Yale Jewish Lives: An Imperfect Celebration

Since 2010, Yale have published more than twenty books in their Jewish Lives series. The books, aimed at the general reader, are brief introductions to their subjects, a mix of biography and criticism. The range is ambitious and admirably eclectic: from Old Testament figures like Jacob, David and Solomon to Moses Mendelssohn and Sarah Bernhardt, from Trotsky and Freud to Rothko. There are great thinkers and statesmen, and major figures from popular culture: Hank Greenberg, the baseball player, with Dylan, Streisand and Groucho Marx still to come.

However, there are certain striking absences. Moses Mendelssohn is the only figure, so far, who lived between the Biblical era and the late 19th century. As with the Fontana Modern Masters, published in the 1970s and ‘80s, the heart of the Yale series lies in the great intellectual, cultural and political upheavals of the first half of the 20th century. So we have two of the great Modernist writers, Proust and Kafka, as well as leading figures from the Russian Revolution and Zionism, psychoanalysis and quantum physics. But none of the subjects so far were born after 1925 and only a handful made their names after the Second World War. So far no Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller or Philip Roth. None of the refugees who made such an impact on post-war British intellectual culture, such as Ernst Gombrich, Isaiah Berlin or George Steiner. And no one who has made their mark since the 1970s. As a series it has a curiously musty feel.

Nearly one third of the subjects are either from the Old Testament or from modern Palestine and Israel, although I am not sure why one would choose Moshe Dayan, Ze’ev Jabotinsky or Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Palestine, to be amongst the first two dozen subjects of a series on Jewish Lives. Are they really up there with Trotsky, Freud and Einstein?  There is a slightly strange bias towards European interwar politicians and statesmen: German industrialist Walter Rathenau and French Prime Minister Léon Blum are relatively rarified subjects for the common reader sixty-five years after Blum died and almost a century after Rathenau was shot. 

More significant are the striking omissions. Most egregiously, only five of the forty-six subjects published or forthcoming are women and they are a curious selection: Emma Goldman, Sarah Bernhardt, Peggy Guggenheim, Lillian Hellman and Barbra Streisand—hardly up there with Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Anna Freud. All those Israeli men but not Golda Meir. Almost as strange is the fact that there are almost no scientists on the list: Einstein, unbelievably, is the first. Disraeli is the only British subject in the first forty-six titles. There is only one composer (Bernstein) and one artist (Rothko) so far.

The contributors are familiar but hardly stellar names. The psychoanalyst-critic Adam Phillips on Freud, literary critic Berel Lang on Primo Levi, historian Saul Friedländer on Franz Kafka, and writer Marc Kurlansky on the baseball star Hank Greenberg are perhaps the best known. None of these four are under sixty, two are over eighty. (This is not unrepresentative. It is not a series for spring chickens.) This isn’t a question of ageism. Reading Friedländer on Kafka, for example, the approach seems old-fashioned and out of tune with recent trends in Kafka criticism, which has moved away from the well-worn themes of alienation, bureaucracy and existentialism to a more exciting emphasis on the texture of Kafka’s prose and the distinctive ways in which he used language. Of the most interesting writer-critics who have written on Kafka in the last decade—Gabriel Josipovici, Michael Hofmann, Adam Thirlwell, Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace among them—not one is cited by Friedländer.

Subscribe to read more.

You might also like

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.