Louis Brandeis, flanked by Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise, founding secretary of the American Federation of Zionists (right) and Nathan Straus, co-owner of Macy's(Library of Congress)

At 900 pages, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin Urofsky, may be more than twice the size of an ordinary biography, but because Brandeis had four major careers, even this door-stopper of a book can claim to be economical. Brandeis’s chief claim to fame, of course, is his long tenure as a Supreme Court justice. From 1916 to 1939, the first Jew on the Supreme Court was one of its most influential members, even when his progressive views and commitment to what he called “a living law” placed in him in the minority. According to Urofsky, “no justice of the twentieth century had a greater impact on American constitutional jurisprudence,” and much of this biography’s bulk is owed to its detailed treatment of Brandeis’s legal thought.

Long before he was appointed to the court, however, Brandeis was nationally known for his work on behalf of the Progressive movement, waging battles against railroad monopolies, exploitive insurance companies, and political corruption. It was his fame as a reformer that led Woodrow Wilson to pick Brandeis for the court even though he had never been a judge—something that would be unimaginable in our more cautious and credentialized age. (Before naming him to the Court, Wilson contemplated making Brandeis attorney general or even secretary of commerce.) And before he became a reformer, Brandeis was a leading lawyer and legal thinker, whose firm, Warren and Brandeis, was one of the most important in Boston. Even if Brandeis had never done anything after co-writing “The Right to Privacy,” a pioneering article in the Harvard Law Review, in 1890, he would have a place in legal history.

All three of these careers—lawyer, reformer, judge—fit together naturally enough. It is Brandeis’s fourth career, as the founding father of American Zionism, that poses the biggest biographical enigma. While the fact that Brandeis was Jewish was well known, before 1912 he displayed virtually no interest in Jewish issues. He “had a number of Jewish clients and did some legal and advisory work for the Boston Jewish community,” Urofsky writes, but “he had avoided taking on major responsibilities. His contributions to various Jewish charities had been nominal, well below what a person of his means could have given.” Nor was he a practicing or believing Jew: “At home, [the Brandeis family] celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday for the children, complete with tree and toys.”

This arm’s-length approach to Judaism was the natural result of Brandeis’s upbringing. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1856, the youngest child of German-speaking Jews from Prague who had come to America, like many German liberals, following the failed revolution of 1848. Unlike most of the Eastern European Jews who immigrated at the end of the century, the Brandeis clan was already assimilated and prosperous when they arrived in the United States. His father and mother, Adolph and Frederika, crossed the Atlantic with a group of twenty-six family members, toting “twenty-seven great chests … and two grand pianos.” Clearly, they did not belong to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Louis grew up speaking German at home, and his father’s business flourished thanks to his connections among the (non-Jewish) German communities of the Midwest. The Jewish part of the family’s heritage was more or less ignored—or, as Louis put it later in life, his parents “were not so narrow as to allow their religious beliefs to overshadow their interest in the broader aspects of humanity.” Urofsky tells a suggestive story from Louis’s childhood, about the time when his sisters Fannie and Amy decided to attend Yom Kippur services for the sake of the music, which they had never heard. Louis and his brother Alfred drove to the synagogue in a carriage to fetch them, only to be berated by the congregants—they didn’t know that Jews weren’t supposed to ride on the holiday.

The real spiritual values of Brandeis’s childhood were an intense American patriotism and a commitment to community service, both of which bore fruit in his reform work. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1878, at the age of just twenty-one—this was in the era when it was not necessary to get an undergraduate degree before studying law—Brandeis formed his partnership with Sam Warren, and very soon he was making a lot of money. (By 1890, Urofsky writes, he was earning more than $50,000 a year, making him perhaps the top-paid lawyer in Boston; the average lawyer made less than $5,000.) But he and his wife, Alice Goldmark, a second cousin whom he married in 1891, believed in living modestly, so that they could devote themselves to public service. “Some men buy diamonds and rare works of art; others delight in automobiles and yachts,” Brandeis once told a reporter. “My luxury is to invest my surplus effort, beyond that required for the proper support of my family, to the pleasure of taking up a problem and solving, or helping to solve, it for the people without receiving any compensation.”

