Book Review: The “Jewish Lives” Series — Biography Simplified But Illuminating

YUP’s uneven Jewish Lives offers a series of short, accessible biographies that could become a significant literary mural, showcasing the scope of Jewish culture.

Jewish Lives, a partnership of Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation.


By Helen Epstein

In her excellent and engrossing biography of Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade (Arts Fuse review) Rachel Cohen examines the long, unlikely trajectory of a poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrant to America who became the world’s most renowned art authority. It’s in many ways a local story, not only because Berenson spent his adolescence in Boston and his college years at BU and Harvard, but because he acquired for Isabella Gardner many of the paintings that we now admire in her museum. Berenson led an unconventional Jewish life for his generation: Cohen describes him changing his religious affiliation twice, marrying a Quaker, and managing to thrive in hostile, anti-Semitic cultures – including the culture of Fascist Italy. She also reminds us that Berenson emulated Gardner and other Gilded Age benefactors by leaving his acquisitions to an institution. He gave his Florentine estate, I Tatti, with its 50,000-volume library, to Harvard.

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade is part of a series of short, accessible bios called Jewish Lives, published by Yale University Press with the help of a 21st century benefactor, businessman and philanthropist Leon Black. The Black endowment pays for the creation of new biographies rather than the collection or reissuing of old and it is generous. Subventions have long enabled university presses to pay production costs rather than their distinguished academic writers but, in this case, the Leon Black Foundation pays author advances that, unlike paltry university press advances, are competitive with trade publishing. One of the YUP authors estimates the ball park at $30-100,000.


Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb kicked off the series in April of 2010; there are now 20 titles in print and another two dozen under contract. (Joshua Rubinstein’s Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary Life was reviewed in Arts Fuse.) According to series editor Ileene Smith, Black “has spoken of wanting to do as many as one hundred books over the course of this decade.”

Black has said that the idea for the Jewish Lives series came to him after one of his sons asked what makes up Jewish identity now. The series’ mission statement reads in part: “Biography pulls at readers – and also at its authors – in ways very different from any other form of history writing … Our goal has been to offer our readers books both lucid and authoritative, more than mere introductions but less than definitive, full and original essay-like volumes that open up more questions than they answer but that try to answer some tough, otherwise resilient ones.” The series’ three editors – Smith at YUP; Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University, and Anita Shapira, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University – choose the biographical subjects and match authors to them. The editorial process then follows university press protocols: three anonymous scholars read and review each manuscript and offer suggestions to the author.

I had many questions after reading seven Jewish Lives bios. Some were raised by Cohen’s take on Berenson; by Saul Friedlander’s on Franz Kafka; by Dorothy Gallagher’s on Lillian Hellman; by Adam Phillips’ on Sigmund Freud; by Berel Lang’s on Primo Levi; by Vivian Gornick’s on Emma Goldman; and by Hillel Halkin’s on Vladimir Jabotinsky. But my more basic question was about the need for these interpretive biographies themselves. Are short and simplified versions of complicated lives needed? Is there a paucity of books by or about Jews? Is pairing celebrity authors with the usual roster of Jewish suspects the best way to answer Black’s son’s question?

Smith told me that she views Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm, which she edited outside the series, as her model for Jewish Lives books. All are circa 200-pages long, give or take 50 pages. All draw extensively on previously published, much longer biographies. Less scholarly than entries in the Encyclopedia Judaica, lighter and less exhaustive than what she calls “generic” biographies, all showcase author opinion and speculation about their subjects, deliberately getting between the reader and subject, rather than staying out of the way.


So British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, whose book Becoming Freud is based on a series of provocative and mellifluous university lectures, writes: “The facts of a life – and indeed the facts of life – were among the many things that Freud’s worked has changed our way of thinking about… What complicated the facts, in Freud’s view, is what he will come to call unconscious desire (so, for example, the fact that Freud invented psychoanalysis mostly out of conversations with men but through the treatment mostly of women – that psychoanalysis was a homosexual artifact – can tell us something about Freud’s homosexual and heterosexual desire, what he wanted men and women for; our desires inform our facts and fact-finding). He will show us how and why we bury the facts of our lives, and how, through the language of psychoanalysis, we can both retrieve these facts and describe them in a different way.” Phillips presents the first 50 years of Freud’s life as a kind of parsha on a set of classic Freudian texts he assumes the reader knows.

Saul Friedlander, in Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, writes: “Treasures of erudition have been spent on recording the tiniest details of Kafka’s life and on excavating the philological, literary, and philosophical foundations of each of his metaphors or name games, Yet although the discovery of any glistening pebble may have been considered a signpost to a goldmine, some huge spires towering over Kafka’s territory – his sense of shame and guilt, perceived by every reader – have elicited mainly very general and abstract interpretations that do not sufficiently point to the personal anguish from which they stemmed.” The anguish, Friedlander believes, stems from the love that, in Kafka’s Prague, dared not speak its name. When I told this to an elderly analyst friend of mine raised in nearby Hungary, she commented, “That would have been the least of his problems!”

