Off the Shelf | Heroes, divas, anarchists: Juicy biographies to start year

The life of a Jewish librarian can resemble that of a wine seller, being at the mercy of the year’s bounty. I don’t know whether 2012 was a good year for cabernet, but it was not a good one for Jewish fiction. The genre that did shine this past year was biography, including the three very different titles I’ll discuss here.

“Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman” has a powerful backstory.  Historian Paul Avrich had been working on this project for years when it became clear that he would not live to see it through. Before he died in 2006, he asked his daughter, journalist Karen Avrich, to take up the work, and she spent six years poring over her father’s extensive notes, interviews and resources to complete this monumental book.

Anarchist leaders Goldman and Berkman were friends, colleagues and lovers. The two shared a background as Russian Jewish immigrants who were deeply disillusioned over their encounter with the United States. They were radicalized both by the injustices that offended them — especially in the aftermath of the 1886 Chicago Haymarket affair, when four anarchists were executed for a crime they did not commit — and by reading 19th-century anarchist writers.

Goldman, who was perhaps the most despised woman in America, was a tremendous intellectual force — while she is most commonly pictured speaking at outdoor rallies, she also regularly filled great halls for lectures on literature and social issues. Berkman tends to be remembered primarily for his misguided attempt on the life of industrialist Henry Frick in retaliation for the brutal suppression of a strike at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead plant in 1892. Frick survived, and the striking workers denounced Berkman’s actions.

The Avriches chronicle the pair’s turbulent times, including Berkman’s many years in prison and Goldman’s crisis when President McKinley’s assassin identified himself as one of her disciples. Both leaders eventually were imprisoned for their activism opposing World War I. After their release, they were deported to the Soviet Union in 1919, where they again found themselves profoundly disillusioned.  For those interested in this historical period, I recommend this book highly.

After recently conducting an informal poll of Jewish teens, I was struck to find out that most had no idea who Moshe Dayan was. When I was growing up, he was perhaps the definitive icon of Israel. As Mordechai Bar-On writes in his new biography of the warrior and statesman, “the story of Moshe Dayan is the story of the State of Israel.”

Born on Kibbutz Deganya in 1915, Dayan was a teen when he joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces. Occupying a succession of high-ranking positions, he would have a significant role in nearly every major event in Israeli history, from the 1940s through Camp David in 1978. Indeed, Bar-On’s compact book inescapably ends up being a political and military history of Israel, with a focus on Dayan’s significant role.

Bar-On draws on his own experience working for Dayan during the Sinai campaign of 1956 to describe Dayan’s decision-making style. And part of this style was impulsivity — when he was defense minister during the Six-Day War, Dayan ordered the taking of the Golan Heights without first informing IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin or Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Largely admiring of Dayan, Bar-On also takes his former boss to task for “his inability to see the larger picture” — particularly his inability to develop a coherent vision of what to do about the Palestinians who came under Israeli control after 1967.

Bar-On does gives attention to Dayan’s achievements unconnected to war, including Dayan’s passionate but problematic devotion to archaeology. And, having helped to create a moshav in his youth, Dayan saw himself as a man of the land. Following this calling, he served as agriculture minister from 1959 to 1964, completing the water system that would transform the Negev.

William J. Mann’s “Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” is a large book about a short period of time — the years that saw the singer and actress rocket from obscurity to celebrity, culminating in her starring role in the original Broadway production of “Funny Girl” in 1964.

Steisand, who was still in her teens when she left her Brooklyn home for Manhattan to pursue her career, was remarkably ambitious. But she also was deeply insecure — which was not helped by the harsh reception she sometimes encountered in her early career for being too Jewish or too far out.

With its level of detail, this is a book primarily for Streisand fans (which I’m not). But it is full of interesting stories, and does a great job of re-creating New York in the early 1960s, including the colorful and long-shuttered nightclubs that the singer once called home.  Another strength is its discussion of the role that gay men played in launching Streisand’s career. It’s no secret that she has long been a gay icon (there was even a small unauthorized Streisand museum on San Francisco’s Castro Street in the 1990s, also called “Hello, Gorgeous!”), but one of the book’s revelations is the forgotten role of a small cadre of gay men who worked with her to develop her carefully achieved image and repertoire. Sometimes the lesson in a biography is that nobody goes it alone.


“Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman” by Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich (520 pages, Harvard University Press, $35)

“Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero” by Mordechai Bar-On (264 pages, Yale University Press, $25)

“Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” by William J. Mann (567 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.