An unresolved mind might settle upon a lecture given to the American Historical Association by an Ivy League professor as the authoritative voice on the role and purpose of a historian. So was the case for me. As president of the American Historical Association, Carl L. Becker delivered an address titled “Everyman His Own Historian,” in 1931 with the explicit goal of reducing history to “to its lowest terms,”, just in the same way a mathematician might simplify a fraction. He concluded that history is “is the memory of things said and done.” A historian “does a bit of historical research in the sources,” to “establish the facts…always in order.” I dare say that I feel unresolved with Becker’s answer. His description of a historian does not align with my experience and engagement with the memories of the past. Becker’s historian is at home in musty libraries and archives.; I am most comfortable remembering the past around a family dining room table, or in the pews of my synagogue. Indeed, I am not the type of historian that Becker characterizes, and it is a function of my remembering in concert with others rather than as an isolated individual that separates me from him. My history is a collective practice.
The individualist character of Becker’s history is evident from his argument. He illustrates his point with a story about Mr. Everyman, an archetypal American man in the 1930s. Mr. Everyman makes use of the documents he has at hand – a note in his vest pocket – to determine the amount of money he owes Mr. Smith, which, in turn, provokes a memory of his exchange with Mr. Smith. After comparing notes with Mr. Smith, it is revealed that Mr. Everyman did not complete his purchase, and no money was owed. Though he had initially misremembered the series of events, evidence enabled Mr. Everyman to set the record straight. Later, he comes to remember that he owes Mr. Brown a debt and proceeds to make a payment. The method of discovery and conclusion that Mr. Everyman uses to engage “things said and done” certifies him as a historian. “If Mr. Everyman had undertaken these researches in order to write a book instead of to pay a bill, no one would think of denying that he was a historian,”, Becker said. From start to finish, Becker’s historian works for himself and by himself, with the exception of an instrumental encounter with Mr. Smith. This historian acts as an individual and treats the past as relevant to an individual’s need. “It is… an imaginative creation, a personal possession which each one of us, Mr. Everyman, fashions out of his individual experience, adapts to his practical or emotional needs, and adorns as well as may be to suit his aesthetic tastes.” This conception of history can exist as a one-man show.
Mr. Everyman’s experience with history is strikingly different from my own. I believe myself to be a historian at least one night a year when I observe the Passover Seder, the rendition of the Biblical Exodus narrative according to Jewish traditional rite. On the Seder night, I gather with my family to remember what was said and done by God for the Jewish people in Egypt. According to medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, a Jew in the Temple was forbidden from conducting portions of the Seder alone. Together, my family aims to study the Exodus story and fulfill our Rabbinic obligation to “view ourselves as if we, ourselves, left Egypt.” We decorate our table with faux slave laboring material – an apple cobbler to represent brick mortar and salted water to commemorate tears –– and fuss over the meaning of God’s ancient commandments. Our task is to imagine ourselves in the past, regardless of its authenticity. Indeed, at no point in the traditional Haggadah, the Seder guidebook, is the reader instructed to compare its sequence of events with the records of the Egyptians and at no point do the Haggadah’s authors attempt to legitimize their historiographical methods. To do so would be to defeat the intention of the Seder night historian. On the annual evening when I am most confidently a historian, I join with others to experience a collective past which might have never even occurred. My history is unthinkable as an individual.
The comparison between Becker’s historian and my evening as a historian is, of course, disjointed:; one is, effectively, a metaphor, and the other, a ritualistic practice. One is troubled to draw any immediate lessons from the comparison. Luckily then, as literary critic Adam Kirsch has written, there are historical instances that were captured by historians of Becker’s character and of my tradition. Kirsch provides the Jewish War of 66-73 C.E. and the destruction of the Jewish Temple as the paradigmatic case of the two historians coming to a head. The history of these events was transcribed by both Josephus and the Talmudic Rabbis.
Josephus, who chronicled the events of the Jewish War in his eponymous work, was a Judean trained in the Roman historical methods and can be fairly described as a Becker historian. As Kirsch writes, “Today, all historians derive most of what they know about these events from Josephus.” His account was a relatively dry one of the “complex political, military, dynastic, and religious reasons for the Jewish defeat.” He determines that “the deadly rivalry between political and religious factions” was the cause of the Jewish War. Though questionably rigorous, he engaged in historiography similar to Mr. Everyday. The Talmudic Rabbis offer a radically different presentation of the Jewish War. In their representation, the Temple was destroyed because of a spat between two men. A man by the name of Bar Kamza was mistakenly invited to his enemy’s party. After his enemy disinvited and shamed Bar Kamza from the party populated by the Rabbinic elite, Bar Kamza sought revenge on the Jewish people by orchestrating a ploy to frame the Judeans as rebellious Roman citizens. The result was the destruction of the Temple and Jewish self-rule.