The Jewish Lives series is not a new idea: it follows a centuries-long vogue for short interpretive biographies. Most recently, Penguin and Harper Collins established such a series. Amazon’s BIO series has since jumped on the bandwagon. In 2005, Schocken Books in New York, with an endowment from the Keren Keshet Foundation, launched a series that paired Jewish authors with eminent Jewish personalities and themes, starting with a life of King David by poet Robert Pinsky, followed by books on Maimonides, Emma Lazarus, Spinoza, Disraeli, Chagall, and Freud. The Yale series overlaps in some areas and authors with Schocken’s.

For writers, it’s a good gig: a book not that much longer than a serious magazine profile. A distinguished “generic” biographer I know said she felt challenged by the short form: “In the best biographies, of whatever length, the reader has the pleasure of following the writer’s mind as it engages with her subject’s life and work. If a full length bio is like a big Victorian novel, then the short bio should read like a novella.”

But, as I read Jewish Lives, I suspected less lofty motives.

For publishers, short bios are a good marketing move. They promise to attract multiple groups of readers: those interested in the subject; those interested in the author; and those looking to fill holes in their education. In an increasingly diverse culture, where some readers know little about Jews and even the Jewish community is fractured, short bios provide a common cultural resource, the way Encyclopedia Britannica once did. Promotion and distribution are facilitated by synagogues, Jewish centers, Jewish schools and Jewish Studies programs. I recently saw several of YUP’s slim white volumes prominently displayed in Brookline’s Israel Bookstore.

But what’s in it for the serious reader?

First off, all seven of the Jewish Lives – uneven and different as I found them – are “sharp and efficient,” as one reviewer wrote about Gottlieb’s Sarah Bernhardt. If you are a time-strapped and want a cursory acquaintance with the life and work of a prominent Jewish figure, these bios do the job. They select, simplify and package huge chunks of history and biography. My immigrant father learned a lot about America by reading Reader’s Digest condensed books; I learned a lot of history through Landmark biographies. At times, the degree of compression and simplification in these bios reminded me of both these entry level books.

Second, Jewish Lives are entertaining, opinionated as well as instructive, with colorful characters and anecdotes conveyed in a largely conversational style. All the authors are engaged with their subjects in what can be useful and significant ways and tell their reader about their connection. E.g. Phillips is a psychoanalyst whose livelihood has been defined by Freud; Friedlander’s and Kafka’s ancestors came from the same slice of Bohemian Jewry; Dorothy Gallagher’s mother and Lillian Hellman were left-wingers of the same generation.

Third, the books have a cumulative effect. The cast of characters – from Biblical times to the twentieth century – is so varied and interesting that I enjoyed cross-referencing political and cultural movements and places – Russia, Germany, Lithuania, Italy – as well as a wide range of celebrated figures whose lives intersect all over the world.


Of the Jewish Lives I read, I was most impressed by Hillel Halkin’s Vladimir Jabotinsky, the first English-language biography of the militant Zionist in 20 years. Halkin, a prolific writer, scholar and excellent translator from the Yiddish and Hebrew – as well as an Israeli resident since 1970 – delivers a valuable new book about a largely forgotten key figure in Jewish history. He also strikes what I found an ideal balance between author and subject.

For those for whom the name rings only a distant bell, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky was born in Odessa in 1880 and died in New York in 1940. He was the founder of Revisionist Zionism, a non-collectivist, secular movement that gave rise to the first Jewish self-defense organizations, and eventually the Jewish Legion, the Jewish terrorist Irgun, and the right-wing Zionist youth movement Betar. Though I had walked down many an Israeli street named Jabotinsky, I knew nothing about his life except that most people I knew, particularly those in the Zionist Left, despised him. I hadn’t read either of the two 1000-page plus biographies, so this short one suited me.

Halkin takes a backseat to his subject, drawing a vivid portrait of a gifted boy in fin-de-siecle Odessa, then a relatively new port city and a rare multi-cultural island in the rabidly anti-Semitic Russian Empire. While most Russian Jews grew up, as Jabotinsky himself wrote, “in an atmosphere thick with the grimness and bitter salt of Jewish tragedy,” Jabotinsky did not. Though his mother ran a traditional Jewish home, he took off to Italy at 17 where he studied and did not keep kosher, aiming to be a poet, translator, and playwright. That was before he began reading early Zionist texts and being shocked into political action by the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903. Sketching in the complex historical and political background of Eastern Europe and the Middle East as he goes, Halkin depicts Jabotinsky’s evolution from multi-lingual literary man into arch proponent of Jewish self-defense. His efforts intensified after 1908, when he toured Jewish settlements in what was the Ottomon Empire and became obsessed with creating a Jewish military.

