Memory and Its Discontents

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
University of Washington Press, 144 pp., $17.50

Leo Strauss, political philosopher and Hebraic sage, in 1962 wrote a long preface for the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion.1 Brooding on his book’s genesis, some thirty-five years after its composition, Strauss was moved to write his own intellectual elegy for German Jewry. In some sense, the preface is a classical essay on “Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” the subtitle of the eloquent and disturbing book by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi under review. Zakhor, the title, is the verb used throughout the Hebrew Bible whenever Israel is admonished: “Remember!” Strauss, a touch more implicitly than the Bible, also admonished us to remember:

The establishment of the state of Israel is the most profound modification of the Galut [the Diaspora or Exile] which has occurred, but it is not the end of the Galut: in the religious sense, and perhaps not only in the religious sense, the state of Israel is a part of the Galut. Finite, relative problems can be solved; infinite, absolute problems cannot be solved…it looks as if the Jewish people were the chosen people in the sense, at least, that the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem as a social or political problem.

Surveying the tradition of the critique of religion, early in his book on Spinoza, Strauss remarked on the Epicurean view of history:

Of past sorrows Epicurus takes no heed. He recalls his past only in so far as it is pleasurable. It is the decisive characteristic of the Epicurean that he is incapable of suffering from his past.

Nothing could be more un-Jewish, and one sees again why the great rabbis used “Epicurean” as a term of the greatest abuse. An Epicurean attitude toward memory is antithetical to Judaism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi is an exemplary Jewish historian of the Jews, and with Zakhor he becomes an exemplary theorist of the troubling and possibly irreconcilable split between Jewish memory and Jewish historiography. Zakhor is a small book; it has barely one hundred pages of text, but it may well be a permanent contribution to Jewish speculation upon the dilemmas of Jewishness, and so it may join the canon of Jewish wisdom literature.

Yerushalmi, Salo Baron’s successor at Columbia, is deeply learned in all of Jewish history, but particularly so on the Marranos (the Sephardic Jews who were forced in the fifteenth century to convert to Christianity but continued secretly to maintain Jewish life), on the Inquisition, and indeed on all of Sephardic Jewry. The origin of Zakhor is an earlier essay by Yerushalmi, “Clio and the Jews,” the crucial portions of which he has incorporated here. Reading his earlier books, one finds the reflective pattern that led him to Zakhor. From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto2 chronicles the career of Isaac Cardoso, a seventeenth-century Marrano physician and defender of Judaism. The kernel of Zakhor is already present when Yerushalmi broods on the trauma of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in…

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