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Cyrus Adler (1863–1940)

Cyrus Adler was a scholar, editor, and Jewish leader with a lifetime commitment to the study of Jewish history and culture. He worked with a number of Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and had a strong influence on American Jewish culture during his lifetime.

Cyrus Adler was born in Van Buren (Crawford County) on September 13, 1863, the third of four children of Samuel and Sarah (Sulzberger) Adler. His father worked as a merchant and manager of a nearby cotton plantation. Shortly after Adler’s birth, the Adler family fled the Civil War conditions in Arkansas and relocated first to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later to New York. After the death of Adler’s father in 1867, the family resettled in Philadelphia with Adler’s maternal uncle, David Sulzberger.

Adler first studied Hebrew and Judaism at a school established by the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia. While still in high school, Adler compiled a catalogue for the library of Isaac Lesser that was later published. He then went on to receive his BA in 1883 and his MA in 1886, both from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1887, he received a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, where he specialized in Assyriology. He was the first person to receive such a degree in the United States and taught in the Department of Semitics at Johns Hopkins until 1893.

Adler demonstrated a belief in the importance of cultural exchange by organizing the United States exhibits at the expositions in Cincinnati, Ohio (1889); Chicago, Illinois (1893); Atlanta, Georgia (1895); and St. Louis, Missouri (1904). In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him special commissioner to the Orient for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This appointment took Adler on a multinational tour to encourage participation in the event.

Adler was the honorary assistant curator for the Department of Semitics at the United States National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC from 1888 until 1893. At the Smithsonian, Adler also served as curator of historic Archaeology and historic religions from 1889 to 1898, librarian from 1892 to 1905, and assistant secretary from 1905 to 1908. While serving in these posts, he discovered the sensational “Jefferson Bible,” a version of the New Testament edited by Thomas Jefferson, the publication of which Congress authorized in 1904.

In September 1905, Adler married Racie Friedenwald. The couple had one child. In 1908, Adler resigned from the Smithsonian to become president of the newly formed Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia.

Throughout his life, Adler founded or was instrumental in the founding of the Jewish Publication Society of America (1888), the American Jewish Historical Society (1892), the American Jewish Council (1906), the United Synagogue of America (1913), and the Jewish Welfare Board (1917). Adler served as acting president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1917 and, although he was not an ordained rabbi, assumed the full presidency in 1924. In addition to working with numerous scholarly publications, Adler was on the editorial board of the Jewish Encyclopedia from 1899 to 1905 and served as editor of The Jewish Quarterly Review from 1910 (when the journal was moved to Dropsie College for publication) until his death. In addition to his editing duties, Adler authored or co-authored a large number of scholarly books, including Progress of Oriental Science in America during 1888 (1890), Christopher Columbus in Oriental Literature (1892), With Firmness in the Right: American Diplomatic Action Affecting Jews, 1840–1945 (1946), and his autobiography, I Have Considered the Days (1941).

Failing health forced Adler to largely retire from the public life in 1933. He died on April 7, 1940.

For additional information:
Adler, Cyrus. I Have Considered the Days. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1941.

Carolyn LeMaster Jewish History Collection. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Neuman, Abraham A. Cyrus Adler: A Biographical Sketch. New York: The American Jewish Committee, 1942.

Papers of Cyrus Adler. American Jewish Historical Society Center for Jewish History, New York, New York.

Stephanie Bayless
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

Last Updated 6/9/2009

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