Halkin draws on Jabotinsky’s published and unpublished writing, correspondence, and memoirs – many unavailable in English. He shows how during the First World War, Jabotinsky overcame the opposition of both left-wing Zionist leaders and the British government and succeeded in organizing a Jewish Legion within the British Army. Halkin demonstrates how the Legion became a factor in the ensuing Balfour Declaration, the kernel of today’s Israeli Army, and the touchstone of the Israeli Right. Throughout, he highlights Jabotinsky’s view of the Arab population of the Palestinian Mandate, a complex perspective that has gotten lost as Israel has become more politically polarized.

Halkin’s fascination with the anti-socialist, arch-rival of David Ben-Gurion – is contagious. In the politically polarized climate of the Jewish community, it is also rare. When Halkin ends the book with a fantasy of having coffee with Jabotinsky in Paris and discussing the current “situation,” I found it a well-earned and intriguing indulgence. Halkin did what a short bio should do: he aroused my curiosity about his subject. I may even take a look at one of those 1000-page biographies.


Dorothy Gallagher, in contrast, seems outraged rather than fascinated by her subject. Her very short (145-page) Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life reads like a posthumous scolding. Drawing on four previous biographies, Hellman’s three memoirs (An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time) and several memoirs by and about Hellman’s husband Dashiell Hammett, friend Peter S. Feibleman, and arch-enemy Mary McCarthy, Gallagher distills so much vitriol over a flawed Jewish woman that you wonder why she took this assignment.

Hellman was born in New Orleans in 1905 into a German-Jewish family whose members emigrated to the United States at mid-19th century. She became a celebrated figure in twentieth century American theater and in New York City. “From 1934, when her first play, The Children’s Hour, had been a Broadway hit, through the early 1960s, Hellman produced a play almost every other year. Between plays, she wrote screenplays.” It’s unclear what Gallagher thinks of them. We don’t learn why Hellman’s work was so admired, in part because the biographer gives us almost no context – not about other writers on Broadway or in Hollywood at the time, not about other women playwrights or screenwriters.

Gallagher lets us know on page 3 that she does not “come to Lillian Hellman tabula rasa.” Unlike myself and (I think) the common reader, she is less interested in what made Hellman such a popular writer and more in her politics and character – both of which Gallagher finds abhorrent. Hellman was a public intellectual who saw no problem posing in mink for Blackgama ads. Or writing to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” but fudging her membership in the Communist Party. Married twice, she was exceptionally sexually active before, after, and during her marriages, a tendency Gallagher sometimes seems to find admirable, sometimes pathetic. Mostly, she exhibits the indignation of the Old Left still fighting internecine wars decades later.

Gallagher dutifully summarizes the family’s emigration from Bavaria to the American South and the two plays she based on her family, but displays none of the curiosity about her subject that Halkin does about his. She skips over Hellman’s childhood, adolescence and early education, key influences, interests and friends. “Since there are biographies of Hellman that follow a chronological path, I have given most attention to the aspects of her life that particularly interested me,” she declares, then selects those that allow her to bash, condemn, and diminish.

Hellman’s political equivocations, her tendencies towards anti-Semitism, self-aggrandizement, and lying give us all plenty of reasons for contempt. I’m part of the generation of women who loved Hellman’s memoir of the war heroine she named Julia and felt betrayed when we learned she plagiarized some of the story from the real life of psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner and invented the rest. But Gallagher’s outrage seems dated and out of proportion. Her book is more of a demolition job than a life, inserting snide quotes from questionable bystanders such Norman Mailer (“Oh she was mean, manipulative and heroic – she was a mighty little woman.”), Elia Kazan (“I felt like a young girl cornered by a rich old man…”), and Elizabeth Hardwick (“The power of LH – a puzzlement, even when one knows how concentrated she has been in its service.”)

Gallagher invites us to savor her delight and schadenfreude in Hellman’s reversals and frailties, and sometimes I did, but I wondered how aware the author was of the extent of her animus and its sources, and whether her grudge was as culturally-driven as it was political. I thought about the long animosity between German and ostjuden, a theme that surfaces in most of the Jewish Lives volumes, an issue that Jabotinsky and Weizmann and Herzl wrote about, and that was still playing out in the New York City of Lillian Hellman, Robert Moses and Joseph Papp. I wondered what a young reader who knew as little about Hellman’s life as I knew about Jabotinsky’s would conclude about her from this book?

The seven volumes of Jewish Lives contain many points of reference among books, characters whose lives intersect, and places that became important hubs of Jewish life. I hope the series will extend its reach beyond the usual suspects and include North African Jews such as Albert Memmi along with South American and South African Jews such as Helen Suzman as well as lesser-known Jews from Europe. I also hope they will include more Jews who found ways of integrating traditional observance with contemporary lives. The YUP series could become a significant literary mural, showcasing the scope of Jewish culture or it could become a series of caricatures and platforms from which authors speculate on the dead.

Helen Epstein is the author of six books of non-fiction, including Children of the Holocaust; Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History; a collection of profiles of musicians; and a biography of Joe Papp. All are published as ebooks by Plunkett Lake Press.

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