Zakhor: Jewish History and Memory

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi


The Hebrew Zakhor—“Remember”—announces my elusive theme. Memory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous. Proust knew this, and the English reader is deprived of the full force of his title which conveys, not the blandly reassuring “Remembrance of Things Past” of the Moncrieff translation, but an initially darker and more anxious search for a time that has been lost. In the ensorcelled film of Alain Resnais the heroine quickly discovers that she cannot even be certain of what transpired “last year at Marienbad.” We ourselves are periodically aware that memory is among the most fragile and capricious of our faculties.

Yet the Hebrew Bible seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal. Altogether the verb zakhar appears in its various declensions in the Bible no less than one hundred and sixty-nine times, usually with either Israel or God as the subject, for memory is incumbent upon both. The verb is complemented by its obverse—forgetting. As Israel is enjoined to remember, so is it adjured not to forget. Both imperatives have resounded, with enduring effect among the Jews since biblical times. Indeed, in trying to understand the survival of a people that has spent most of its life in global dispersion, I would submit that the history of its memory, largely neglected and yet to be written, may prove of some consequence.

But what were the Jews to remember, and by what means? What have been the functional dynamics of Jewish memory, and how, if at all, is the command to remember related to the writing of history? For historiography, an actual recording of historical events, is by no means the principal medium through which the collective memory of the Jewish people has been addressed or aroused. The apparent irony is not limited to the Jews alone. It is our common experience that what is remembered is not always recorded and, alas for the historian, that much of what has been recorded is not necessarily remembered. […]

As a professional Jewish historian I am a new creature in Jewish history. My lineage does not extend beyond the second decade of the nineteenth century, which makes me, if not illegitimate, at least a parvenu within the long history of the Jews. It is not merely that I teach Jewish history at a university, though that is new enough. Such a position only goes back to 1930 when my own teacher, Salo Wittmayer Baron, received the Miller professorship at Columbia, the first chair in Jewish history at a secular university in the Western world. More than that, it is the very nature of what and how I study, how I teach and what I write, that represents a radically new venture. I live within the ironic awareness that the very mode in which I delve into the Jewish past represents a decisive break with that past. […]

There is an inherent tension in modern Jewish historiography even though most often it is not felt on the surface nor even acknowledged. To the degree that this historiography is indeed “modern” and demands to be taken seriously, it must at least functionally repudiate premises that were basic to all Jewish conceptions of history in the past. In effect, it must stand in sharp opposition to its own subject matter, not on this or that detail, but concerning the vital core: the belief that divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history, and the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history itself.

It is the conscious denial, or at least the pragmatic evasion, of these two cardinal assumptions that constitutes the essence of the secularization of Jewish history on which modern Jewish historiography is grounded. True, the revolution was already anticipated by Spinoza in the seventeenth century (“as for their continuance so long after dispersion and the loss of empire, there is nothing marvelous in it”)1 and in the eighteenth by Voltaire (“we shall speak of the Jews as we would of Scythians or Greeks”).2 But the notion that Jewish history is on the same level of reality as any other history, subject to the same kind of causality and accessible to the same types of analysis, did not find its way into actual historical writing until the nineteenth century. Long after an essentially secular view of world history had permeated ever-widening European circles, a providential view of Jewish history was still held tenaciously, albeit for very different reasons, by Jews and Christians alike. Indeed, it has far from disappeared even now. The reason for the lag is apparent. Of all histories, that of the Jewish people has been the most refractory to secularization because this history alone, as a national history, was considered by all to be sacred to begin with. […]

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 particular 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.”3

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 this. 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, some of which we have examined, the past was once made present. Therein lies the root of the malady. Ultimately Jewish memory cannot be “healed” unless the group itself finds healing, unless its wholeness is restored 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.

That much is, or should be, obvious, and can be laid aside. It is when we approach the historian with more modest and sober expectations, within his proper sphere, so to speak, that a deeper rift is revealed.

Memory and modern historiography stand, by their very nature, in radically different relations to the past. The latter represents, not an attempt at a restoration of memory, but a truly new kind of recollection. In its quest for understanding it brings to the fore texts, events, processes, that never really became part of Jewish group memory even when it was at its most vigorous. With unprecedented energy it continually recreates an ever more detailed past whose shapes and textures memory does not recognize. But that is not all. The historian does not simply come in to replenish the gaps of memory. He constantly challenges even those memories that have survived intact. Moreover, in common with historians in all fields of inquiry, he seeks ultimately to recover a total past—in this case the entire Jewish past—even if he is directly concerned with only a segment of it. No subject is potentially unworthy of his interest, no document, no artifact, beneath his attention. We understand the rationales for this. The point is that all these features cut against the grain of collective memory which, as we have remarked, is drastically selective. Certain memories live on; the rest are winnowed out, repressed, or simply discarded by a process of natural selection which the historian, uninvited, disturbs and reverses. The question remains whether, as a result, some genuine catharsis or reintegration is foreseeable. […]

[…] 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. To do so, however, the modern Jewish historian must first understand the degree to which he himself is a product of rupture. Once aware of this, he is not only bound to accept it; he is liberated to use it.


Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York, 1955), ch. 3, p. 55.

Cited by K. Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago, 1949), p. 110.

E. Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution (New York, 1964), p. 696.


Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), pp. 5–7, 81–103. Used with permission of the publisher.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 10.

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