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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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Curiously, Yerushalmi continued his quest to understand Marranism even as he shifted his scholarly orientation from the study of Spanish Jews to the study of Sigmund Freud. This move coincided with his decision to leave Harvard University after 14 years in 1980 to return to New York to assume the new Salo Baron Chair in Jewish History at Columbia. Shortly after arriving in New York, Yerushalmi was invited to join a group of psychoanalysts that had decided to examine the causes of anti-Semitism. He used his involvement with this group as a prod to undertake an exhaustive review of the writings (first in English, then in German) of Sigmund Freud. To a great extent, he recognized in Freud the profile of the Marrano—a figure largely cut off from a living connection to his people, yet straining to find a meaningful link.

Yerushalmi came to Freud with a wide range of skills—as an unusually gifted historian, a one-time analysand, and an admirer who feared that his subject had been deeply misunderstood. Exhibit A was the reception of Freud’s last major book Der Mann Moses from 1939, translated into English as Moses and Monotheism. Freud’s provocative claims—that neither Moses nor monotheism was Israelite in origin and that the Israelites killed Moses, who had transmitted to them their monotheistic creed—were seen as evidence by many Jews of his time that the great doctor had descended into self-hatred.

Yerushalmi used the occasion of the Franz Rosenzweig Lectures at Yale in 1989 (later published in 1991 as Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable) to disprove this claim. First he argued that Freud was a far more knowledgeable and literate Jew than was commonly thought. As evidence, Yerushalmi pointed to the lavish and allusive Hebrew inscription that Freud’s father inserted into the Bible that he gave as a gift on the occasion of Sigmund’s 35th birthday. Yerushalmi gleaned further evidence of the depth of Freud’s Jewish connection from the discovery of two kiddush cups in Freud’s antiquities collection (discussed in an essay in The Faith of Fallen Jews). He built on this evidence to make a second argument: namely, that Freud’s goal in Moses and Monotheism was hardly to deprive Jews and Israelite monotheism of their primogeniture, but rather to identify a key source of Jewish continuity: memory. According to Yerushalmi’s reading of Freud’s reading of Moses, the ancient leader’s death at the hands of the Israelites prompted, after a number of centuries, the return of the repressed message of monotheism. This return induced a powerful sense both of guilt and responsibility. Above all, it demanded of Jews a deep and abiding connection to the Mosaic tradition. Hence, Freud was not intent, Yerushalmi argued, on ridding the Jews of their founding leader, but of affirming their perdurance through memory of him. Stated otherwise, Moses and Monotheism was not Freud’s farewell to his Jewishness, but rather “its triumphant vindication.”


At the outset of his discussion in Freud’s Moses, Yerushalmi attempted to situate Freud in the context of modern Jewish history. Noting the manifold ways in which modern Jews have identified themselves, he categorized Freud as an exemplar of a distinctive and new Jewish type: the Psychological Jew. This genus was, to a great extent, an extension of the Marrano profile that he had drawn in his earlier studies. Thus, the Psychological Jew was marked by “(i)ntellectuality and independence of mind, the highest ethical and moral standards, concern for social justice, tenacity in the face of persecution.”

Yerushalmi was repeatedly drawn to instantiations of this stubborn, lonely, and often brilliant figure—and probably not by coincidence. Something resonated in his own being with the plight, but also the possibilities for creative innovation, of the Psychological Jew. And yet, while he may have recognized himself in that character, he is perhaps better seen as a representative of a close family relation: the Historical Jew. The modern Jewish historian, as Yerushalmi wrote in his most famous book Zakhor (1982), stood at the edge of the breach, observing the rupture of modernity with full powers of empathy and critical distance. If previous chroniclers of the Jewish past, those who lived before the Enlightenment, understood their task as stokers of collective memory, the modern historian stood by somewhat helplessly, clinging to that which he knew best: the quest for objectivity. He could only record with dispassion the minute details of the past, missing both the bigger picture and larger meaning of what had transpired. “Memory and modern historiography,” Yerushalmi concluded dolefully, stand “in radically different relations to the past.”

In his poignant discussion of the modern historian, which it is virtually impossible not to read as autobiographical, Yerushalmi was continuing his sweeping excavation of the Marrano type in modern Jewish life. Repeatedly drawn to figures caught between competing worlds and sensibilities, he saw the modern historian—and himself—as the latest link in the chain. But, intriguingly, it was not just that the historian was witness to the abyss of modernity. She also yearned to break free of the shackles of the discipline, to connect to the past in a more vibrant way. Almost out of nowhere, Yerushalmi pronounces at the end of Zakhor: “The burden of building a bridge to his people remains with the historian.” He often professed the desire to write a wide-ranging history of Jewish hope, referring to the daily mechanisms of adaptation and survival that sustained Jews—as distinct from the explosive force of messianism that erupted from time to time.

One of the most interesting and self-reflective occasions on which Yerushalmi expressed this hope was a little-known commencement address (included in The Faith of Fallen Jews) that he delivered in 1970 at Hebrew College in Brookline, Mass. Bearing the clear traces of the Zeitgeist, his address was titled “A Jewish Historian in the ‘Age of Aquarius,’ ” alluding to the hit song from the play Hair. As against those in his day (and before) who reveled in the prospect of a revolutionary moment that erased the past, he called for a more textured and sympathetic relationship to history. In order “to know ourselves as Jews and build a Jewish future,” he wrote, “we must consciously carry a Jewish past within us.” The historian here had a special role to play in connecting past and future. Yerushalmi spelled this out by evoking the words of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, the German-American philosopher and historian who, consistent with that recurrent theme of interest in Yerushalmi’s work, converted from Judaism to Christianity: “The historian is the physician of memory. It is his honor to heal wounds, genuine wounds.”

Perhaps more than any other, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi embodied the predicament of the modern Jewish historian, at once wedded to the work of critical dissection mandated by the profession and yet yearning to generate meaning out of the past, to be a physician of memory. More generally, the predicament of being caught between worlds was one that he studied with extraordinary skill in early modern Iberian New Christians, that he recognized so clearly in Freud (and his beloved Kafka), and that he wrote of with unsurpassed insight and eloquence.


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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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