Jacob Katz was born in 1904 in Magyargencs, a small village in western Hungary. There were few orthodox Jews in the village and no Jewish school, so during his first school years he attended a Protestant school in the neighboring village. At the age of 12, he went to study in a small town further away, Celdemok, also at a secular school, where he was an outstanding student. His afternoons were devoted to religious Jewish studies at the community’s Talmud-Torah. During this period he boarded with an orthodox family and came home every few weeks for Sabbath and festivals. In the First World War, at the age of 16, he went to the city of Gior, where he studied at a Yeshiva. This was followed by two years at the Yeshiva at Satoralya-Uihey until 1925, when he moved to the prestigious Pressburg Yeshiva in Bratislava, founded by the Hatam Sofer and which was still headed by his descendants. After two and a half years at this Yeshiva, Katz felt a great desire to acquire a general education. He read secular literature, studied the dramas of Schiller, the diaries of Theodore Herzl, Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt”, and the writings of Ahad Ha’am etc. In 1927 he wrote his first article for the orthodox newspaper of Budapest, Zsido Ujsag. In this article, he protested against a Dayan of the community who had returned from Eretz Yisrael and called upon the Jews of Hungary to distance themselves from Zionist activity and Zionism. The article was copied by the Hungarian Zionist newspaper Zsido Szemle, which praised the ‘village Jew’ who had shown a deeper understanding of the needs of the time than the leaders of Orthodoxy. The editor of the newspaper asked him to write further articles. In Bratislava, Katz heard the speeches of Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan), Nahum Sokolov and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and identified with their common thesis that building the Land was the foremost task of this generation.
In spring 1928, he arrived in Frankfurt to attend the Yeshiva “Adas Yeshurun”, which was headed by Rabbi Joseph Breuer, one of the sons of the founder of the Yeshiva, Shlomo Breuer. At the same time, he began to study for Matriculation, and then at the University of Frankfurt. He completed his doctorate in spring 1934 on the subject of German Jewish assimilation.
Katz financed himself by giving private lessons in Jewish studies and Talmud to the children of the Breuer family and others, and at this time he met his future wife Gertie Birnbaum. They were married in Jerusalem in 1936, after he had spent a year in London learning English.
After his immigration to Israel in 1936, he lived in Tel-Aviv where he worked in education, and eventually became a teacher at “Moriah” school. Later, he was appointed Director of the Teachers’ and Kindergarten Teachers’ Seminar “Talpiot”.
While working as a teacher, he published articles on education, psychology and pedagogy. During the same period, he compiled a history textbook for elementary schools. The four volumes of “Israel and the Nation” were published between 1945-50 and were used for decades in elementary schools, mainly religious. The book was updated twice. His first scholastic article after his immigration to the Land of Israel was “Marriage and Marital Relationships at the end of the Middle Ages”, and was published in the journal “Zion” in 1944. This article attracted the attention of Prof. Benzion Dinur, who had also heard about Katz’s doctorate.
As a result of his contact with Prof. Dinur, in 1949 he was invited to become a junior lecturer with quarter of a position in the Department of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in 1950 he moved to Jerusalem. Katz admitted that he had been irresponsible leaving a full-time position in Tel-Aviv for a part-time junior post in Jerusalem with a wife and three sons to support, but his attraction to research and the possibility of an academic life were irresistible.
Katz taught in the Departments of Education, Sociology and Jewish History. In 1958, his book “Tradition and Crisis” was published. In this book, Katz coined the concept of “traditional society” and for the first time made use of sociological tools in the study of Jewish history. To this day, this book is considered the basic book in the field of Jewish history; it was published in several editions and translated into English and Russian. In 1959, Katz was appointed a full Professor. Between 1959-1963, he was Dean of the Faculty of Social Science. He then spent a sabbatical year as Visiting Professor at Harvard University. He had spent a previous sabbatical (1956-7) in London and Manchester. From 1969-1972, he served as Rector of the Hebrew University and for ten years (1961-1971) he was a member of the Council for Higher Education. During this period, he continued to write and publish articles and books.
In 1973, aged 68, he retired. In the following years, he pursued his research and writing and was actively involved in academic life. Among others, he participated in and lectured at congresses and research workshops in Israel and abroad. After his retirement, he published more than during all the years that he taught at university. His books and articles were translated into many languages: Hebrew, English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, Hungarian.
In the academic year 1973/4, he again served as visiting professor at Harvard. During the following years, he was visiting professor for shorter periods, at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland, University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia University and Yeshiva University, New York.
His books and research were highly respected in the academic community both in Israel and abroad, and he was awarded many honors. In 1974 he became an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1980, he was awarded the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies. He was also awarded honorary doctorates by universities in Israel and abroad.
From 1981-1992, he served as director of the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem. The Institute’s activities in research into the history of Jews in Germany suited his scientific field of interest.
During his academic career in Israel and abroad, he guided dozens of students in their doctorates. His students and their students today play a central part in research and teaching of Jewish history in Israel and all over the world.
Even in his 90’s, he continued his varied activities. In his 90th year, his book “A House Divided” was published and he was invited to be a Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University. He continued to publish articles in newspapers and journals.
Katz took a great interest in day-to-day affairs of the State of Israel and occasionally reacted with an article in the newspaper or letter to the editor. He was mainly concerned with questions of religion and state and Jewish law.
His books and articles are quoted frequently and as he said shortly before his death, “a man’s best epitaph is his books”.
The fascinating story of his life is told in his autobiography: “With my own Eyes”, which was translated into English.
Jacob Katz passed away aged 93, a few weeks after completing his final book: “A Time for Inquiry – A Time for Reflection”.
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