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Psantir, Iacob

(1820–1902), historian and musician. Iacob Psantir (originally surnamed Zelig) was born in Botoşani, Romania, where his father, Asher, worked as an interpreter for the nobleman Scarlat Calimachi, and then for the French consulate in Iaşi. An orphan at the age of 11, Psantir finished his education at the Israelite Confessional Elementary School in Iaşi, where he learned to pray in Hebrew; the rest of his education was in Yiddish.

At the age of 13, Psantir joined a musical band whose members were Gypsies and Jews. The fact that he played the dulcimer explains his pseudonym “Psantir” (a traditional name for a type of dulcimer). He became the band’s conductor, and traveled with the group throughout the Romanian principalities as well as to areas south of the Danube.

Persuaded that evidence of their ancient presence would play a significant role in Jews’ struggles to be granted civic and political rights, Psantir, while traveling, culled historical documents about Jews living in Romania. He copied tomb inscriptions and Hebrew documents, transcribed traditions and stories, and resorted to using rabbinical sources as well as Romanian historiography and press items. In 1879, Psantir’s name was included on a list of candidates to be granted Romanian citizenship, but the parliament rejected his petition. In accordance with a self-description on his citizenship application that claimed he was “the first historian of Romanian Jews,” Psantir wrote in Yiddish about Romanian Jewish subjects and sought a broad Jewish readership.

His first book, Sefer divre ha-yamim le-artsot Romanye (A Chronicle of the Romanian Countries), was published in 1871 in Iaşi, by the renowned printer and publisher Hersh Goldner (despite its Hebrew title, the book was written in Yiddish). Resorting to arguments considered questionable today, Psantir attempted to prove that Jews had been living in Dacia as early as the sixth century BCE. His account concluded with depictions of relevant events from the beginning of the sixteenth century. A sequel, Korot ha-yehudim be-Romanyah (A History of the Jews in Romania), was published in Lemberg (Lwów) in 1873. In this second volume, he described episodes from the end of the reign of Stephen the Great (1457–1504) through the crowning of the first king of Romania, Carol I (1866–1914), including information about a Jewish presence on these lands. Mazkeret Tsiyon (Ger., Andenken Zion [Memory of Zion]; 1877) includes a 37-page summary of Psantir’s first two books.

Psantir’s final Yiddish book, with the Hebrew title Sefer zikhronot (1890), contained the subtitle “The book of memories or the biographical depiction of the elderly who were hosted in the Maḥase la-Zekenim hospital in Bucharest from 1880 until the end of 1890,” and was interesting because of its autobiographical notes. In Romanian, he published Fermecătorul (The Charmer; 1886), a text that included a foreword by Moses Gaster. Psantir aimed in this study to combat superstition and especially false healers.

Iacob Psantir was a founding member of the Iuliu Barasch Historical Society, and under the aegis of this group, he continued his research on Jewish funerary monuments. He himself died as a patient of the Elizabeteu Jewish asylum for the elderly that he had helped to found. Today he is regarded as a pioneer in the fields of Jewish epigraphy and historiography in Romania.

Suggested Reading

Lya Benjamin, ed., Evreii din România în texte istoriografice: Antologie (Bucharest, 2002), pp. 49–55; Itic Kara, “Din trecutul istoriografiei evreilor din România: Iacov Psanter, pionier al valorificării izvoarelor ebraice,” Studia et Acta Historiae Iudaeorum Romaniae 2 (1997): 160–166; A. B. Yoffe, Be-Sadot zarim: Sofrim Yehudim be-Romanyah, 1880–1940 (Tel Aviv, 1996), pp. 41–46.



Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea