Can biographers really know their subjects fully? Was Mark Twain right when he said that “a man’s real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself?” And what about Freud who went even further: “Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishment, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had.”
Well, if biographical truth is not to be had, if a self is actually unknowable, can we at least analyze the work of the artist or the writer or the activist as a clue to the meaning of the life? Here a biographer is challenged by the postmodernists or deconstructionists who argue for “the death of the author,” and who see texts and even behavior as totally independent entities, neither of which tells us anything about their human creators. Not surprisingly, I take a somewhat different position. I acknowledge the existence of authors. Of course, the writing of any particular author may not be – and very often is not – autobiographical. Indeed, biographers, or general readers for that matter, who concentrate on ferreting out the self-referential, often miss the satisfaction of immersing themselves in the creative imagination of the writer. In any case, for me, authors are neither absent nor entirely inscrutable. Why otherwise would I have undertaken a biography of so prolific a writer as Fast, whose early writings seemed to have moved an entire generation of Jews in the direction of political liberalism, or of Irving Howe, who in his literary criticism and teaching fought fiercely against the “death of the author” school?
Of course, all of us remain partially hidden and variegated, and in cases like Howe or Fast, perhaps even more complexly so. In writing about these men then, I make no claim to definitiveness nor do I use a narrative strategy that projects a unified persona. Fast, for example, presents a case of extraordinary social mobility, a man who became wealthy writing more than 150 stories, 20 screenplays, and nearly 100 books, several selling in the tens of millions of copies; but he also forever carried within himself characteristics and memories of having been a poor street urchin. Moreover, Fast was not only a writer, but a brother, father, husband, son of immigrants, a Jew, a Communist, an “unfriendly witness,” a prisoner, and a Hollywood personality.
Many selves, many roles – several of which led Fast into inconsistency and even apparent contradiction. Still, the historian as biographer, at least this one, believes that human beings are not just a Babel of voices, and that there are such things as individuals who are knowable, at least in part. Even playwright Samuel Beckett, the prince of obscurity and ambiguity, eventually wrote, “In the place where I have always found myself… it is no longer wholly dark or wholly silent.”
For historians, writing biography presents a number of challenges. One of the more important comes from scholars who tend to classify biography as “an inferior type of history.” For example, three years ago the American Historical Society staged a roundtable on “biography as history,” invitations to which included the following: “For a long time historians have been ambivalent about the genre of biography…. Many are skeptical of the capacity of biography to convey the kind of analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”
But we biographers, even those such as myself who want to write cross-over books accessible to the educated lay public, don’t simply chart the course of a life from womb to tomb; we examine our subjects in dialectical relationship to the multiple worlds they inhabit, social, political, and cultural. My two subjects, Howard Fast and Irving Howe, for example, rose from immigrant poverty to eminence and wealth, and in Fast’s case immense wealth. Both were also political activists, and literary figures. And both bore the privileges, burdens, and complexities of being Jewish. Both were also involved, directly and indirectly, with events important to shaping the world of the twentieth century. It would have been next to impossible to neglect social context in biographies of these men.
Biographers are also often accused of voyeurism and sensationalism. Indeed, perhaps as acts of self-defense, several women and men of note have written their own biographies or memoirs – Howe wrote at least one, depending how you count; Fast, two – conceivably as a way of making one’s own case before a prosecutorial or gossip-mongering historian/biographer might appear on the scene. Elsa Morante, the Italian writer and wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, left a warning for biographers: To expose “the private life of a writer is gossip,” she said, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.” Janet Malcolm, the controversial American journalist goes further, characterizing biographers as burglars, parasites, and obsessive stalkers who trespass and injure. Continue reading
When I set out to write the story of the Aleppo Codex, I imagined that I would be writing an uplifting narrative about how a sacred book was rescued and returned home from the Diaspora to Jerusalem. It was, judging from the information I had at my disposal at the outset, a nice story. But that turned out not to be the case; the existing information was scant, ridden with omissions and often purposely misleading. The reasons for this turned out to be linked to important events in the codex’s recent past, and are, I believe, interesting and instructive for readers of history, and especially of Jewish history.
