Remembrance of Jews’ Past

Yosef Yerushalmi’s ‘Zakhor’ Remains as Relevant as Ever

Speak, Memory: One of our most prolific and profound writers on Jewish history, Yosef Yerushalmi died in 2009.
Courtesy The Jewish Museum
Speak, Memory: One of our most prolific and profound writers on Jewish history, Yosef Yerushalmi died in 2009.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published September 14, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

This turn of events appalled most professional historians, who found themselves isolated and largely ignored. But it may well be that our profession was wrong to ignore the great emotional and psychological stakes involved. There is a vast difference between a monograph and a museum exhibit, after all. We, too, must learn from history. First, we must acknowledge not just the reality, but also the legitimacy of collective memory. The emotional bonds of memory cannot be broken by rational and balanced inquiry.

Nor should they be. The “mystic chords of memory,” as Abraham Lincoln recognized, have a deep and genuine claim to our hearts. They shape our sense of who we are and where we need to go as a people. The task of historians is to assist in what Lincoln, in that same inaugural address, declared to be the duty of all Americans: “to think calmly and well” about the subjects that have so deeply polarized our nation.

It often appears that the one place we can “think well” is in the quiet halls of the academy. But these halls are quiet because few laymen ever visit them, and even fewer care what takes place in them. As a result, historians must broaden the conversation beyond our classrooms to extend to our communities. If we fail, we will concede the past to those content to invoke memory alone. And then, we will better understand Yerushalmi’s warning that our choice “is not whether or not to have a past, but rather — what kind of past shall one have.”

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • 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.