History, Memory, and the Fallen Jew
edited by David N. Myers and Alexander Kaye
Brandeis University Press, 376 pp., $40
The publication of most of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s lesser-known essays and smaller writings, competently edited and informatively introduced by David N. Myers and Alexander Kaye, provides an occasion to reflect more generally upon the man and his work. Yerushalmi, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 77, was a pre-eminent—and certainly most widely known—Jewish historian of his time. Enamored with the study of ruptures, crises, and fissures, he was bent on enunciating the dilemmas of “fallen Jews,” ranging from the conversos of the Iberian peninsula to Sigmund Freud and, indeed, scholars like himself. Yerushalmi was as much a sensitive product of his fractured time as he was a key expositor of its predicament.
Although he resisted the postmodern winds blowing around him and possessed an erudite command of the Judaic tradition, Yerushalmi was unwilling and, more probably, unsuited to write a flowing coherent historical narrative such as the one that his beloved teacher Salo Baron had attempted. There are those who claim that Yerushalmi, always a complex, enigmatic man, simply lacked the energy and initiative to undertake such a task. It is true that apart from some important essays, he did not really follow up systematically on the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry and the Sephardi diaspora after his first book. Still, this is uncharitable and probably misses the main point. For Yerushalmi believed that a unified, meaningful account of the pattern of all of Jewish life was no longer possible. Baron’s monumental A Social and Religious History of the Jews was, he said, probably “the last serious attempt by a single historian to embrace the whole of Jewish history.” The time for overarching meta-narratives seemed to be over, even if, as he insisted, the search for discrete historical truths was not.