Steven J. Zipperstein
Biography pulls at readers—and also at its authors—in ways different from any other form of history writing. At its best, it offers those immersed in it a sense of intimacy with the past, something of a one-on-one relationship that sets it apart from other exercises in historical excavation that can feel, in comparison rarified, or fleshless.
Each of us has written a range of books but biographical writing remains for us both something of a lodestone, a genre to which we return time and again. So, the prospect of helping to open up an entire library of first-rate biographical literature on Jews— the goal of the Jewish Lives series for which we serve as series editors—has been a heady, extraordinarily rewarding one. Quite how to select the right titles and how to pair them with the right authors has presented us, together with our Yale University Press colleague Ileene Smith and philanthropist Leon Black, with a host of challenges that we’ve sought to confront responsibly and imaginatively. Not the least of our challenges has been how to encompass the wide, dizzying array of ways in which, especially in modern times, Jews have lived Jewish lives and, hence the coexistence in our series, both already published and in preparation, of books on Sarah Bernhardt, Moshe Dayan, Bob Dylan, Lillian Hellman, and Rav Kook.
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 many more questions than they answer but that try to answer some tough, otherwise resilient ones. Biographies, when done well, ought to penetrate hearts as well as minds, ought to agitate more than they comfort, they ought to keep us awake because of all the questions they open up, and deepen, but rarely, if ever, explain away if only what they try to explain is the infinite complexity of how a life is lived.