Scholar Moshe Lazar, who has been described as “a one-man humanities department,” is a bibliophile of epic proportions.
Over the decades, he collected rare books from around the world as he traveled and did research on Provençal literature, Spanish and Judeo-Spanish biblical texts, Ladino literature, Hebrew poetry, medieval drama, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, contemporary French theatre, anti-Semitic propaganda and a dozen other topics.
In the past few months, he has donated thousands of his carefully-collected volumes to the USC and Hebrew Union College libraries. Still, most days when he walks to his office in Taper Hall, his briefcase is a little heavier than normal. He slips in one or two more books from home each day to drop off at Doheny Library.
But the bookshelves in his office and home are far from bare. After this semester, he is going on sabbatical for a year “to do the most important book I’ve ever written,” Lazar said, “a book on 1,800 years of anti-Semitic propaganda, titled Satan’s Synagogue: The Formation of Anti-Jewish Persecution Language. His hundreds of books on the subject will see him through the project.
“I hope I can do it in a year,” he said. “I’m dealing with theology, with art, with theatre, with paintings, everything. Everything. I have more than a thousand caricatures of anti-Jewish images alone, from all over the world.”
Although he has written, edited, translated and published dozens of books, this one will be his magnum opus, the culmination of decades of scholarship.
“I don’t do it for promotion, I do it because it has to be said,” Lazar said with determination. “I’ve wanted to say it because I’m a survivor from the camps in Europe. I must do it, even if I have to work 20 hours a day.”
Born in Rumania and raised in Belgium, Lazar spent the years during World War II in French concentration camps and in hiding, separated from his parents, four brothers and a sister. Miraculously after the war, he and his family were reunited. He attended the Sorbonne as a penniless student and traveled to the new state of Israel in 1948, fighting in the War of Independence as well as in two subsequent Israeli wars in Sinai.
After receiving a master’s degree at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he was at the University of Salamanca in Spain when he became interested in Ladino, the language of Spanish Jews. He became a world authority on Ladino, saving and translating original manuscripts, which have text written in Spanish with Hebrew letters. The first one he rescued, a Jewish prayer book for women, dated to the late 1400s.
Lazar, who is fluent in 10 languages, including all the Judeo-Romance languages and dialects found in the texts, added commentaries to the works and published them in a collection he created, The Sephardic Classical Library, as well as his Henry J. Leir Library of Sephardica. These extraordinary Sephardic religious classics are found in libraries around the world.
Lazar also spearheaded efforts in 1984 to save the Jewish quarter of the city of Girona, near Barcelona, which was the birthplace of Jewish Kabala. The area, buried since the Spanish Inquisition, was about to be sold for a shopping center when Lazar led a group to preserve the quarter.
For his efforts, Lazar was given the insignia of the Order of Civil Merit of Spain. He also has been honored by the French government with a Chevalier des Palmes Academique.
Lazar, who holds a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne (his dissertation was on the literature of courtly love), taught at The Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University before coming to USC in 1977 as a visiting professor in the theatre department.
Two years later, he was the chairman of the comparative literature division, the department in USC College where he remains as a professor, teaching wide-ranging courses such as “Twentieth Century French Theatre” (which he teaches in French), “Don Juan and Faust in Literature, Film and Opera” and “Muslin, Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain.”
The USC Libraries Special Collections staff is well familiar with Lazar from his collaboration on exhibits such as “The First Renaissance of Europe: Sefarad, Al-Andalus, Espana. Three Cultures in Contact” in 2005.
Librarian Barbara Robinson, curator for Iberian and Latin American Studies, said that Lazar was not only generous with his time but decided to give the library many of his rare items that were displayed. “During the weeks of preparation of the exhibit, Moshe was truly bitten by the exhibit bug and immediately got the idea to do another exhibit on the Shoa,” she said.
At the Hebrew Union College, which was the recipient of most of his books in Hebrew, the institution honored Lazar at an event last December.
At the same time that he is giving away books, Lazar impishly admitted to creating more. From the antiquarian bookstores he visits in person and the rare booksellers on the Internet he browses electronically, Lazar unearths treasures such as several books he recently found from a bookseller in Buenos Aires. One was written in 1637, the other in 1656.
Lazar just finished republishing both works.
Now he is clearing his calendar and intends to retreat “maybe somewhere in isolation,” so he can work on the anti-Semitism book without interruption. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since I was in hiding. It is very special to me.”