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Tracing the History of Jewish Autobiography

Being for Myself Alone:

Origins of Jewish Autobiography

By Marcus Moseley

Stanford University Press, 650 pages, $70.

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‘This is the Life Story of Judah Aryeh…. Few and evil have been the days of my life in this world… on Monday the 28th day of Nissan — corresponding to the 23d day of April 5331 — between the eighteenth and nineteenth hour, I the bitter and impetuous, was born. I, almost like Job and Jeremiah, would curse that day. For why did I go out [of the womb] to witness toil, anger, strife, and trouble — only evil continually? My mother experienced great difficulty in childbirth. I was born in the breech position, my buttocks turned around facing outward, so that calamities turned upon me even at the beginning.”

So wrote Leon (Yehuda Aryeh) Modena, a recognized Jewish intellectual figure in Renaissance Italy, in an absorbing document titled “Life of Yehuda” that scholars have long considered part of the grand Jewish autobiographical tradition.

But Modena’s “Life” is not autobiography. At least, not exactly, argues Marcus Moseley, associate professor of German and Jewish studies at Northwestern University, in his new work, “Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography.” Moseley explains that as much as it “evinces self referentiality,” it is ultimately more helpful to consider Modena’s remarkable “Life” in the way it falls short of the strategies of strict autobiography — a phenomenon, most scholars agree, that begins with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s 1782 “Confessions.” And so Moseley proceeds to disqualify, at least to a degree, a number of canonical texts commonly considered part of a “tradition of Jewish autobiography.” And anyway, as Moseley demonstrates, the gap between these texts and strict autobiography is where all the magic lies.

“Being for Myself Alone” began as Moseley’s dissertation at Oxford University and has been eagerly awaited by his friends and colleagues (full disclosure: I am one of them). It has been worth the wait: By reading just about everything relevant to his topic, crisscrossing disciplines and resolving contradictions, Moseley becomes the last word on just about each text he treats. And, in the end, Moseley offers a story of the development of 19th-century Hebrew and Yiddish-language autobiography, about which he states unequivocally: “In terms both of form and content, there is no precedent in the Jewish literary tradition.” But it is also a story of how Jews read and why they write, and it is once eloquently told.

Moseley dismisses the traditionalist notion that autobiography’s preoccupation with the self is alien to the Jewish sensibility. Can coincidence alone account for the remarkable similarity between Jacob Emden and Rousseau’s need to record their stomach ailments and “preoccupation with the penis” — their desire, in general, to make illness central to their self-understanding? Consider, too, Modena’s traumatic posterior-facing birth alongside those of Chateaubriand, Goethe, Edmund Gosse and Marc Chagall. There is something in the cultural ether, the human condition or the autobiographical enterprise itself that inspires autobiographers Jewish and otherwise to write about the same things. Self-probers, it seems, are a cross-cultural self-selected group.

True, Jewish autobiographical discourse only crystallizes in the 19th century with the Hebrew literary Renaissance, when Rousseauian autobiography strikes a chord with “this intellectually liberated but emotionally unsure element in Russian Jewry.” The first, by Shlomo Guenzburg, includes a candid story of wedding-night sexual impotence that sounds a deeply resonant note with his immediate audience. It is not long before the autobiographies of such writers as Moses Lieb Lilienblum, Joseph Chayim Brenner and Mordechai Zev Feierberg engage one another in offering critiques of their often still-young lives. The Hebrew writer Micah Joseph Berdichevsky called Lilienblum’s autobiography, “a bill of divorcement handed over by one generation to another.” With the accumulation of echoes distinct to these Jewish writers, the genre of autobiography is indigenized. The story never really ends. The autobiographies of the Enlightenment writers bred responses by such writers as the Orthodox Tsvi Hirsch Lipschitz, who published “From Generation to Generation” (1901) as a kind of revisionist autobiography, “a photographic positive of the negative image of Jewish life as this is presented in the literature of the Haskalah.”

What are the origins of Jewish autobiography? Obvious factors, like the rise of the novel, secular culture and, with it, the culture of solitary reading. For many modern writers the novel masquerading as autobiography served as inspiration. The autobiographical engulfs most of S.Y. Agnon’s fictional oeuvre, for instance, his narrator “an autobiographical avatar of the author… oddly detached, even from himself, deadpan, Chaplinesque.” The introspective Hasidic literature was an influence for figures like Y.L. Peretz. For the landslide of autobiographies elicited by the YIVO contest before World War II, the stimulus became Romain Roland’s “Jean Christophe.” And while no unbroken line of influence exists, the pre-modern texts anticipate benchmarks of modern Jewish autobiographical discourse. Moseley refuses to see Jewish autobiography as a hollow continuum, but is uncannily alive to how texts grow from other texts.

Moseley’s book enthralls the reader on multiple levels, with a light-footed erudition — a measured indebtedness to previous scholars of this material — and the author’s eye that is at times empathetic, at times critical and at times wonderfully voyeuristic. Finally, there are the autobiographers themselves, recording their worlds of personal dramas, ailments and losses with self-engrossment that ranges from the exquisite to the copious. One shudders to imagine how they were, for instance, as husbands –– Guenzburg describes his first sexual encounter as a man going to battle –– but through Moseley’s eyes, they and their self-portraits are charming and complex.

So long in coming, “Being for Myself Alone” itself evinces something of the autobiographical: Modena took 25 years to complete his account of his life; Guenzburg, no less than 17. But if there is any figure the author identifies with most, it is Berdichevsky, “whose lynx eyes were always on the lookout for the antinomian.” Though he never produced an autobiography, as Moseley points out, Berdichevsky left us with a rich and complex literary legacy. And so: We await further volumes of Moseley’s own rich and complex legacy.

Alyssa Quint is a regular contributor to the Forward.

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