Collective biographies tend not to be particularly popular as a genre, since we generally prefer the experience of exploring a single historical figure in depth. But there can be great gain in understanding lives when presented in relation to one another. Here are some new books that exemplify that value.
Assembled by an international group of academics, “Makers of Jewish Modernity” is a series of succinct biographical essays by accomplished scholars on 43 figures from a broad range of disciplines who had a profound impact, from the late-19th century to the beginning of the present one.
Perhaps the simplest effect of spending time with the book is appreciating how the world we inhabit is enormously different because of the contributions of Jews including Freud, Einstein and Kafka. However, as the title emphasizes “Jewish modernity,” we are invited to take a more inward-turning perspective. How did these people represent and form a particularly Jewish stance in the modern world, particularly in response to the European emancipation, the Holocaust and the rise of socialism and Zionism?
Although the introduction, written in fairly academic language, may scare off some readers, most of the essays are accessible, if dense. They enable one to discover less-known figures or see familiar ones with new eyes. For example, I enjoyed reading about Argentinean poet Juan Gelman, whose work I don’t know, and about the Jewish thought of Leo Strauss, whose name has often been dragged through the mud by virtue of his association with the neoconservative movement.
Adina Hoffman’s “Till We Have Built Jerusalem” introduces three architects who made an impact on the city during the British Mandate period from the 1920s through the 1940s. Although they emerged from dramatically different backgrounds, they shared an affinity for incorporating multiple cultural influences in their visions.
Erich Mendelsohn was a prominent and innovative German architect associated primarily with the Expressionist movement. Forced by the rise of Nazism to flee Germany in 1933, he eventually settled in Jerusalem, where he took on several prominent projects, including Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus and Jerusalem’s first “skyscraper,” the seven-story Anglo-Palestine Bank (now Bank Leumi) building on Jaffa Street.
Austen St. Barbe Harrison worked as the British administration’s chief architect in Palestine, and is best known for Jerusalem’s central post office and the Rockefeller Museum.
The final subject is Spyro Houris, a residential architect who left few traces of his life outside of his buildings. Hoffman undertakes quite a quest in pursuit of his story, and in the process uncovers more dimensions of Jerusalem’s multicultural past.
There is, inevitably, an aching political dimension to the story. Hoffman, who has lived in Jerusalem for a quarter of a century, looks rather longingly at the aesthetic dialogue that took place during this era in spite of an increasingly polarized political climate. Reflecting on the present day, she laments not only the direction in which building in Jerusalem has gone, but a culture of deliberate forgetting — holding that, if the memory of Spyro Houris faded with the departure of many Arab residents in 1948, it was further buried by a will among many Israelis to de-emphasize the presence and impact of non-Jews.
There are Bay Area dimensions not explored in the book that are worth mentioning. Mendelsohn had been enlisted to design the campus of Hebrew University, but was pushed out of the project by the university’s president, San Francisco-born Judah Magnes. Finally leaving Jerusalem, Mendelsohn settled in the Bay Area, where he taught at U.C. Berkeley and designed several distinguished San Francisco buildings, including Maimonides Hospital. His sole residential project in the United States is the Russell House in Pacific Heights, commissioned by a great-grandniece of Levi Strauss.
Alan Robert Ginsberg’s “The Salome Ensemble” looks at the lives of four extraordinary Jewish women who were linked to the 1925 Paramount film “Salome of the Tenements.” The film was based on Anzia Yezierska’s novel, in which a Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side attempts to escape her difficult life by marrying into a higher social class. Concealing her background, she marries a wealthy non-Jew, but ultimately decides to return to her community. Yezierska modeled her character largely on Rose Pastor Stokes, a prominent leftist and labor activist who married a wealthy non-Jewish businessman.
Ginsberg depicts a good amount of art imitating life, with each of the four women ascending in America against the odds and asserting independence. Like Pastor Stokes, Yezierska and the film’s screenwriter, Sonya Levien, were Eastern European immigrants from poor backgrounds. Levien received a law degree from NYU before deciding to go into writing. Yezierska became a prolific writer, and Ginsberg devotes significant attention to her unlikely romantic relationship with philosopher John Dewey (one might call it a marriage of opposites, but Dewey was married to someone else). Finally, the actress who played the title role was Jetta Goudal, a Dutch Jewish immigrant who also concealed her background in order to advance her career.
Sadly, the film “Salome of the Tenements” is, like a majority of the films from the silent era, considered lost forever. But Ginsberg has done an admirable job of commemorating the women who created it.
“Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders, and the World They Made” edited by Jacques Picard, Jacques Revel, Michael Steinberg and Idith Zertal (688 pages, Princeton University Press)
“Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City” by Adina Hoffman (368 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“The Salome Ensemble: Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia Yezierska, Sonya Levien, and Jetta Goudal” by Alan Robert Ginsberg (368 pages, Syracuse University Press)
Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.