A little over 40 years ago, one of the most influential books on Jewish history was published – Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, by noted Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, then a professor of Jewish history at Columbia University. While his name is Yerushalmi, he was, in fact, born in the Bronx and raised in New York City.
In Transmitting Jewish History: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in Conversation with Sylvie Anne Goldberg (Brandeis University Press), one meets Yerushalmi, both as a scholar and someone who is fascinating to listen to, given the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and his keen understand of many divergent topics.
What Yerushalmi dealt with in Zakhor is the inherent tension between memory and historical fact. For example, while there is no doubt that Baal Shem Tov lived, no one can rationally believe that every historical story attributed to him is true or even occurred.
Here, Sylvie Anne Goldberg (associate professor, Center for Historical Research and head of the Jewish Studies Program, School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris) had penned the output from a series of interviews with him before his death in 2009. Goldberg engaged with Yerushalmi on a wide range of subjects from his storied career, where he engaged with some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. From Rabbi Saul Lieberman and Gershom Scholem, to subjects such as history, Zionism, Jewish identity, and much more.
In short, this is a story of how a Jewish kid from the Bronx left a lasting impression in the hallowed hallways of Harvard and Columbia universities. The book reflects on what it means to be a Jew today. What was unique about Yerushalmi is that while he left traditional observance, he had a deep understanding of the core aspects of traditional Judaism, as he received rabbinical ordination from Lieberman in 1957.
His profound insights into what it means to be a Jew in modern times comes out in these fascinating interviews.