There are many within Jewry today who deplore the widespread decay of Jewish memory even while, perhaps symptomatically, sharing no real consensus as to its original or ideal content. Who then, can be expected to step into the breach, if not the historian? Is it not both his chosen and appointed task to restore the past to us all? Though he did not have the Jewish historian in mind, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy's description of the historical vocation might almost seem, fortuitously, to pose a particularly challenge to him. "The historian," he wrote, "is the physician of memory. It is his honor to heal wounds, genuine wounds. As a physician must act, regardless of medical theories, because his patient is ill, so the historian must act under a moral pressure to restore a nation's memory, or that of mankind. [1]

Yet those who would demand of the historian that he be the restorer of Jewish memory attribute to him powers that he may not possess. Intrinsically, modern Jewish historiography cannot replace an eroded group memory which, as we have seen throughout, never depended on historians in the first place. The collective memories of the Jewish people were a function of the shared faith, cohesiveness, and will of the group itself, transmitting and recreating its past through an entire complex of interlocking social and religious institutions that functioned organically to achieve that. The decline of Jewish collective memory in modern times is only a symptom of the unraveling of that common network of belief and praxis through whose mechanisms, the past was once made present. Therein lies the root of the malady. Ultimately, Jewish memory cannot be "healed" or rejuvenated. But for the wounds inflicted upon Jewish life by the disintegrative blows of the last two hundred years, the historian seems at best a pathologist, hardly a physician....

Those Jews who are still within the enchanted circle of tradition, or those who have returned to it, find the work of the historian irrelevant. They seek, not the historicity of the past, but its eternal contemporary nature. Addressed directly by the text, the question of how it evolved must seem to them subsidiary, if not meaningless.

An anti-historical attitude of a very different kind is expressed by those who have experienced modern Jewish existence as something so totally new that it demands the past be either forgotten or demolished. The deep ambivalence of modern Jews to the past is perhaps best discerned in modern Hebrew literature, which, even more than Yiddish or Anglo-Jewish letters, reflects the widest spectrum of modern Jewish sensibility. Here we find, on the one hand, the fiercest antagonism to the Jewish past, not as a personal idiosyncrasy, but a major theme that runs from the Haskalah to the present. One of the purest instances will suffice:

In the explosive short story by the Hebrew writer Haim Hazaz entitled Ha-Derashah[2] (The Sermon), a meeting of a kibbutz is held at which Yudka, who never speaks on such occasions, startles everyone by rising to unburden himself of thoughts he can no longer contain. Haltingly, at first he declares what has been gnawing at him:

"I want to state," Yudka spoke with an effort in low, tense tones, "that I am opposed to Jewish history."

And then, when his stammering gives way to an articulate fury: "I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about our ancestors' shame? I would just say to them: Boys, from the day we were exile from our land we've been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football."

And yet concurrently, modern Hebrew writers have been gripped often by an aching nostalgia for a vanished Jewish past. Both impulses are present, repulsion and attraction, rejection and a sense of loss, iconoclasm and grief. It is not simple.... Many Jews today are in search of a past, but they patently do not want the past that is offered by the historian. Yudka, who opposes Jewish history, has a past, only with an intermission of almost two millennia. It grinds to a halt with the fall of Masada in the second century, and resumes again with the return to Zion in the late nineteenth. What happened in between is for him a nightmare best forgotten....

The historian who thinks that all Yudka requires is a knowledge, easily assembled, that there was a rich and abundant Jewish life in the Middle Ages, or proof that Jews were far from passive in the face of history is mistaken. For the same stuttering Yudka who is opposed to history also has keen, if unsophisticated, historical instincts. For example, he at least knows viscerally that Zionism was a revolt against Jewish messianism, and that the national awakening and the return to the land are, in the words that Hazaz gives him, "no continuity but a break, the opposite of what was before, a new beginning."

To address Yudka meaningfully, and all the many modern Jews who have experienced the other radical "breaks" that modern Jewish existence has entailed, some reorientation is required. The task can no longer be limited to finding continuities in Jewish history, not even "dialectical" ones. Perhaps the time has come to look more closely at ruptures, breaches, breaks, to identify them more precisely, to see how Jews endured them, to understand that not everything of value that existed before a break was either salvaged or metamorphosed, but was lost, and that often some of what fell by the wayside can become, through our retrieval, meaningful to us....

Modern Jewish historiography can never substitute for Jewish memory. But a historiography that does not aspire to be memorable is in peril of becoming a rampant growth.


[1] Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution (New York, 1964), p. 696. [back]
[2] English translation of Hazaz's story by Ben Halpern, Partisan Review 23 (1956):171-87. [back]

From Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. University of Washington Press, 1982. Reprinted by permission of University of Washington Press.

MEMORY Table of Contents



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend