibliotheca Anglo-Judaica, on which all future work in Anglo-Jewish history was based. In 1893 his important work, The Jews of Angevin England, appeared and that year he was a founder of the Jewish Historical Society of England (president, 1898-99). His anthropological studies had led him to folklore; he edited several books of fables and in his generation became one of the most popular writers of fairy tales for English-speaking children. He edited the magazine Folk-lore and the Papers and Transactions of the 1891 International Folk-Lore Congress in London. He even wrote a novel on the life of Jesus, As Others Saw Him, published anonymously in 1895.

A master of many languages, Jacobs translated Hebrew, Italian and Spanish works, and brought out new editions of English classics. For many years he was a member of the executive committee of the Anglo-Jewish Association and of its joint foreign committee with the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In 1896-99 he published the first issues of the Jewish Year Book.

In 1896 Jacobs visited the United States of America to lecture on philosophy and returned in 1900 as revising editor of The Jewish Encyclopaedia; he was responsible for its style and contributed several hundred articles. On completing the Encyclopaedia in 1906, he became registrar and professor of English at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He retired in 1913 to become chief editor of the American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger. His incomplete Jewish Contributions to Civilization was published posthumously in 1919.

Jacobs died of heart disease at his home at Yonkers, New York, on 30 January 1916 and was buried in Temple Emanuel cemetery, Mt Hope. Australian Jewry can claim this great and gentle scholar, whose versatile ability knew no bounds, as an outstanding son; yet because his contribution to his people was intellectual and his life spent far from his homeland, he is nearly forgotten in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of American Diography (New York, 1928)
  • Jewish Historical Society of England, Transactions, 8 (1915-17)
  • American Jewish Historical Society, Publications, 25 (1917)
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 3 (1949) no 2
  • New York Times, 1 Feb 1916
  • American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger, 11 Feb 1916.

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Jacobs, Joseph (1854–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jacobs-joseph-6817/text11797, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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