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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

David N. Myers
February 10, 2014
(Original photo American Sephardi Federation via Center for Jewish History/Flickr)
(Original photo American Sephardi Federation via Center for Jewish History/Flickr)

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.

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.

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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David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and the Robert N. Burr Department Chair of the UCLA History Department.

David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and the Robert N. Burr Department Chair of the UCLA History Department.