By David N. Myers, UCLA
The American Academy for Jewish Research—and the world of Jewish studies at large–lost a towering figure with the death of our distinguished colleague, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, at the age of 77 on December 8, 2009. Yerushalmi was one of the most eminent scholars of Jewish history in the post-Holocaust age, renowned for his unique combination of erudition, analytical brilliance, and literary elegance. His wide-ranging studies left a profound imprint on a generation of students, over whom he presided with a unique Old-World authority. But his work also resonated with a wider lay readership in the United States, Europe and Israel, for whom he translated often arcane scholarly questions into central issues of contemporary identity.
Yosef Yerushalmi inherited the mantle of leadership in the field of Jewish history from his teacher, the legendary Salo W. Baron, with whom he studied and whose name adorned the chair that Yerushalmi held at Columbia University from 1980 to 2008. Unlike Baron, who authored scores of books, including the eighteen-volume Social and Religious History of the Jews, Yerushalmi wrote relatively few. But each of his works was a masterpiece of scholarship, the product of a meticulous, profound, and, at times, tortured writing process.
The effect was never a merely dispassionate historical description, but a creative inquiry into the past that resonated powerfully in the present. At the core of all of Yerushalmi’s work, from his first book on a Spanish converso to his last major study on Sigmund Freud, was a deeply personal fascination with the multiple and often competing strands of identity that constituted the modern Jew.
Born in the Bronx in 1932, Yosef Yerushalmi was raised in a home in which Hebrew and Yiddish were spoken alongside English. He received a traditional yeshivah education that afforded him an intimate familiarity with the classical sources of Judaism. As a young man, Yerushalmi also developed an insatiable appetite for general culture, with abiding interests in European literature and languages and classical music. He received his B.A. at Yeshiva College (1953) and rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary (1957), after which he began to serve as a congregational rabbi in Larchmont, NY.
Yerushalmi was not destined to remain a congregational rabbi for long. He commenced doctoral studies with Salo Baron at Columbia, writing his dissertation on Isaac Cardoso, a seventeenth-century Spanish Catholic intellectual and court physician who came to recognize his Jewish roots and abandoned his comfortable life in Madrid to live openly as a Jew in Italy. Based on massive research and written with novelistic verve, the dissertation became Yerushalmi’s first, award-winning book From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto (1971). On the basis of his dissertation, Yerushalmi was invited to teach at Harvard in 1966, where he remained for fourteen years and held the Jacob E. Safra Chair in Jewish History and Sephardic Civilization. There he taught a number of prominent students including Bernard Cooperman, Lois Dubin, Todd Endelman, Talya Fishman, Aaron Katchen, Hillel Kieval, Allan Nadler, Aron Rodrigue, Marc Saperstein, Jacob J. Schacter, Michael Stanislawski, and Leon Wieseltier. In 1980, Yerushalmi decided to return to his alma mater, Columbia, where he assumed the Salo W. Baron Chair of Jewish History, Culture, and Society, as well as the directorship of that university’s Center for Israel and Jewish Studies.
In his early career, Yerushalmi established himself as a leading scholar of Iberian Jewish history—and in fact earned tenure at Harvard on the basis of his Cardoso book. He retained an interest in this field throughout his career, producing a number of memorable articles on the “return” of Marranos to Jewish communities, Spinoza’s views about Jewish survival, the Lisbon massacre of 1506, and a comparison of Iberian and German racialism. He also maintained a career-long interest in Shevet Yehudah, the post-expulsion text of Solomon ibn Verga, for which he planned to produce a major new critical edition.
And yet it was a measure of Yerushalmi’s vast range and restless mind that he journeyed far beyond the Iberian Peninsula in his work. Even before finishing his dissertation, he devoted a 60-page study, later published in the Harvard Theological Review (1970), to the French Dominican Inquisitor, Bernard Gui. And five years after From Spanish Court first appeared, Yerushalmi traversed much of the terrain of Jewish history in his Haggadah and History (1975), a large and handsome survey of some two hundred haggadot that revealed the diverse forms and remarkable malleability of the central Passover liturgy.
