From Academe to Activism 1902–40

  • Norman C. Tobias


Among the top ten agrégés des Lycées dans l’ordre de l’histoire et de la géographie named on 3 September 1902 was Jules Isaac, scholarship student in the faculty of letters of Paris. Following the concours d’agrégations, keen to renew the research pursued during his année de diplôme, Isaac applied for a bursary with assurances that it would be awarded. In response, the Sorbonne advised Isaac by correspondence dated 5 September 1902, “The Secretary of the Faculty of Letters has the honour of informing M. Isaac, further to direction from the Minister (2 September), that the budget for secondary education does not permit the grant of a bourse d’étude or de voyage to any agrégé in history, living languages and of science.” Isaac made the reasonable inference that the services of all ten newly minted agrégés d’histoire were required for secondary teaching and that he and Laure had better marry before the start of academic 1902–03. “When [Laure] married Jules Isaac,” according to the younger of their two sons, Jean-Claude, “she and he, united by the same goal, established a household animated by this sole religion: ‘faith in the divine virtue of creative realization.’ No other religion was ever admitted and [the divine virtue of creative realization] was the spiritual formation imparted to their children.” On 25 September 1902 (23 Elul 5662 in the Jewish calendar—one week before the onset of 5663), the rabbi of Saint-Étienne officiated at the marriage of Yaacov ben Avraham (Jacob, son of Abraham) to Rachel bat Moshe (Rachel, daughter of Moses). Thereafter, they awaited Jules’ nomination. The news that fellow agrégé Albert Thomas, top-ranked on the list, had departed for Berlin armed with one of these officially withdrawn bursaries, a travel bursary, did nothing to allay their anxiety. October passed without appointment. “For us,” recounted Isaac, “young and newly-married, for me who had neither bursary nor wages, the situation was becoming catastrophic…until the last days of November [20 November 1902], when I know not by what chance, a vacancy arose for the position of professeur d’histoire in Nice and by virtue of the concerted intercessions of Lavisse and Gréard, influential persons of the Université, I received the nomination, notwithstanding that the position was by no means one for debutants.” Years later Isaac would muse how different the course of his life might have been had he not obtained a teaching appointment. In 1898, at the close of his year of cagne at lycée Henri IV, following his second failed attempt to gain admission to Ecole Normale, a certain well-heeled cousin residing in Elbeuf had prevailed upon Isaac to come work for the family enterprise as there was no son to succeed him. “In response to my surprise and unease, he made the case how such a life of business, of freely-taken initiatives, of risk but also of large material gains, would be preferable to the meagre existence of a professor,” recalled Isaac, “however, I had not the slightest aptitude for what is called ‘les affairs’ while I had great aptitude, already demonstrated, for ‘les études’; the spiritual won me over the temporal.”

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© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Norman C. Tobias
    • 1
  1. 1.University of TorontoTorontoCanada

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