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  • Recalling Zakhor:A Quarter-Century's Perspective
  • David N. Myers, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History

This forum marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Based on the Stroum Lectures at the University of Washington, Yerushalmi's compact volume of 100 pages has had as significant an impact on the field of Jewish studies as any book over the past quarter-century. The book has attracted thousands of enthusiastic readers, many of them struck by the rare combination of historical erudition and literary lyricism. Readers have been dazzled by Yerushalmi's masterful historical command and ability to visit diverse epochs and texts of the Jewish past with intimate familiarity. They have also been drawn, with more than a tinge of self-interest, to Yerushalmi's reflections in the final chapter of Zakhor on the condition of the modern Jewish historian, that lonely figure who embodies, in his famous phrase, "the faith of fallen Jews."

For all the book's many virtues, its impressive reception may be due most to a thesis that has engaged and provoked scholars for decades. Yerushalmi posited that while Jews became, relatively early in their collective existence, "the fathers of meaning in history," they took no pride in and wasted no labor on the writing of history as a self-contained enterprise. To the extent that they related to the past, it was not with an eye to recording "what actually happened" but rather to affirming the uniqueness of their relationship with God. And they tended to do so not in the form of event-based chronicles but in liturgical and ritual repositories that affirmed that unique relationship.

Thus, for nearly two millennia, from Josephus to Jost, Jews abandoned the quest for historical knowledge in favor of a search for meaning in history. The result, according to Yerushalmi, was a rich mosaic of collective memory that, when unraveled, depicted an indisputably sacred history. The clear foil in this story is the modern historian, steadfastly devoted to the pursuit of a profane historical truth at the expense of "meaning." In seeking out the precise measurements of a particular [End Page 487] datum in a discrete historical context, the modern historian effectively dismantles the mnemonic mosaic of old. At that point, collective memory and critical history—hinted at in Zakhor's subtitle—are stretched to the point of rupture.

Yerushalmi's book has served as an important stimulus to both research and debate. A new generation of scholars followed in Yerushalmi's wake to analyze different modes of Jewish historical consciousness, and particularly, the contours, functions, and Tendenzen of modern Jewish historians. At the same time, leading historical practitioners challenged key features of Yerushalmi's argument. Whereas Robert Bonfil questioned Yerushalmi's explanation for the brief flowering of Jewish historical writing in the sixteenth century, Amos Funkenstein went even further in suggesting that Yerushalmi understated the historical consciousness of premodern Jews and overstated the detachment of the modern historian from collective Jewish concerns.

But whether one agrees with Yerushalmi or not, it is hard to deny that the book introduced a new set of questions and concerns—in fact, an entirely new discourse—to the field of Jewish studies and beyond. Indeed, the keen interest in the book evinced by figures such as Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, and A. B. Yehoshua, to mention but a few, attests to the depth and breadth of its impact beyond the precincts of Jewish history. To be sure, Yerushalmi's timing was superb. His focus on the question of collective memory coincided with a new wave of historical research (preeminently French) on the idea of "sites of memory" (lieux de mémoire), as well as a growing interest in the nature and challenges of remembering and representing the Holocaust. But it is Yerushalmi's bold formulation of the antipodal relationship of collective memory and modern history that set in motion an ongoing intellectual conversation that has shaped and enriched Jewish studies—and humanistic inquiry more broadly.

After a quarter-century of that conversation, the Jewish Quarterly Review thought it worthwhile to revisit Zakhor and the seminal questions it raises...


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