In 2008, when I started my own project after happening upon the codex at the Israel Museum, only one book had been written about this manuscript, the most important in Judaism and one of the most important in the world. This book was in Hebrew, and had been published in the 1980s by the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, the academic body that is the manuscript’s official custodian. While I was working on my book, a second came out, this one in English, written by two American scholars and published by the venerable Jewish Publication Society.
The official story of the Aleppo Codex’s fascinating and tangled history in the twentieth century posited that it had been damaged around the time of an anti-Jewish riot in Aleppo in 1947, leading to the disappearance of 200 of its priceless pages; was hidden in Syria for ten years; and was then smuggled to Israel on the orders of the rabbis of Aleppo’s Jewish community and given to Israel’s second president, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, whose academic institute is still in charge of the manuscript to this day. This is the narrative I knew at the beginning.
In truth, I found in several years of research, very little of this was true. The codex ended up in the hands of the state of Israel through a series of complicated maneuvers by state authorities – the codex was effectively seized using agents who intercepted a Syrian courier in Turkey. The state protected itself by putting forward a false version of events at a subsequent trial in Jerusalem, records of which were then suppressed. And the striking damage to the codex – some 40 percent of it is missing, including the Torah itself – does not date to the 1947 riot, as the official version would have us believe. The codex was seen whole much later. In fact, there is no evidence that anything significant was missing when it reached Israel in 1957, a fact that was highly awkward and was thus covered up.
The professors at the prestigious, government-funded Ben-Zvi Institute could not publish that story, because it would embarrass the state and because the institute also had to hide a rather shocking and long-concealed scandal in its manuscript collection. The historians were torn between two roles – they were academic scholars whose job it was to tell the truth, of course, but they were also protectors of Israel’s official narrative, of its institutions and leaders. In the story of the codex these roles could not be reconciled, so they chose the latter. The writer they employed to author their book about the codex was, perhaps tellingly, a novelist, a sweet-tempered man who lacked a journalist’s nose for dirt and who was then ably manipulated and censored by the academics who controlled the codex and its story. Continue reading
I met Harvey Pekar in 2005. On a whim, I gave him a copy of my book, and he really liked it. A series of awkward interactions at comic book signings led to a small collaboration for the foreword of a book about the history of Jews and comics. A few months later he asked me to work on an entire book with him about the history of Jews and Israel.
In 2008, we began what is now known as Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, a graphic novel published by Hill & Wang and available here. The graphic memoir interweaves his gradual disaffection with the modern state of Israel with a comprehensive visual history from Biblical times to the present. Told over the course of a single day in his hometown, the book follows Pekar and myself as we wrestle with the mythologies and realities surrounding the Jewish homeland.
Producing this book was a bittersweet project for me. When Harvey passed away two years ago, I went from being a hevruta to chevra kadisha. For the better part of four years I was one of a handful of artists working with Harvey on various projects. However, I suspect that the Judaic focus of our relationship was quite unique. I like to think he didn’t call everyone boychik.
Although Harvey cultivated a curmudgeon character on screen and in print, the man himself was quite kind and surprisingly encouraging. Harvey expressed complete faith in my creative vision and was always telling me to “do my thing.”
I got a kick out of Harvey’s sense of timing. He would call me at the most inopportune moments. First thing Monday morning as I sat down to my desk job. Saturday night while I was at a pub with friends, or my favorite, 8:30 AM on Thanksgiving morning.
Harvey had his own way of doing things. He didn’t use the computer. No email, just phone calls and photocopies of his hand written scripts. Decoding his prose, dividing it into digestible chunks, and offering my spin was part of the fun of working with Harvey. Even now, when I recall all those conversations about Judaism and its people, and talking about baseball, Harvey continues to make me smile.
However, finishing the book without Harvey over the last two years was heavy. I wish I could say it was fun. But I missed my collaborator and friend and I was drawing him everyday, so it was a particularly bizarre process of mourning and creativity. Which I guess is oddly appropriate for a graphic novel about Israel.
