Salo Baron (1895-1989) was the pre-eminent Jewish historian of the 20th century. He taught for over three decades at Columbia University and authored dozens of volumes and hundreds of articles on Jewish history.
Remarkably, Baron is associated with a single word: “lachrymose.”
In 1928, Baron coined “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history” (a term that he associated with the great 19th-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz), which Baron criticized because “an overemphasis on Jewish sufferings distorted the total picture of the Jewish historic evolution.”
In a symposium titled “Rethinking Salo W. Baron in the Twenty-First Century,” Prof. Adam Teller sums up Baron’s overarching position: “Jewish history is not to be seen simply as a series of persecutions, which determined its nature and its course, but rather as a process of ongoing engagement between the Jews and their surroundings.”
Teller writes in that same article (see AJS Review 38.2) that based on what we now know about trauma (including PTSD), Baron’s dichotomy between violent times and normal times was “too sharp,” and so Teller argues for “the balanced re-insertion of hatred, persecution and violence as factors in the way ‘normal’ Jewish life is understood in its various historical settings.”
Where does Oct. 7 fit into this discussion? On the one hand, it is a stark reminder, even in the 21st century and even in the State of Israel, that there is reason to give weight to a lachrymose conception of Jewish history.
On the other hand, the pogrom of Oct. 7 is unique in that it struck a Jewish community that could and would powerfully fight back. Any person with a sense of Jewish peoplehood has to be thinking of the myriad pogrom survivors over the past 2,000 years who in the wake of a catastrophe could not fight back, who had to just bury their dead, keep their heads down, and get on with life.
Is it any wonder then that today, a person seeing Israel reacting to the catastrophe the way that any normal nation would react (punishing the evildoers and working to ensure that it never happens again), also thinks of all those Jewish victims who were not mourned or buried properly, all those torturers and murderers who escaped punishment?
No, we are not avenging our long-ago dead in our war against Hamas, but surely if you have a sense of Jewish peoplehood you cannot help but whisper to those poor tortured souls across the ages: “Be comforted, be comforted My people (Isaiah 40.1)—for this time a paradigmatic lachrymose catastrophe will not have a traditional ending, this time the guilty will be punished.
Endnote about my son and the two accompanying pictures: On Monday night, Dec. 11, before the candle-lighting ceremony at a Hanukkah event for families at Elie’s base near Shilo in the Shomron (Samaria), the Battalion Commander surprised Elie by promoting him to Major.
Though typically three years need to elapse after one’s promotion to Captain, and not even a year has gone by since Elie’s, the Commander explained that he was able to push Elie through because of the demands of the war. So there was a promotion ceremony before the candle-lighting ceremony, with Elie’s wife, Hadar, switching out Elie’s right epaulette and the Battalion Commander, Elie’s left.
Yes, for the 95 soldiers under Elie, both their Company and Battalion Commanders wear kippot, an occurrence not so unusual these days as the percentage of religious officers is relatively high. With this promotion, Elie leaves the lower echelon of officers, who wear bars on their epaulettes, for a higher one, signified by fig leaves—referred to as “falafels” in Israeli culture.
Teddy Weinberger is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.