The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History

From’s description of this 2013 book: “From his first book, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto, to his well-known volume on Jewish memory, Zakhor, to his treatment of Sigmund Freud in Freud’s Moses, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932–2009) earned recognition as perhaps the greatest Jewish historian of his day, whose scholarship blended vast erudition, unfettered creativity, and lyrical beauty. This volume charts his intellectual trajectory by bringing together a mix of classic and lesser-known essays from the whole of his career. The essays in this collection, representative of the range of his writing, acquaint the reader with his research on early modern Spanish Jewry and the experience of crypto-Jews, varied reflections on Jewish history and memory, and Yerushalmi’s enduring interest in the political history of the Jews.”

Here are some excerpts:

* Yerushalmi’s eminence, it must be noted, was not a result of the volume of his writing. In striking contrast to his doctoral mentor at Columbia University, Salo Baron, whose scholarly output was overwhelming, Yerushalmi was not an especially prolific writer. He was a careful guardian of quality control, a slow and meticulous craftsman, at times burdened by writer’s block and perhaps the anxiety of having the massively prolific Baron as his teacher. After producing a masterful monograph for his first book, Yerushalmi moved away from that genre, preferring relatively brief books, often first delivered in oral fashion. Zakhor, based on the Stroum Lectures at the University of Washington, was the most
famous example.

* After completing his B.A. at Yeshiva College, Yerushalmi headed further downtown to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), whose rabbinical program he entered in 1953. The source of attraction to him was not the prospect of becoming a rabbi but the fact it was “the best place in New York to study Judaism from a critical perspective.”15 The assembly of academic talent at JTS in this period was extraordinary and included Saul Lieberman, H. L. Ginsburg, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Mordecai Kaplan. Yerushalmi’s favorite mentor at JTS was the scholar of medieval Hebrew literature Shalom Spiegel, whom he remembered as the mythic “homo universalis” and who is perhaps best known for his multilayered analysis of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) in rabbinic literature in The Last Trial.16 The opportunity to work with the likes of Spiegel and Lieberman left an indelible imprint on Yerushalmi and solidified his desire to make the study of history his chosen path. It was at the Seminary that he also encountered as a guest professor a visitor from neighboring Columbia University who would have the most profound impact on Yerushalmi as a scholar: Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895–1989).

* Although he was well known as a scholar in the United States, Europe, and Israel, he did not believe that his historical knowledge bestowed upon him any particular right to speak out on issues of the day with regularity or in forums other than scholarly ones.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Jews. Bookmark the permalink.