Maintaining Jewish faith: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s collected essays

He was for many decades the dashing Jewish prince of new historians who came of age shortly after the Holocaust already heartsick and shell shocked from what had just happened.  He was also already thinking about how he might write a new script that looked at Jewish suffering through a different lens.  Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi never had a definitive game plan, he knew only that he felt compelled to look where others hadn’t.  His two masterworks, “Zakhor Jewish History and Jewish Memory” (1982) and “Freud’s Moses  Judaism Terminable and Interminable” (1991), won him tremendous critical acclaim for the provocative questions it sparked among Jewish academics. 

He died at 77, in 2009, after a spending a lifetime writing and teaching and mentoring a generation of new historians who would take their places at the nation’s most prestigious universities.  He spent his time at Columbia and then Harvard and then Columbia again.  He was always anxious about the future of his fellow Jews, and this is evident in every sentence he wrote.  He also feared that his own work might somehow accidentally cause further rupture, and he worried about causing harm.  But his work possessed the zealousness and poetic beauty of a driven man who believed he saw what others didn’t, and this fueled his pursuit with an inspired frenzy.

Yerushalmi flirted briefly with becoming a lawyer, but wound up at Yeshiva University before attending the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained as a rabbi.  He worked at a synagogue in Larchmont, N.Y. for a short time, but never with the intention of making it his vocation.  He was drawn to studying medieval Jewish history, looking at the ways Jews of that era found ways to survive against harrowing odds.  Often this involved endearing themselves to the various royal courts, or publicly converting but practicing their religion in private. 

These Jews were known as the Marranos, and many of the finest essays in this new volume of his work, “The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History,” edited by David N. Myers and Alexander Kaye (Brandeis University Press/The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry), examine how they lived.  Myers, once Yerushalmi’s doctoral student at Columbia and now a distinguished professor of Jewish History at UCLA, brings to it his perceptive scholarship on Yerushalmi, whom he has studied for decades.  Myers claims that Yerushalmi never abandoned his hope for a vibrant future for the Jews. 

Yerushalmi grew up in the Bronx with his Russian immigrant parents who allowed him to choose his own path but only after receiving firm grounding in the Bible and the Talmud and the rabbinical commentaries.  His parents arrived in the 1920s, hoping their only cherished son could escape the traumas they had each endured.  And for the most part, he did.  He is remembered by many as a very private man.  Some recall he could be prickly at times and that he was always smoking.  A classmate at Yeshiva University seems to suggest that Yerushalmi spent his early twenties experimenting with various identities, uncertain perhaps as to where he belonged.  He changed his name from Josephy Hyman Erushalmy to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi for reasons that remain mysterious.  Myers guesses that perhaps it was his way to pay tribute to the modernist Yosef Hamim Brenner.

Myers believes that Yerushalmi’s strength lay in his refusal to make any grand assumptions about truth or redemption, but rather to search elsewhere for revelation.  He thinks the underlying question beneath all of Yerushalmi’s work is this one: “Can Jewish identity survive the modern secular age, with its impulse to dissect and atomize the past?”

I believe Yerushalmi was looking for something to replace Judaism, although he never would have said so aloud.  Not replace it really, but change it into something accessible for modern Jews.  But what?  And at what cost?  He told an interviewer late in his life that he once sought the counsel of a Jungian therapist in Israel.  He recalled sitting in her Haifa apartment on the floor and throwing loose coins into the air for reasons he could not precisely remember.  But it is clear from his own story that he experienced periods of doubt and confusion. 

And Yerushalmi spent years obsessed with Freud, perhaps seeing in Freud’s life a mirroring of some of his own conflicts.  After all, both men were strong and opinionated trailblazers who wished to be free of external restraints regarding their own intellectual pursuits.  Both were forced to wear two faces for the world, one for non-Jews and the other for their fellow Jews.  Both were held back by anti-Semitism in the elite realms they wished to enter.  And both were haunted by their parents’ suffering.  Freud tells a harrowing story about listening as a young boy to his father tell him about having his hat knocked violently off his head by a Gentile thug while walking down the street.  When young Freud asked his father how he responded, his father told him he picked up his hat and left, which left Freud feeling ashamed by his father’s passivity. 

Yerushalmi spoke about his father’s departure for Palestine during the early 1920s, and his work on a kibbutz.  He had come to Palestine with one of his brothers, who soon left to go back to Russia to get their father but neither returned — both victims of anti-Zionist assaults.   As were his father’s many other siblings.   His father soon contracted malaria and left for America, where he was able to recuperate with a friend.

