Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, a groundbreaking and wide-ranging scholar of Jewish history whose meditation on the tension between collective memory of a people and the more prosaic factual record of the past influenced a generation of thinkers, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 77 and lived in Manhattan.
An elegant writer and mesmerizing raconteur, Dr. Yerushalmi earned his reputation as one of his generation’s foremost Jewish historians by plumbing eclectic subjects like the history of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, messianism, the intellectual history of modern German Jewry and Freud’s relationship with his religion. In 1982, Dr. Yerushalmi, then the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture and society at Columbia University, published perhaps his most influential work, “Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” a slim volume whose title bore the Hebrew imperative “Remember!”
Barely 100 pages, “Zachor” was an examination of the conflict between the collective stories that invigorate Judaism as a culture and the verifiable chronicle of history itself. The critic Harold Bloom, reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, predicted that the book might “join the canon of Jewish wisdom literature.” Many scholars would argue that it has joined that canon, even if they interpret his thesis differently.
Mr. Bloom, in his review, wrote that Dr. Yerushalmi worried that in the modern age “Scripture has been replaced by history as the validating arbiter of Jewish ideologies,” and that the replacement “has yielded chaos.”
Elisheva Carlebach, Dr. Yerushalmi’s successor as Salo Baron professor at Columbia, said Dr. Yerushalmi had encouraged scholars to treat collective memory itself as a subject of research. “He recognized that what’s important is remembered and that this becomes part of the consciousness of people,” she said. “Whether archaeologists can or cannot verify is a separate question on a different level.”
Saturday, December 12, 2009
The New York Times has a nice obituary on Yosef Yerushalmi, who passed away earlier this week: