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Freud and the Marranos: How Yosef H. Yerushalmi Gave Voice to Jews Caught Between Worlds

Two new books explore the complex legacy and rich life of the great Jewish historian of conversos and Marranos

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(Original photo American Sephardi Federation via Center for Jewish History/Flickr)
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To those who studied with Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the great Jewish historian, the encounter was unforgettable. From his large and eternally smoke-filled office in Fayerweather Hall on the Columbia University campus, he turned the study of Jewish history into the most exciting, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan undertaking imaginable. Now, four years after his death in 2009, Yerushalmi is the subject of two recent books that explore his life and work: The first is a series of interviews conducted with Yerushalmi by the French Jewish scholar Sylvie Anne Goldberg and published in 2012 as Transmettre l’histoire juive (Albin Michel, 2012). With skill, patience, and sensitivity, Goldberg prods Yerushalmi to reflect on his evolution from a child, of two immigrant parents, who spoke virtually no English at the age of 5 to the most eminent and eloquent of Jewish historians of his generation.

The second book, which I co-edited with Alexander Kaye, The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History (Brandeis, 2013) mixes lesser-known writings with some of his classic essays. What emerges out of this mix is a clear link in Yerushalmi’s oeuvre between historical inquiry and Jewish identity. As a general matter, he was loath to declare his own religious or political proclivities. And he never sought the limelight as a public intellectual, believing that his training had equipped him to speak authoritatively about history, not contemporary affairs. At the same time, Yerushalmi had deep and entwining commitments as a Jew and as a historian that come through with ever-greater clarity.

His own life journey followed a southward route through different intellectual zones of Jewish New York. His formative years were in the Bronx, where his Russian Jewish parents, who spoke to him in Yiddish and Hebrew, raised him. Yerushalmi recalls the colorful ambience in a brief autobiographical reflection in The Faith of Fallen Jews: “The entire neighborhood was Jewish, not necessarily orthodox, but Jewish to the core, mostly from Eastern Europe, traditionalists and secularists, Zionists, Bundists, and Communists, all perpetually and passionately debating, but friends nonetheless.” Although his family was not observant, Yerushalmi himself was sent to religious schools, including the Salanter Yeshiva in the Bronx and the Manhattan Talmudic Academy, where he gained the foundation for his wide knowledge of biblical and rabbinic texts.

Yosef Yerushalmi

Yosef Yerushalmi graduated from Yeshiva University in 1953. (Columbia University Archives)

Faced with the choice of abandoning the dissonance between his home and school life, Yerushalmi made a surprising decision. Upon graduation from high school, he opted to head south to study at Yeshiva College. There Yerushalmi, who was not a consistently observant Jew, left a mark among his fellow students, not so much for his prowess in Jewish studies as for a set of distinctive traits. His yearbook entry noted facetiously that Yerushalmi’s accent derived from “a Cambridge-tinged area of the Bronx.” The entry added that “verbosity combined with a natural belligerence in argument make him a good bet for the law profession.” Indeed, after completing his degree in English with honors, Yerushalmi seriously considered the study of law.

Instead he remained within the Jewish world, making his way further south to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) on 122nd Street where he commenced his training as a Conservative rabbi in 1953. Similar to his experience at Yeshiva College, Yerushalmi did not fully identify with the mission of the Conservative seminary; he wasn’t particularly interested in the rabbinate. He did, however, relish the prospect of studying with some of the world’s leading Judaica scholars, like Saul Lieberman, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and Shalom Spiegel. While at the seminary, he also took a seminar with a visiting professor from neighboring Columbia University named Salo Baron.

Baron’s example prompted Yerushalmi to head six blocks south to make the third stop on his educational journey in upper Manhattan. While serving for a brief spell as a pulpit rabbi in Larchmont, N.Y., to make ends meet, he matriculated in 1957 at Columbia to study Jewish history with Baron. His initial research, culminating in his master’s thesis, was devoted to the Middle Ages, particularly 13th-century France, where the institution of the Inquisition made its debut to stamp out the dualist movement known as the Albigensian heresy.

It is essential to recall, as Yerushalmi often clarified, that the Inquisition was not directed against Jews, but rather against those suspected of heresy against Christianity. A small number of former Jews, forcibly converted to Christianity in the 13th and 14th centuries, fell under the purview of the Inquisition.