Kirsch summarizes the difference between the two accounts well. “Interestingly, this is essentially the same verdict that Josephus delivers, except that, instead of a personal dispute over a party invitation, he talks about the deadly rivalry between political and religious factions…. The Talmud story condenses these complex events into a usable moral lesson. That is, how the past turns into living memory, even at the price of falsification.” Josephus prioritizes the truthfulness of this historical event, while the Rabbis prioritize the effect this historical event could have on their audience. In the scheme of things, the two paths end up in very similar places.
Between the comparisons of Mr. Everyman to my family at our Seder and Josephus’s The Jewish War to the Talmudic tale, we can begin to understand the essential difference between Becker’s historian and my own. Mr. Everyman steps into the past in order to probe for the truth. His debts and payments depend on the facts of his past loans and purchases. The truthfulness of the past events, from which the endeavor of history derives its value, can be absolutely settled by Mr. Everyman’s memories and historical evidence. All of his problems would be solved with a time machine. The same is not true for my historian. My historian, according to Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi is the Jewish historian who “‘remembers,’ [when history is]… actively transmitted to the present generation and that this past has been accepted as meaningful.” The Jewish historian finds value in history’s relevance to the present, which can even be divorced from truth. The Jewish historian draws memories from the past to put it on exhibit for others. History is about lessons and morals for the present. The Jewish historian wouldn’t bother with the historiography of Mr. Everyman–; she would only care about how others will remember.
What is it that allows Judaism to become this “vehicle of memory,”, as Yerushalmi described it, and create the Jewish historian? How are the two different in practice? The Jewish historian can only fulfill her role in relation to others. If the Jewish historian were given a time machine, she could only fulfill her mission when she returned to tell others of her findings. Becker’s historian can fulfill her mission on her own; the truth need not be a group project. Without an audience, Becker’s historian becomes estranged from history’s meaning and value. Like Walter Benjamin once wrote of an actor who transitions from theater performance to film acting, “his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach.” The actor feels “estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable.” When history is practiced outside of a community, its impact is not felt and, therefore, not considered. Only its truth value matters. Contrast that with Yerushalmi’s description of a Jewish historian as “More than a scholar and writer of history, he feels himself, with some justification, an actor in history.” When individuals recall the story of Exodus in a familial context and as historians, they are entangled with the past. The Jewish historian’s calling is to remember the past before her audience and provoke a reaction. The Jewish demand of historians to collectively put history in the present is a mechanism for remembrance, not recall.
With clear distinctions between the two modes of history, we may ask if they might be compatible. With slight adjustments to the story, we can conceive of Mr. Everyman as a Jewish historian. Say Mr. Everyman continued to share his story with others. Instead of focusing on the veracity of his initial debt claims and his process of discovery, he highlighted the power of misremembering as a lesson for life. Mr. Everyman, then, goes further than the Becker historian and becomes a Jewish historian. Though the two historians are not inherently incompatible, they do have an inevitable divergence. Mr. Everyman’s would not betray the Jewish way of history if he were to only share his misremembrance, and neglect to note that he, ultimately, did pay Mr. Brown a payment. The balance of Mr. Everyman’s account would be different, and the fate of payment would change, but this does not have any immediate or clear relevance to the lessons of misremembering. Becker’s “superficial and irrelevant accretions” are the Jewish historian’s primary data points. As histories get retold, it will surely be that certain details are left out that come at the cost of accuracy.
The challenge of truthfulness to Jewish history was dealt with by Professor Marianne Hirsch in her riveting book, The Generation of Postmemory. Her contribution is worth quoting in full. “The ‘post’ in ‘postmemory’ signals more than a temporal delay and more than a location in an aftermath. It is not a concession simply to linear temporality or sequential logic. Think of the many different ‘posts’ that continue to dominate our intellectual landscape… ‘postcolonial’ does not mean the end of the colonial but its troubling continuity, though, in contrast, ‘postfeminist’ has been used to mark a sequel to feminism,” she wrote. Though a Jewish history might not recall a memory with exactness, it does remember that precise memory in a different form. Raul Hilberg, for example, began researching for his book, The Destruction of the European Jew, as a Becker historian. However, after identifying factual errors in the oral histories and testimonies of interviewees, he “deferred to storytelling and to poetry as skills historians need to learn if they are to be able to tell the difficult history of the destruction of the Jews of Europe… Hilberg is recalling a dichotomy between history and memory (for him, embodied by poetry and narrative) that has had a shaping effect on the field.”. What Hirsch calls history and memory, I distinguish as Becker’s historian and a Jewish historian, respectively. The Jewish historian chiefly desires to capture the lessons of the past.
The histories imagined by Becker and the Jewish tradition rhyme. Becker can acknowledge the imperfection in history, but he cannot come to accept it. History is about the process by which we determine what has been said and done. Memories live in the past. The Jewish tradition, with which I affiliate, provides what I believe to be a more comprehensive vision of history. History is faulty in its veracity but so is mankind in its morality. By remembering history with others, we can come to build communities and improve ourselves. Becker’s historian, the academic historian, thinks about history. The Jewish historian, a product of a moralizing tradition, experiences history. I opt for the latter.