My Pekar years were full of crazy amounts of joy and sadness and taught me a lot about the type of person and artist that I am. I was lucky to be in the graces of a comix legend and be given the opportunity to be myself and represent another person through comix. I trust that Harvey would be proud of the way the book turned out.
Albert Einstein may have been the most famous Jew of the 20th century. His biographer Walter Isaacson described that “when he arrived in New York in April, , he was greeted by adoring throngs as the world’s first scientific celebrity, one who also happened to be a gentle icon of humanist values and a living patron saint for Jews.” Over the course of his lifetime, Einstein became a committed Jew and a Zionist, a commitment that resulted in his being offered the presidency of Israel, an honor that he declined. In 1955 he stated near the end of his life, he stated, “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human tie.” Einstein explained his route to Jewishness in his popular 1934 book, The World As I See It: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence – these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.” He went on to note, “In the philosophical sense there is, in my opinion, no specific Jewish outlook. Judaism seems to me to be concerned almost exclusively with the moral attitude in life and to life. I look upon it as the essence of an attitude to life which is incarnate in the Jewish people rather than the essence of laws laid down in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud.” Einstein was quite emphatic that his Jewish identity was not religiously motivated. In 1921, he told the rabbis of Berlin who had urged him to become a dues-paying member of the Jewish religious community, “I notice that the word Jew is ambiguous in that it refers (1) to nationality and origin, (2) to the faith. I am a Jew in the first sense, not the second.”
So Einstein highlighted several of the features that foster Jewish identity – nationality (or race or group membership), the culture emanating from group membership, and shared religious belief. In the United States, religion remains a powerful force in Jewish identity, as do an inner commitment to being Jewish and significant Jewish friendship ties. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001 observed, “Most American Jewish adults observe in some way the High Holidays, Passover and Hanukkah. Majorities also read a Jewish newspaper or magazine or books with Jewish content, regard being Jewish as very important, and report that half or more of their close friends are Jewish.”
Einstein believed that anti-Semitism was a major force in promoting affiliation to the Jewish community as when he wrote, “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our race.” Yet, the writers of the American Jewish Yearbook 2007 have shown that anti-Semitism is simply not present at levels where it would serve as a threat and cohesive force, noting, “The American Jewish community in the U.S. – the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside Israel – experienced remarkably low levels of expression of anti-Semitic expression, both behavioral and attitudinal in 2006. This followed a 50-year pattern that reflected the strengths of a pluralistic society, even as intergroup tensions in general continued to concern political leaders and social analysts.” This has translated into a different set of feelings about being Jewish in the United States with most contemporary American Jews viewing themselves as Einstein did — both assimilated and Jewish.
If being Jewish were in the blood, then what better way to find the markers of Jewishness then by studying blood itself? In his 1977 book The Genetics of the Jews, Arthur Mourant, one of the foremost cataloguers of blood groups during the 20th century, explained the advantages to this approach, “In popular anthropology since time immemorial…the visible and physically measurable body characteristics preceded the hereditary blood characteristics as the principal human taxonomic markers. Because of the precisely known mode of inheritance of blood characters, the latter have now superseded them… The hereditary diseases are, in general, too rare to be of value in studies of limited population samples…” So measuring blood groups is more precise than measuring heads and easier than identifying rare genetic diseases.
Mourant’s journey to Jewish population genetics was long. As an Oxford-trained geologist, he joined the Geological Survey of Great Britain during the 1920s to catalog the coal deposits in Lancashire. Unable to obtain an academic post in geology in Depression-era Britain, he returned to his native island of Jersey and set up a laboratory offering
medical tests. But running that laboratory was not satisfying, so in 1939, he entered St. Bartholomew’s Medical College in London. Upon his graduation with a medical degree in 1943, he became a Medical Officer in the National Blood Transfusion Service. The demand for blood products was great during the war and Mourant became a leader in the field.
After the war, he directed the UK Medical Research Council’s newly established Blood Group Reference Laboratory, the international standard for the World Health Organization.