This noble creed led Brandeis, starting in his forties, to devote more and more of his time to pro bono work. (In fact, Urofsky credits Brandeis with helping to make such unpaid public work a standard lawyerly obligation.) The first third of Urofsky’s book is devoted to this phase of Brandeis’s career, in which he served as “an attorney for the people”—arguing in the Supreme Court on behalf of minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws, fighting the New Haven Railroad’s attempt to monopolize Massachusetts rail lines, and helping establish a system of Savings Bank Life Insurance, which allowed workers to buy cheap policies. “The great opportunity of the American Bar,” Brandeis told a Harvard audience in his 1905 speech “The Opportunity in the Law,” “is and will be to stand again as it did in the past, ready to protect … the interests of the people.”

Brandeis’s surprising turn to Zionism can be seen as another manifestation of the same familial noblesse oblige. The only practicing Jew Brandeis had known growing up was his maternal uncle, Lewis Dembitz, a successful lawyer who was involved in the founding of Jewish Theological Seminary. Brandeis idolized his uncle, whom he once compared to the ancient Athenians for his “longing to discover truths,” and he changed his own middle name from David to Dembitz in Lewis’s honor. Brandeis was intrigued, then, when in 1910, the editor of a Boston Jewish newspaper, interviewing him on the subject of life insurance, asked him if he was related to Lewis Dembitz. Dembitz, the editor said, was “a noble Jew,” for he “had been one of the first Americans to support Theodor Herzl.”

This Daniel Deronda-like episode was Brandeis’s introduction to Zionism, and in 1912 he joined the small Federation of American Zionists. But it was in 1914, as Urofsky shows, that Brandeis vaulted to the head of the movement. With the outbreak of World War I, the European Zionists found themselves divided and paralyzed, even as the danger to Eastern European Jews and the Jewish settlements in Palestine increased. An emergency meeting of American Zionists was called at the Hotel Marseilles in New York, where Brandeis accepted the leadership of the new Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affair, the forerunner of what became, in 1918, the Zionist Organization of America.

From 1914 to 1921, Brandeis was the head of the American Zionist movement. Urofsky carefully balances his achievements in that role with the limitations that eventually led him to be unseated, by a rival faction allied with Chaim Weizmann. Brandeis was a great believer in facts and organization, and his slogan as head of the Provisional Executive Committee was “Men! Money! Discipline!” He was a hugely successful fundraiser, channeling American Jewish wealth to the poor Jewish communities of Europe; between 1912 and 1919, the membership of the committee increased from 12,000 to 176,000. Yet as a technocrat with a cold, reserved temperament, he proved unable to harness the enthusiasm of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and he never shared the cultural and religious zeal that inspired most Zionists.

His major achievement, Urofsky convincingly argues, was to make Zionism acceptable to newly Americanized Jews, by showing that Zionism and American patriotism did not conflict. On the contrary, he always insisted that “the highest Jewish ideals are essentially American,” that “to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” One reason Brandeis was so enthusiastic about Palestine, especially after he visited in 1919, was that he saw in it a blank slate for Jews to create the kind of democratic, egalitarian society he was working for in America.

It followed that American Jews did not have to make aliyah to be genuine Zionists. Rather, Brandeis laid out the terms of the compact that still governs American Jews’ relations with Israel: they would offer money and moral support, but not sacrifice their Americanness. When Brandeis was nominated to the Supreme Court, he took it as vindication: “in the opinion of the President,” he wrote, “there is no conflict between Zionism and loyalty to America.” This is what almost all American Jews still believe, despite increasingly vocal criticism of Israel and “the Israel lobby.” For this, as for so much else, Urofsky reminds us, we have Louis Brandeis to thank.

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.