Yerushalmi’s greatest contribution as a scholar, however, came in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982). An important adumbration of this renowned book came in a 1980 lecture he delivered in Jerusalem, “Clio and the Jews: Reflections on Jewish Historiography in the Sixteenth Century.” There Yerushalmi declared his desire to overcome “the reticence on the part of Judaic scholars to examine and articulate the latent assumptions of the enterprise in which they are engaged.” He then set out to upend this inhibition in Zakhor. This short volume not only covered — with characteristic erudition and lyrical grandeur — a vast historical time span; it essentially invented a new discourse in the field of Jewish studies: the discourse of history and memory. In the first three chapters of Zakhor, Yerushalmi discussed the ritual practices and texts that Jews used prior to the nineteenth century to forge a rich web of collective memory. That web was undone, he argued in the fourth chapter, by the new project of critical history, dispassionately dissecting the past rather than revering it. Indeed, history in its modern guise had become “the faith of the fallen Jew.” Beholden to history and yet detached from memory, the modern Jew was irretrievably caught between worlds.
The influence of Zakhor was enormous. The sharp distinction that Yerushalmi drew between history and memory prompted an entire generation of scholars to re-examine this relationship. At the same time, Yerushalmi’s probing meditations on the predicament of the modern historian initiated a new degree of reflexivity in the field of Jewish studies and beyond. Zakhor was widely acclaimed by critics in the United States, with especially noteworthy reviews of the book by Harold Bloom and Phillip Lopate. The book’s fame extended well beyond American shores, gaining new audiences in Europe and Israel. Yerushalmi himself spent increasing amounts of time in France and Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, where he befriended and was admired by prominent figures including Jacques Derrida, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Pierre Birnbaum in France, and Jan Assmann, Johannes Fried, and Jens Malte Fischer in Germany. It was as a result of Yerushalmi’s strong connections and notoriety in Europe that a number of collections of his essays were published such as Ein Feld in Anatoth (1993) and Sefardica: Essais sur l’histoire des Juifs, des marranes et des nouveaux chrétiens (1998).
In his final major book, Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable (1993), Yosef Yerushalmi continued to probe the relationship between history and memory, His provocative re-reading of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939) challenged criticism of that book as a renunciation of Judaism. Yerushalmi recast Freud not only as a student of, but also as a living link in, the chain of transmission of Jewish memory. The book served as a particular source of inspiration to Derrida, whose own work Archive Fever (1996) deeply engaged Yerushalmi’s Freud. Although the two were friends, Yerushalmi ultimately came to believe that Derrida was not sufficiently attentive to or respectful of the historical context that he drew around Freud.
The reader of Yerushalmi’s oeuvre cannot help but notice that his reclamation of Freud manifested a recurrent and deep identification with his subject —similar in kind to the empathy with which he engaged Isaac Cardoso and the modern historian of Zakhor. All of these figures in Yerushalmi’s work were joined by a common struggle: to make sense of the conflicting and competing strains of identity that make up the Jewish condition in the modern age. Yerushalmi’s own decades-long quest to understand this condition, which assumed particular poignancy in the wake of the Shoah, was an extraordinary contribution to Jewish studies, as well as to the world of letters.
In addition to his brilliance as a scholar, Yosef Yerushalmi was an orator and raconteur of rare talent. With a distinctive accent that was part Bronx and part Oxford, he knew how to hold his audiences rapt, whether in large lecture halls or the privacy of his study. But his proudest scholarly legacy was the long series of doctoral students whom he produced. (His Columbia students included Benjamin Maria Baader, Michael Brenner, Elisheva Carlebach, John Efron, Edward Fram, Jonathan Karp, Michael Miller, Nils Roemer, Marina Rustow, Daniel Schwartz, Nancy Sinkoff, and Magda Teter). Yerushalmi was a devoted and demanding teacher, famously intimidating but also compassionate and caring. Those whom he trained have gone on to positions of prominence in universities throughout North America, as well as in Europe and Israel. In the days after his death, many of them declared that they felt themselves orphans, bereft of the person who elevated the study of Jewish history to a level of sophistication and artistry barely conceivable before. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi is survived by his wife, Ophra, a concert pianist, and son Ariel and family.
David N. Myers, who is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, studied with Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi at Columbia from 1985-1991.