A blood group is determined by the presence or absence of certain sugars, proteins, or fats on the surfaces of blood cells and other types of cells. Differences in blood groups limit the possibilities for blood transfusions — blood can be transfused only for a compatible type. Transfusions among individuals of noncompatible types result in transfusion reactions in which antibodies in the recipient’s blood break down the transfused red cells.
The presence of these antibodies was recognized first in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese pathologist. As he noted later in his Nobel Prize lecture of 1930, “My experiment consisted of causing the blood serum and erythrocytes (red blood cells) of different human subjects to react with one another. The result was only to some extent as expected. With many samples there was no perceptible alteration, in other words the result was exactly the same as if the blood cells had been mixed with their own serum, but frequently a phenomenon known as agglutination – in which the serum causes the cells of the alien individual to group into clusters – occurred.” Following Landsteiner’s lead, serum banks were created that collected serum from individuals of known blood groups and used these sera to test new individuals to determine their types. It was just such a laboratory that Mourant headed after the Second World War.
In the ABO system, there are four genetically encoded blood groups: A, B, AB, and O — O represents the absence of A or B. People with the O group are also known as “universal donors,” because they can give blood to anyone. The study of ABO blood groups made it immediately clear that there are different frequencies among different peoples. In Europe, the average frequency is 40 percent O, 40 percent A, 15 percent B, and 5 percent AB. In other populations, the balance changes.
Mourant was among the first to appreciate the utility of using blood groups as population genetic markers and the first to apply these to Jews. His catalog had varying data for the different blood groups and for other genetic marker systems (including G6PD). He concluded that the blood group data correlated with the known facts of Jewish history – although population geneticists at the time and today would agree that it is hard to draw major conclusions from a single genetic marker system.
The major Jewish communities were relatively homogeneous, yet distinct from one another. Each of the communities bore some resemblance to the local, non-Jewish population. In Mourant’s words, “Each major Jewish community as a whole bears some
resemblance to indigenous peoples of the region where it first developed.” Recent studies in Jewish population genetics have drawn upon analysis of the whole genome and have tended to confirm what Mourant observed – relative homogeneity within Jewish groups, distinctiveness between Jewish groups and some resemblance with local, non-Jewish populations. But Mourant was the first to study what was in the blood.
I did an enormous amount of research for my book The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The novel is based on the true story of a woman born into slavery who was freed and educated in the North, and then became a spy for the Union army by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. Historical fiction can be a powerful way to learn about the past. Thanks to Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosenay, readers around the world have learned about the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Bowser’s bravery, like the horrors enacted at Vel’ d’Hiv, should be more broadly remembered. But for authors, blurring the lines between history and fiction can still feel risky.
Quite a few of the facts that I incorporated into The Secrets of Mary Bowser—particularly the actions of Bet Van Lew, a pro-Union white Richmonder whose wartime escapades including digging up and reburying the body of a Union officer killed by the Confederates—were so bizarre, I feared readers would find them too implausible, even though they were true.
What concerned me most, however, was not that the true parts of the novel wouldn’t be believed. It’s that the parts I invented would be mistaken for fact. Knowing the historical record provides such scant documentation of Mary Bowser’s life that I couldn’t possibly write a biography, I authored the novel as a way to commemorate Bowser’s achievements and to guide readers’ understanding of what slavery was like in urban, industrialized Richmond, and what free black life was like in antebellum Philadelphia.
Despite a detailed historical note included in the book, though, a surprising number of online reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bowser attribute biographical details to the historical Bowser that were entirely my own invention. As I’ve taken to saying, just because you read something in a book about a real person who played an important role in the Civil War, doesn’t mean everything in the book was true.
As it turns out, the first person to fictionalize Bowser’s life story was Bowser herself. “The Black Slave in the Confederate White House,” an article I wrote for The New York Times, documents her continuing self-reinvention, before, during, and after the Civil War. Bowser likely made a good spy precisely because slaves live lives of surreptition and concealment. The strategies that enabled her to survive enslavement also facilitated her espionage. It shouldn’t surprise us that even after the war was over, Bowser continued her cagey—and effective—habit of constructing a series of public identities to serve different purposes.
