The Arty Semite

The Love Song of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

The American historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who died at age 77 in 2009 was author of “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory”; “Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable”; and “Haggadah and History,” among other key texts.

Yerushalmi was particularly appreciated in France, where Sylvie Anne Goldberg of l’École des Hautes Études organized a 2011 colloquium in his honor and produced two new homages published by Éditions Albin Michel: “History and the Memory of History”, articles from the colloquium, and “Transmitting Jewish History: Conversations with Sylvie Anne Goldberg.”. Goldberg explains that their exchanges were conducted in “Hebrew, English, and French” starting in 1987, although plans for a book began in earnest only around 2004. Getting to know Yerushalmi the man turns out to be enchanting, and “Transmitting Jewish History” contains some surprises. Among these is his admiration for the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, author of “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” as the “first person who gave [Yerushalmi] the desire to become a historian like him.”

Yerushalmi chose his profession around age twenty; during a visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, he was struck by the title of Paul Gauguin’s painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Answering the questions in this title became of great significance to the budding historian. Like Jorge Luis Borges, whom he cites, Yerushalmi’s devotion to books as a reader and collector makes some pages seem like the pronouncements of a disembodied Borgesian paragon who sees history as a text and even aspires to be a text himself.

A powerful advocate of the moral duty of historians, Yerushalmi nonetheless confesses to enjoying the historical fantasy of the stage and screen versions of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.”. There are also comic episodes, such as during a sabbatical year in Israel when Yerushalmi decides to consult an eminent Jungian analyst, Rivkah Scharf-Kluger, who sat with him, practicing I Ching divination in the Jungian style. Yerushalmi admits to asking himself: “What the heck are you doing, sitting on the floor of a Haifa apartment, throwing coins in the air in the company of an old lady?” His sense of the absurd also relishes a translation into Yiddish by Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok”), although Yerushalmi misattributes it to Bellow and sociologist Daniel Bell. On these and more profound questions, Yerushalmi enlightens and delights.

Watch a Paris tribute to Yerushalmi here and here.

And listen to the historian’s wife, the pianist Ophra Yerushalmi, a student of Claudio Arrau, perform Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” in 1976 with the MIT Symphony Orchestra led by David Epstein here.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Jorge Luis Borges, Peter Shaffer, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi



Find us on Facebook!
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.