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  • A Flawed Prophecy?Zakhor, the Memory Boom, and the Holocaust
  • Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Associate Professor of History

When it first appeared in 1982, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's Zakhor seemed an anxious book—anxious about the state of Jewish collective memory, about the alleged role of professional historians in weakening it, and about the future of Jewish historical consciousness overall. Twenty-five years later, it is clear that many of the anxieties that underpinned Zakhor were unfounded. Much of what Yerushalmi explicitly viewed with foreboding—most notably, the conquest of memory by history—has not come to pass. Ironically enough, the reverse has proven to be the case, as the discipline of history has faced an enormous challenge by the emergence of what has been called the memory "boom."1 Relatedly, and perhaps more significantly, Yerushalmi failed to foresee one of the controversial phenomena that has stood at the center of the memory boom: the dramatic growth of Holocaust memory. Especially in light of the concerns that these two trends have sparked within some Jewish circles in recent years, the anxieties that informed Zakhor seem today far less pressing than they did when the book first appeared. For these reasons, while [End Page 508] Zakhor has retained its reputation as a perceptive and erudite work of history, it may be viewed as a flawed work of prophecy.

As is well known, Zakhor offered a novel thesis about the overarching trajectory of Jewish historical consciousness from the biblical to the modern age. According to Yerushalmi, the Jewish view of history was originally a unified one that combined a mundane view of the Jewish people as active agents in history along with a metahistorical, mythic view of the Jews as a people whose historical experience was directly shaped by divine agency. During Antiquity, in other words, Jewish history and memory were fused. The frequent biblical injunction to "remember," and the ways in which "ritual and recital" were meant to reinforce memory, Yerushalmi argued, were all devoted to preserving an awareness of "God's acts of intervention in history," whether they be his liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage or his granting of the Mosaic Law.2

With the destruction of the Second Temple, the loss of national sovereignty, and the onset of exile, however, the two strands of Jewish historical consciousness became separated and "the Jews virtually stopped writing history" (p. 16). Now, when they experienced mundane historical events, the Jews interpreted (but rarely recorded) them in strictly metahistorical terms. During the rabbinic period, Jews displayed little interest in exploring recent history—for example, that of Rome or the Second Temple period—and instead preferred to perceive events as reflective of "the continuing intervention of God in history" (p. 25).3 In medieval Europe, similarly, Jews tended to assimilate new historical events into "old and established conceptual frameworks" and "familiar archetypes" (p. 36). As Yerushalmi memorably described it, the Jews developed a typological perspective in which

the latest oppressor is Haman, and the court-Jew who tries to avoid disaster is Mordecai. Christendom is "Edom" or "Esau," and Islam is "Ishmael." Geographical names are blithely lifted from the Bible and affixed to places the Bible never knew, and so Spain is "Sefarad," France is "Zarefat, [and] Germany is "Ashkenaz."

(p. 36)

Even radically new events, such as the Crusades, were ultimately seen through older archetypes, such as the binding of Isaac, and preserved [End Page 509] in memory not through the means of conventional historiography but religiously rooted vehicles like penitential prayers known as seliḥot, memorial books written for Yizkor services, and Second Purims, which celebrated the deliverance of Jewish communities from harm (pp. 45–46).

The only exception to this typological perspective, Yerushalmi pointed out, was a faint flame of Jewish historiographical activity that flickered in the sixteenth-century in the wake of the Spanish expulsions, as Jews tried to make sense of what seemed to many like an unprecedented catastrophe. But despite the publication of such pioneering works as Azariah de Rossi's history of the Jews, Me'or 'enayim, in 1575, which used profane, non-Jewish sources to rethink and ultimately cast doubt upon received rabbinic views of...


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