Yerushalmi’s interest in the Inquisition’s pursuit of this small group grew into his more sustained attention to the institution of the Inquisition in a different context: Spain, which, from the late 14th century, witnessed waves of mob violence that broke out and led to the forced conversion of tens of thousands of Spanish Jews. Yerushalmi was fascinated by this new class of Spanish conversos, who became subject to the withering justice of the Inquisition in 1478. He devoted his doctoral dissertation to the story of one interesting member of the converso class, the Portuguese-born court physician Isaac ( Fernando) Cardoso, who fled the Iberian Peninsula ahead of the Inquisition to assume a full and open Jewish life in Italy. The dissertation was a richly textured portrait of the radically divergent lives of Fernando and Isaac Cardoso, one and the same man, as he moved from the secret knowledge of his Jewish origins in Madrid to active embrace and defense of Judaism in Verona. Yerushalmi’s dissertation earned him an appointment as an assistant professor at Harvard in 1966 and became the basis for his award-winning first book From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto (1971).


The subtitle of Yerushalmi’s book reveals a clue to one of the animating themes that accompanied him from his first steps as a Jewish historian to his last: “A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Apologetics.” What is “Marranism”? It derives from the derogatory Spanish term for swine, “marranos,” applied to the Jewish converts in Spain. But what did the abstract concept Marranism convey? For Yerushalmi, among other scholars (for example, the late Richard Popkin and Yirmiyahu Yovel), the term captured the distinctive sensibility of those Iberian conversos who dwelt between the poles of authority of rabbis on one hand, and priests on the other. Prohibited from manifesting any ongoing connection to Judaism (and hence at a remove from rabbinic jurisdiction), thousands of conversos from the late 14th century on preserved some measure of Jewish belief or practice in the privacy of their homes. At times they did so consciously; in other cases they simply replicated unknowingly what their parents and grandparents had performed before.

Inhabiting this netherworld emboldened the conversos to create their own forms of religious ritual, meaning, and identity. This was the space of Marranism, a space of secrecy, spiritual quest, and skepticism. Yerushalmi captured this complex and contradictory space in the introduction to From Spanish Court by noting “an inner deprecation of Christianity as idolatrous,” on one hand, and “a tendency toward messianism,” on the other. It was also a space of initiative, innovation, and iconoclasm in which Marranos crafted their own religious and cultural world.

The Marrano condition was one of marginality, divided loyalties, and heightened critical acumen, all qualities that Yerushalmi identified in Jews of his time and place.

Yerushalmi’s attraction to this world began early in life. He recalled receiving as a young boy of 10 a Yiddish biography of the great Portuguese Jewish courtier and scholar Isaac Abravanel. Yerushalmi was captivated by Abravanel’s compelling story: the scion of a Jewish court family in Portugal who served the Portuguese king until forced to flee to Spain where he also served the royal family until the Edict of Expulsion of 1492. Rather than accept the baptismal waters, Abravenel fled to Italy where he lived the remaining years of life penning works that cast the cataclysm of expulsion in messianic terms.

From this first encounter, Yerushalmi was fascinated by the drama of the Spanish Jewish experience. His own existence as a Jew from a secular home who came of age in observant Jewish institutions (Salanter, Yeshiva College, and JTS) may have deepened his empathy for the Marrano. For he was, in a sense, a reverse Marrano, harboring inner doubt while living in the public domain of normative Jewish practice. Likewise, spending a number of extremely formative years in graduate school on the Upper West Side exposed him to latter-day manifestations of Marranism—Jews of uncommon creativity and a pronounced sense of Jewish disaffection. In this sense, Yerushalmi came to understand the Spanish or Portuguese Marrano not as sui generis in history, but as the prototype and emblem of Jewish modernity. The Marrano condition was one of marginality, divided loyalties, and heightened critical acumen, all qualities that Yerushalmi identified in Jews of his time and place.

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Freud and the Marranos: How Yosef H. Yerushalmi Gave Voice to Jews Caught Between Worlds

Two new books explore the complex legacy and rich life of the great Jewish historian of conversos and Marranos