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  • Fiction and Memory:Zakhor Revisited
  • Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi (bio)

It is hard to overstate the influence of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's Zakhor on contemporary academic and popular constructions of Jewish history and memory; it is hard to imagine a scholarly endeavor or university syllabus in any area of Jewish studies that has not been affected by the book that started its life as the Stroum Lectures more than twenty-five years ago. Like Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, Edward Said's Orientalism, or Mikhail Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination, such a book changes forever the way we think about ourselves and our culture. Unlike these writers, however, all of whom address a large corpus of Western literature—and, indeed, redefine what is "Western" or "novel" in literary representations of "reality"—Yerushalmi limits himself to a specific ethnic canon and a longitudinal exploration of an essentialist premise. Even the Hebrew title, which belies the language of the volume itself, delimits the subject matter and the discourse.

The large theory set forth in this small volume has been debated, refined, and reconfirmed over and over again. And yet, as the library of theoretical material on collective memory has expanded, with recovered work by Maurice Halbwachs and Henri Bergson, augmented by the general contributions of Pierre Nora, Benedict Anderson, Homi Bhabha, Natalie Davis, and the more particularly Jewish focus of Amos Funkenstein, Yael Zerubavel, and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, one aspect of Yerushalmi's thesis that to the best of my knowledge has not been explored relates to the nature and place of the literary imagination.

The challenge is located in the fourth chapter, "Modern Dilemmas." Although Yerushalmi traces his theme with great authority from the classical biblical and postbiblical texts through his own area of expertise, medieval and early modern Jewish culture, he presents himself in the final chapter as the reincarnation of the historian who has reclaimed pride of place after two thousand years; his own greatest existential stake would presumably be, then, in the claims made in these pages. It is therefore [End Page 521] all the more curious that the chapter concludes with a strange meditation on the role of literature in the contemporary struggle between history and memory. Quoting extensively from Haim Hazaz's story "The Sermon" (Ha-derashah), Yerushalmi argues that Jews today have chosen "myth over history" (Zakhor, p. 991 ). In the monologue that takes up most of the story, the protagonist Yudke indeed insists that he is "opposed to Jewish history." Seizing the occasion of a public meeting to speak his mind to the central committee of his kibbutz (or moshav), this usually reticent, awkward, and rather inarticulate young man takes on, as he speaks, the rhetorical force of a Zionist ideologue arguing for an activist form of Jewish agency free of the shameful story of exile: "Class dismissed," he concludes his disquisition on the woeful chronicle of Jewish persecution and powerlessness. "Go out and play football" (p. 97).

What Yudke calls history—what Yerushalmi's teacher Salo Baron disparagingly called the "lachrymose" conception of Jewish history (p. 144, n. 31)—is actually closer to what Yerushalmi defines throughout Zakhor as collective memory. Yudke doesn't engage in such fine distinctions; making up in passion what he lacks in critical thinking, he refers to some consensual, self-congratulatory, and disempowered version of our "ancestors' shame," to use Yudke's words (p. 97)—history made by others and embraced in an ecstasy of martyrdom. Although Yerushalmi has taken great pains to describe historiography as a dispassionate, scientific, pragmatic, and critical endeavor, he takes Yudke's nomenclature at face value. This young man comes to represent for Yerushalmi Everyman in Hebrew literature and his harangue, Every Story. From his discussion of this slim piece of tendentious fiction, which was originally published in Hebrew in 1942, Yerushalmi generalizes that modern Israeli literature is indeed ahistorical, that "many Jews today are in search of a past, but they patently do not want the past that is offered by the historian" (p. 97). He goes on to claim that the image of the Holocaust, arguably the most significant historical event of our time, is being shaped...


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