The Stakes of History

On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life

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David N. Myers
The Franz Rosenzweig
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The boundary between history and memory is contested. Some scholars argue that the critical study of the past should not be conflated with the storytelling and identity formation so often associated with collective memory. The history-memory question has been especially present in modern Jewish historical scholarship. And no one is more qualified to explore this intellectual terrain than David N. Myers. In this slim volume that emerged from his 2014 Franz Rosenzweig Lectures at Yale University, Myers makes a convincing case that the historian’s task is not exhausted by “the factual reconstruction of past events,” but should also embrace “historical recollection to inspire, ground, and craft memory” (74). 

From the outset, Myers signals his indebtedness to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, his mentor at Columbia University and author of the classic Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (University of Washington Press, 1982). With Zakhor, Yerushalmi launched a robust and extended conversation about the relationship of modern Jewish historiography to Jewish collective memory. The Stakes of History revisits these debates and critically engages Yerushalmi, whose contrast between history and memory Myers finds “overdrawn” (9). The work of modern Jewish historians “between the poles of empathetic storytelling and the critical sifting of sources” points to an important middle space, Myers contends, where dangerous myths can be combatted while new, more constructive memories can be created (16). It is in this middle space that Myers dwells as a historian and where he finds “fertile ground on which to construct a vision of the utility of history” (17).
The majority of the book explores how Jewish scholars have used the tools of critical history to not only advance our understanding of the past, but alsoto fortify historical consciousness and collective memory. Myers organizes his main chapters around three guiding themes—liberation, consolation, and witness—“that have prompted the modern Jewish historian to traverse the porous boundary between history and memory” (20).

Myers’s chapter on liberation is a rich exploration of how Jewish historians have “summon[ed] up the past to liberate or be liberated” (23). He considers a number of modern Jewish scholars who used the study of the past in the service of liberation, especially with the cause of political freedom and the quest for full civic rights for Jews. Focusing on the work of two contemporary female Jewish scholars, Gerda Lerner and Paula Hyman, Myers concludes the chapter with a discussion of liberation from patriarchal domination. He effectively shows how these “historians-cum-liberators” challenge the notion held by some purists that historians should scrupulously avoid presentist concerns. Without compromising exacting evidentiary practice, history can serve as “a powerful agent of change as well as preservation” (49–50).

Myers shifts from liberation to consolation in a moving chapter that shows how a host of Jewish thinkers from the biblical era to the present have used recollection of the past to console. He illustrates how “recognizing the travails of the past—and surviving them—was [for Jews] an important way of bearing the pain from them” (73). Lest the reader forget the overall theme of the book, Myers skillfully marshals this material to support the assertion that history and memory do not have to exist in an adversarial relationship; rather, in “recalling episodes of past despair and hope,” Jewish writers have “institutionalized memory.” Indeed, “historically informed memory became a prime repository of consolation” (52–53). 

Myers develops the book’s third guiding theme by “tracing the ways in which history and historians serve as witnesses” (75). After briefly discussing the importance of victim/survivor testimony in an era of horrific violence, Myers emphasizes the occasions upon which historians have taken the stand as expert witnesses in cases of mass violence. He ends the chapter with a section on the “judicialization of history” as revealed in historians’ roles in a number of trials involving Nazi war criminals and Holocaust deniers. Here Myers reveals a spectrum of views. There are those who understand the historian’s task as being “fundamentally unsuited to the legal process,” while others believe historians ought to serve as expert witnesses. Once again, Myers keeps the focus on history and memory. He cites Deborah Lipstadt’s warning that “a relativistic stance that credits all interpretations of the past as equally valid … points up ‘the fragility of memory, truth, reason, and history’” (97–98). Consequently, Richard Evans argues, the task of the historian must include laying “a solid building block of memory for the future” (98).

The Stakes of History concludes with a helpful summary of reflections on the task of historical scholarship. Myers leaves no doubt as to his stance. He rejects the “cloistered image” of the historian as an “isolated scholar buried under a mountain of historical data and severed from the vibrant currents of life.” Throughout the book, Myers supplies scores of examples of historians who have “moved beyond the simple task of describing” in order “to instruct, reproach, and instill memory” (101). And in the book’s closing pages, he draws from his own views on Palestinian self-determination to suggest ways in which history might serve as a tool of reconciliation.

Though brief in length, this is an amazingly dense volume revealing the author’s mastery of Jewish history and recent historiographical debates. It is hard to criticize such a brilliantly conceived historical essay. If it has a weakness, however, it may be that it attempts to do too much in such a short space, leaving the reader wishing for more. Early on, for example, Myers perceptively notes that “the strands of memory that historians weave together make comprehensible the worlds we live in, often in enriching ways, though at times in excessively particularistic ways that induce the fear of the ‘other .... Therein,” he continues, “lies the potential for abuse in history” (21). This use-and-abuse theme of the book’s subtitle sometimes gets lost in the history-memory discussion. That said, this is a remarkable book that should satisfy not only specialists in Jewish history but also general readers interested in a lucid discussion of the task and function of historical inquiry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald A. Yerxa is Editor of Fides et Historia and Professor Emeritus of History at Eastern Nazarene College. 

Date of Review: 
August 20, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David N. Myers is President/CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York, as well as Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has written extensively in the fields of Jewish intellectual and cultural history in the modern age. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.



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