Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, 77, scholar of Jewish history

By Joseph Berger
New York Times / December 12, 2009

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NEW YORK - Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, a groundbreaking and wide-ranging scholar of Jewish history whose meditation on the tension between the collective memory of a people and the more prosaic factual record of the past influenced a generation of thinkers, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 77 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was emphysema, said his wife, Ophra, a concert pianist.

An elegant writer and a mesmerizing raconteur, Dr. Yerushalmi earned his reputation as one of his generation’s foremost Jewish historians by plumbing such eclectic subjects as the history of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, messianism, the intellectual history of modern German Jewry, and Freud’s relationship with his religion.

In 1982, Dr. Yerushalmi - then the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture, and society at Columbia University - published perhaps his most influential work, “Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,’’ a slim volume whose title bore the Hebrew imperative “Remember!’’

Barely 100 pages, “Zachor’’ was an examination of the conflict between the collective stories that invigorate Judaism as a culture and the verifiable chronicle of history itself. The critic Harold Bloom, reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, predicted that the book might “join the canon of Jewish wisdom literature.’’ Many scholars would argue that it has joined that canon, even if they interpret his thesis differently.

Dr. Yerushalmi was mindful, for example, that Jews at the Passover seder continue to imagine themselves present at the Exodus from Egypt, even as historians question whether there could have been 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea. If such stories fail to lose their inspirational power, Dr. Yerushalmi seemed to ask, what does that say about the power of history?

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic and a former student of Dr. Yerushalmi’s at Harvard, said Dr. Yerushalmi had been torn between the power of memory and the complexity of the historical perspective and had struggled to reconcile the two streams throughout much of his life, though perhaps not conclusively.

“History involves critical detachment; memory involves a deep immediacy,’’ Wieseltier said. Dr. Yerushalmi, he said, harbored “a deep ambivalence and a certain degree of pessimism about the ability of scholarship to nurture a living culture.’’

Dr. Yerushalmi received a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University in 1953 and a doctorate from Columbia in 1966, writing his dissertation on Isaac Cardoso, a 17th-century Marrano physician. He worked for a year as a rabbi at Beth Emeth Synagogue in Larchmont, N.Y. But he preferred a life of scholarship, starting out as an instructor at Rutgers and then becoming a full professor of Hebrew and Jewish history at Harvard.

In 1980, he was brought to Columbia by Salo Baron, a towering Jewish scholar who retired in 1963 but was still turning out volumes of Jewish history.

Many students of Dr. Yerushalmi became eminent historians.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University, said Dr. Yerushalmi’s special talent was “producing books that lots of people could read.’’ He cited “Haggadah and History’’ (1975), which showed how Jewish history could be studied by understanding different editions of the Passover book through time.

Among Dr. Yerushalmi’s other admired works are “From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto,’’ a 1971 study of the Iberian Jews, and “Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable’’ (1991).