Yerushalmi’s memories

by tobybee

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the great modern Jewish historian, died yesterday. Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was, as Jonathan D. Sarna described in a post to the H-Judaic listserv, “the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia from 1980-2008. Before then, he taught for fourteen years at Harvard, where he rose to become the Jacob E. Safra Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society. Yerushalmi was one of the most creative and influential Jewish historians of his day. His wide-ranging books — From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto, Haggadah and History, Zakhor, and Freud’s Moses — generated significant discussion and paved new areas of scholarly investigation,” and he trained a generation of Jewish historians.

It took me a few years to appreciate Yerushalmi’s work Zakhor. On my first reading, he just didn’t speak to me. It wasn’t that I particularly disagreed with his ideas, but they weren’t exciting. It was a couple of years later, when I was really engaging with ideas of movements of Jewish modernity, and the question of what it means to write Jewish history whilst fully embroiled in Western methods of historiography, that I found great utility in his ideas. And while I might still not be certain of how I feel about the ways he engages with divisions between history and memory I really like the work that he does with the Wissenschaft des Judentums – the project of writing Jewish history that was a part of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment. My own work has been to try to figure out how we, in the Melbourne Jewish community, are narrating the Holocaust: what historiographical practices are we engaging in, and formulating, in order to tell our histories. And what does it mean to take on the patterns of historical narration which the society in which we live, more broadly, utilises? This is a question which Yerushalmi dealt with. I thought about rephrasing what I have previously written about Yerushalmi’s work, but decided it’s probably best to just quote myself here…

The purpose of the Wissenschaft movement was to mould Jewish history within the same parameters of historiography practised in the Christian and secular societies which surrounded these European Jews. While non-Jews had written histories of Jews, the Wissenschaft movement involved the reclaiming of Jewish history. Yerushalmi argues that with the beginning of the Wissenschaft movement in the 1820s
“suddenly, there are no apologies [for writing histories of Jews]. History is no longer a handmaiden of dubious repute to be tolerated occasionally and with embarrassment. She confidently pushes her way to the very center and brazenly demands her due. For the first time it is not history that must prove its utility to Judaism, but Judaism that must prove its validity to history, by revealing and justifying itself historically.” (Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 84)
Yerushalmi here is pointing to the idea that these European Jewish communities were struggling to find their place in the larger societies. In order to find a place, they adopted the historiographical methods of those dominant societies. This was confirmed when he wrote that the new approach to historiography—that of the Enlightenment idea of history as scientific, known and verifiable—did not come “prior to Jewish historical writing or historical thought.” Rather, Yerushalmi wrote, “[m]odern Jewish historiography began precipitously out of that assimilation from without and collapse from within which characterized the sudden emergence of Jews out of the ghetto. It originated, not as scholarly curiosity, but as ideology, one of a gamut of responses to the crisis of Jewish emancipation and the struggle to attain it.” This “assimilation”, it was explained, was not negative, but rather was a response with a considerable history within the lifespan of the Jewish people.

Moreover, Yerushalmi commented that Jewish historians of the late twentieth century shared the same features, problems and attributes as historians more generally—they contributed something unique (a Jewish history) but were closely bound up in the dominant disciplinary practices. We can therefore understand that it has perhaps become a commonplace that Jews in modern Western societies adopt the historiographical practices of the dominant societies in which they live. As in the nineteenth century this was undertaken to attempt to resolve the problem of how to manage emancipation, so too today it is a product of the anxiety about where Jews can fit into the Western world, in the context of contemporary forms of antisemitism and pressures of assimilation.

And so we mourn Yerushalmi, for his memory is blessing. If you want to read a piece by David Myers, which was originally published in an edited collection Jewish History and Jewish Memory, about the important role of Yerushalmi’s work, then you can read it online here