Celebrating Jewish Literature: Nontraditional biographies

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The dictionary defines a biography as an account of someone’s life. Normally, that means outlining the events that took place between a person’s birth and death. However, two recent works are as much, if not more, interested ion the aftereffects of their subjects’ lives than they are of the details of those lives. In “Maimonides: Faith in Reason” (Yale University Press), Alberto Manguel offers far more information about Maimonides’ writings and how future generations were influenced by them than he does of his subject’s life. While Benjamin Balint does offer more details about Bruno Schultz’s life, he also focuses on the artist/author’s work and the debate over who should own his heritage in “Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History” (W. W. Norton and Company).

Manguel seems an odd choice to write a work about Maimonides: in his preface, he acknowledges that, before researching his subject, he only “had a vague notion of who Maimonides was (a great philosopher, a great legislator, a great medical doctor) and I remembered the intriguing title of his Guide To The Perplexed, but little more.” His reason for writing the book was thinking that “Maimonides might be suitable to my condition of permanent perplexity.” That means that Manguel focuses more on Maimonides’ ideas than he does on his life story. That is also understandable in a different way: many details of the rabbi/philosopher/doctor’s life are lost to history. 

Readers do learn some basic details: Maimonides was born Moses ben Maimon in Cordoba in 1138 when Spain was still under Arabic rule. (Although he later gained the names Maimonides and Rambam, Manguel uses the former throughout the book.) Thirteen years later, his family left the area and traveled through other parts of Spain, North Africa and Palestine before settling in Egypt in 1165 where Maimonides lived until his death in 1204. While in Egypt, he practiced medicine, in addition to writing his best known works, “The Mishnah Torah” and “The Guide to the Perplexed.” He also produced many medical works and served as a doctor to the royal family of Egypt. Maimonides refused payment for his religious services and teaching, which made his medical work necessary in order to support his family. 

The main focus of the book is its overview of Maimonides’ work. Chapters focus on him as a physician, a scholar, a philosopher and a believer. Maimonides’ philosophical approach was generally a rational one, although contemporary readers may disagree with his approach to rationality. According to Manguel, Maimonides saw the body and soul as one thing: “The soul has its home in the body and guides it from within. In this respect, God’s law is aimed at essentially two things: the health of the body and the improvement of the soul; in every case, the health of the former is a means of achieving that of the latter. The soul is also improved by acquiring the true knowledge of all that a human being is capable of knowing. The more knowledge the soul acquires, the better it is able to fulfil God’s commandments.” Maimonides also felt it was impossible to speak about God’s attributes: one should only speak of God in the negative, noting what God was not, rather than defining God in comparison to humans. As Manguel writes, “Careful not to anthropomorphize or define God through external qualities, Maimonides concentrated instead on understanding his commandments. ‘Why is this happening?’ in Maimonides’ mind became ‘How should I respond?’” 

Although “Maimonides: Faith in Reason” is part of the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, the work seems aimed at a general audience rather than a Jewish one. Those specifically interested in Maimonides’ work from a Jewish standpoint may find some sections of less interest since they also look at his influence on non-Jewish philosophers and the philosophers who may have influenced him. It also helps to have a basic knowledge of philosophical concepts in order to understand the meaning of specific terms. However, Manguel’s book does offer a good introductory look at the work of this major Jewish figure. 

While Maimonides/Rambam is a well known Jewish figure, the same was not always true of Bruno Schulz, an artist/writer, who gained headlines when a mural he painted during the Holocaust was found and secretly transported to Israel in 2001. That was only the beginning of the debate about who owned Schulz’s legacy. As Balint notes, “Schulz was born an Austrian, lived as a Pole, and died a Jew. His life began under the banner of the Austro-Hungarian double-headed eagle and ended in the genocidal dehumanizations of Nazi occupation. Born a citizen of the Habsburg monarchy, Schulz would – without moving – become a subject of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (November 1918 to July 1919), the Second Polish Republic (1919 to 1939), the USSR (September 1939 to July 1940), and, finally, the Third Reich. Yet to use his own metaphor, Schulz remained throughout a citizen of the Republic of Dreams.”

Born in 1892, Schulz’s birthplace, Drohobycz, was relatively friendly to its Jews. Balint notes that “during Schulz’s childhood, more than 40 percent of the town’s inhabitants were Jews, some 30 percent Catholic Poles, and 30 percent Ukrainians. By decades-long tradition, Drohobycz was administered by a Catholic Polish mayor and a Jewish vice mayor. Some 80 percent of the employees and managers in the city’s oil refineries were Jews... Most shops were closed on Shabbat.” However, Balint writes that Schulz himself had little to do with Judaism, even at one point declaring himself not Jewish in order to marry, although the marriage never took place. His true world was Drohobycz: even though he left on several occasions, he always returned. In fact, even when it became clear that it was dangerous to remain, Schulz refused to leave.

Schulz managed some success as a writer and artist – his stories were praised and exhibitions of his artwork took place – before the German invasion put an end to his career. When the Nazis took over control of Drohobycz, Schulz came under the protection of SS Hauptscharführer Felix Landau, a sadist who tried to protect his pet artist. Landau had him paint murals, among which were the one taken to Israel. Finally, Schulz realized the need to escape and had his plans set, but he was murdered in 1942 before they could be set in motion. Balint includes five potential versions of Schulz’s death because there is no agreement about what actually happened. 

Most biographies conclude with the death of their subject. However, Balint discusses Schulz’s continued influence for 80 more pages, which focus on what happened to his work and reputation after his death. When the Soviet Union took over his town, Schulz’s work and life disappeared. Balint writes of how what remained of his work – much was lost during the war – was rediscovered and of the debate that occurred about Schulz’s heritage, with him being claimed not only by the Jewish community, but Poland and Ukraine. As Balint notes, “Among his readers and commentators, Schulz’s fiction has become a Rorschach for personal and national predilections both.” Those unfamiliar with Schulz’s work will find learning about his life and heritage gives them a better understanding of the Jewish European experience before World War II. Admirers of Schulz’s art and writing will gain a greater understanding of the world that influenced him, even if he did not always acknowledge its existence.