Later this month, Yale University Press will publish Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb. The biography of the French actress will be the first book to emerge from the Jewish Lives series, a decade-long partnership between the press and the Leon D. Black Foundation to produce brief, interpretive biographies of prominent Jewish figures. The next volume, arriving in November, will be Bar-Ilan University historian Shmuel Feiner’s study of Moses Mendelssohn. The 92nd Street Y will put on two Jewish Lives events per year to provide a forum for the authors to discuss their books.
The series editors are Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University (and a contributor to The Chronicle Review), and Anita Shapira, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University. The editorial director of the series is Ileene Smith, editor-at-large at Yale University Press. I caught up with Smith by e-mail to ask her about the series.
Q: How did the idea for the Jewish Lives series come together?
A: The series was conceived by Leon Black in response to a question put to him by one of his sons about what it means to be Jewish. Leon’s response was to create a major series of books that would deepen general readers’ understanding of the currents of Jewish thought and identity from biblical times to the present.
Q: Why is there a need for a new series of Jewish-themed biographies? Is this an underpublished area?
A: Our series is different from any other to the extent that it is strictly biographical—there are no thematic books, and we are working very hard to include scholarly books as well as those for the trade. Besides, Jews thrive on a multiplicity of perspectives. It’s in our DNA.
Q: Why did you start the series with a biography of Sarah Bernhardt?
A: We launched with Bernhardt because her life raises so many powerful questions about what it means to be Jewish. Though she converted to Catholicism, she felt deeply identified as a Jew throughout her life. Then there is the sheer fascination of her life, especially through the eyes of Bob Gottlieb; and her enduring legacy as the greatest actress who ever lived.
Q: There are reportedly 50 books under contract. How did you assign the biographies?
A: Ahh, the rumors. . .We have actually signed 27, but Leon has spoken of wanting to do as many as one hundred books over the course of this decade. Acquisitions is a fairly elaborate consensus-based process in which the press consults closely with the series editors, who are an invaluable resource.
Q: What pairings of subject and author are you particularly excited about?
A: Saul Friedlander’s Kafka, Dorothy Gallagher’s Lillian Hellman, Rachel Cohen’s Bernard Berenson, Adam Phillips’ Freud, Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides, Jeffrey Rosen’s Brandeis, Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman, Yehudah Mirsky’s Rav Kook, Lee Siegel’s Groucho Marx and Allen Shawn’s Leonard Bernstein, immediately come to mind. But I feel a connection to the entire corpus of Jewish Lives books.
Q: What is the most unusual or unexpected pairing?
A: Our pairings are defined by a great deal of traction between subject and author. We want there to be an inevitability to the pairings.
Q: What other projects are you working on?
A: Janet Malcolm’s “Iphegenia in Forest Hills,” a brilliant anatomy of a murder trial in the Bukharin-Jewish community—a long excerpt appeared in The New Yorker; Wendy Lesser’s intimate yet powerful “Music for Silenced Voices,” about Shostakovich and his 15 string quartets, and An Ethical Compass, a volume of prizewinning essays by college students across the country who participated in the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s Ethics Prize contest over the past 20 years. Thomas Friedman calls it a “21st century survival manual” in his foreword. —Evan R. Goldstein