Like many published authors, I didn’t choose my book’s final title. But I’ve come to relish the irony it implies. While Sarah’s Key suggests that once we find the key we can unlock all of history, The Secrets of Mary Bowser entices us to search out what we can learn about the past, while reminding us that there is much that may always remain hidden.
When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?” Thrilled by this opportunity to really begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, and by the depth of this question coming at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!” Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”
I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true. Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less as a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is just learning about for the first time.
At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”
This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory. Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you, and a set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated but are part of defining the identity to which you belong. But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?
Earlier this week, Leslie Maitland wrote about choosing an epigraph, the artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteineproject, and reconnecting branches of her family separated by the Diaspora of the Nazi years. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I would not be writing this today but for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, nor could I have written my newly published book, Crossing the Borders of Time. Indeed, but for the dedicated mission of “the Joint” to save imperiled Jews from murder in the Holocaust, I would not be here at all. It was thanks to the Joint and cooperating agencies that my mother made an eleventh-hour escape from France in 1942 before the Nazis seized the country and sealed its ports. Like thousands of other Jewish refugees, she and her family fled to safety on ships chartered by the Joint from neutral Portugal. There were more than four hundred passengers with her on the Lipari, leaving from Marseille to Casablanca, where they transferred to a freighter, the San Thomé, for a voyage that lasted almost two months before the ship was cleared to land in Havana.
In this I was blessed by access to the remarkable archives of the Joint, which permitted me to study in detail the challenges it combated in securing visas, ships, and funds to rescue as many Jews as possible. In a seemingly indifferent world, even the United States had so sharply restricted entry that between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and war’s end in 1945, ninety percent of American visa quotas for would-be immigrants from Nazi-controlled countries in Europe went unfilled. Thus the Joint took on the mission of finding safe havens elsewhere for hunted people who were trapped in deadly situations.
In my mother’s case, through internal Joint reports, I would learn for the first time of dangers that threatened her family even after the agency had managed to get them out of France. They had been at sea for more than four weeks when Cuban president Fulgencio Batista abruptly revoked permission for the San Thomé passengers to land. Once again, it was the Joint that saved them. Rushing into action, the Joint provided sufficient international pressure and inducements to prevent the San Thomé from meeting the same cruel fate as the St. Louis, whose passengers—barred from landing in Cuba or the United States three years earlier—had been sent straight back to Europe to face the Nazis.
Now, just this spring, in a gift to the general public and all researchers, the Joint has started making this material available online through its archival website: http://archives.jdc.org. With funds donated by Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, the project has already digitized records dating from the agency’s founding up through 1932. In a telephone interview, Ms. Levi told me that the effort is continuing, and full archives covering the World War II period should be digitized by year’s end. Some of those Holocaust-era documents are expected to be online as early as this summer, she said, adding to what is already there.
Besides the professional researchers who will clearly benefit from the expanded website, Ms. Levi noted, members of the general public have consistently turned to the Joint seeking answers regarding family members, all too often dead or missing.
“Jews have questions about their pasts,” she said. “There is a hole somewhere they’re longing to fill. There is something intensely powerful about finding information about one’s family in a document in an archive. I’ve seen people burst out crying.”
Meanwhile, as the agency’s online archives grow, so too do its endeavors around the globe. Its work goes on today in more than seventy countries, where it strives to alleviate suffering, rescue endangered Jews, strengthen Jewish life, and provide relief for Jews and non-Jews who fall victim to disasters. It is my hope that through the online archives, the children and grandchildren of the people served and saved may one day learn their stories and join me in saying thank you to the Joint.
German artist Gunter Demnig created these two Stolpersteine in memory of Samuel Sigmar and Alice Berta Gunzburger in 2005. He embedded them in the sidewalk in front of Poststrasse 6, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, the couple’s home until they fled the country with their children in 1938. These “stumbling stones” number among more than 30,000 that Demnig has embedded in countries throughout Europe to memorialize Hitler’s victims — each one individually at the site where he or she had lived before the Holocaust.