In Yerushalmi’s book on Freud he spends enormous time looking for clues that Freud had successfully become a modern assimilated Jew, but one who had not abandoned his roots.  He provides letters for us that Freud wrote to family and friends that reveal Freud’s essence as having remained essentially Jewish; even without God.  Near the end of his book on Freud, Yerushalmi bravely drops his professional mask and speaks directly to the already dead Freud, seeming to almost expect he might get a response.  He says to Freud: “I think in your innermost heart you believed that psychoanalysis is itself a further, if not final, metamorphosed extension of Judaism, divested of its illusory religious forms but retaining its essential monotheistic characteristics, at least as you understood and described them.  In short, I think you believed that just as you are a godless Jew, psychoanalysis is a godless Judaism.”  I believe Yerushalmi believed this as well for a time, but worried that just believing in psychoanalysis would remove something vital from Judaism even if he couldn’t yet say precisely what that was.

Yerushalmi understood the rigors and discipline required by Judaism, but lived the life of a modern Jew free to choose which rules and rituals he would follow.  His childhood home was bathed in Jewish thought and learning, but it was not an observant one.  We can sense his connection and loyalty to both the ancient world and the modern one — the world of the psychological Jew.  He describes the Jewishness of the psychological Jew as a man who seems, “at least to the outsider, devoid of all but the most vestigial content; it has become almost pure subjectivity.  Content is replaced by character.  Alienated from the classical ancient texts, Psychological Jews tend to insist on inalienable Jewish traits.  Intellectuality and independence of mind, the highest ethical and moral standards, concern for social justice, tenacity in the face of persecution…these are among the qualities they will claim, if called upon as quintessentially Jewish…Psychological Jews tend to be sensitive to anti-Semitic prejudice in a particular way.  Floating in their undefined yet somehow real Jewishness, they will doubly resent and fiercely resist any attempt on the part of the surrounding society to define them against their own wishes.” 

In this excellent new volume of Yerushalmi’s best essays, he writes about Isaac Cordoso, who was born a New Christian in Portugal in the first year of the 17th century.  Cordoso’s family had been forced to convert under the threat of death generations ago during the time of the Inquisition.  But, disturbingly, they were still labeled as “New Christians,” and forced to live under restrictions not applicable to other Gentiles even though they had given up Judaism and been baptized.  They were still seen as a threat; a more dangerous one since now they were somewhat on the inside of the Gentile world.  Cordoso decided to leave his comfortable position as a royal physician and return to Judaism even though he knew almost nothing about it. 

Yerushalmi is drawn in an almost romantic fashion to Cordoso’s determination to live an authentic life at great personal cost.  He discusses how difficult it was for many New Christians to return to Judaism, and is impressed with their strength of mind.  He tells us how some submitted themselves to penitential flogging.  Others remarried in Jewish ceremonies to validate their union.   The men were circumcised and many changed their names to Jewish names.  Some had difficulty dealing with the severity of rabbinical authorities.  Yerushalmi tries to understand  them.  He quotes the poet Joao Pinto Delgada who himself returned to Judaism in France during the 15th century explaining that his parents in Portugal had somehow planted in his soul “The tree of the most Holy Law whose fruits were late in coming.”

In one essay, Yerushalmi explores how Jewish history was recorded for centuries.  He explains that by around the year 100 of the Common Era, the Jews almost seemed to have stopped writing even sacred history.  Then, for another 15 centuries, there is almost no historical record other than what has already been recorded.  The rabbis who formed the Judaism we know today seemed to have lost all interest in what they viewed as mundane history and focused exclusively on the oral law and trusted in the covenant.  So that Roman history, Parthian history, and even the contemporary Jewish history of the Hasmoneans and the Herodians were for the most part ignored since they were not considered worthy of rabbinical history.  Oddly, Yerushalmi writes, “I do not happen to be among those who, even now, would fault medieval Jewry for writing relatively little history.  Far from indicating a gap or flaw in their civilization, it may well reflect a self-sufficiency that ours no longer possesses.” 

It almost impossible to believe Yerushalmi really believes this, since so much of his work was devoted to scavenging around for what wasn’t in the holy books but alive and pulsing in the homes of the Jews of ancient times.  How did they feel?  What was going on around them?  How did the Marranos hide their secret Jewish identities and what motivated them to do so?  How come the New Christians were never trusted and included among the Gentile majority?  These are the questions he repeated raises and hypothesizes about.  He must have felt frustrated by the gaps in Jewish history; the almost complete absence of personal testimonies.

But perhaps the motive for his reticence to criticize medieval Jews and the way the rabbis chose to record their history and their relationship with God lay elsewhere.  He seems to almost confess to a persistent schism that lingered in his thinking and admitted as much in Zakhor when he wrote this: “As a professional historian, I am a new creature in Jewish history.  My lineage does not extend beyond the second decade of the nineteenth century, which makes me, if not illegitimate, a least a parvenu within the long history of the Jews.  It is not merely that I teach Jewish history at a university, though that is new enough.   Such a position only goes back to 1930, when my own teacher, Salo Wittmayer Baron, received the Miller professorship at Columbia, the first chair in Jewish history at a secular university in the Western world.  More than that, it is the very nature of what and how I study, how I teach and what I write, that represents a radically new venture.  I live with the ironic  awareness that the very mode in which I delve into the Jewish past represents a decisive break with that past.”

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.