On the surface, Duke’s recent acquisition of the collected documents of civil rights leader and theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is an academic and archival coup. The collection, which has never before been available to scholars, spans five decades and at least four languages, including notes and drafts for nearly all of Heschel’s published works, as well as intimate and extensive correspondence with some of the leading religious figures of his time.
But scratch a little deeper and you’ll find the threads of a friendship between two families that brought Heschel’s papers to Duke.
Those threads begin with Eric Meyers, Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of religion and director of the Duke Center for Jewish Studies. Meyers’ uncle, Marshall T. Meyer, was a student and longtime friend of Heschel’s who went on to become one of the leading voices for human rights in Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s. Meyers recalls babysitting for Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, when he visited his uncle in New York in the 1960s.
Although both Meyers and his uncle are alumni of Dartmouth College, Meyers found a home for his uncle’s papers at Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Susannah Heschel, also at Dartmouth as a professor of Jewish studies, spoke at the collection’s dedication in 2006. “She expressed very warm feelings for the impact that her father had had on Marshall,” Meyers says.
That put Duke in a favorable position to acquire the documents of her father, considered one of the most influential religious leaders of the past century. Heschel walked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, and was a leading figure in protests against the Vietnam War.
“Together, these two collections represent almost a century of social justice thought and action and provide an important connection between the civil rights and human rights movements,” says Patrick Stawski, human rights archivist at the Rubenstein library. They also represent a commitment to learning and history shared among friends. “Reuniting them archivally is an important achievement,” says Meyers.