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On the Bookshelf

Montefiore, Madoff, Mailer, and Maimonides

by
Josh Lambert
March 08, 2010
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

Some historical personalities lived so long and ranged so widely that they pose unusual challenges to biographers. Take Moses Montefiore, who lived from 1784 to 1885 and was among the most prominent men, let alone Jews, of his era. An Italian-born British banker, he made a fortune working with the Rothschilds, was knighted by Queen Victoria, and extended his philanthropic and humanitarian activities from Damascus, Morocco, Romania, and Russia to Jerusalem, where he founded the neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim. For the first scholarly biography of this towering figure—Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero (Harvard, March)—Oxford historian Abigail Green chased down sources in nine languages, housed in archives in 11 countries.

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The subject of Tom De Haven’s new book started out from humble Jewish beginnings but has had adventures and wielded influence in even more countries than Montefiore did—and, unlike Montefiore, this guy can leap buildings in a single bound. Our Hero: Superman on Earth (Yale, February) surveys the vast legacy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s mythic creation not just in comic books but also on television, radio, film, and a hodgepodge of marketing tie-ins (Superman sliced bread, anyone?). Those who interpret the Man of Steel’s Kryptonian name, “Kal-El,” as a nod to Hebrew tradition should note that, as De Haven explains, it was not Siegel and Shuster, but George Lowther—announcer for the Superman radio program, and author of the first Superman novel written in plain old prose—who changed Supes’s birth name from “Kal-L” to “Kal-El.”

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At least as iconic a 20th-century coupling as that of Superman and Lois Lane, the improbable marriage of Marilyn Monroe to the playwright Arthur Miller captivated the world in the mid-1950s—and marked, at least according to some readings, the entrance of Jews into the American mainstream. In The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (Illinois, March), serial biographer Jeffrey Meyers retells the tale of the playwright and the starlet, focusing on why they got together, what they managed to create together, and why they fell apart.

Troubled and brief as the Miller-Monroe marriage was, a few years cohabiting with Marilyn has sounded a lot like heaven to a surprising number of male Jewish intellectuals. But then everyone has his own vision of paradise, as Newsweek’s religion editor, Lisa Miller, explains in Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife (Harper, March), her ecumenical survey of the idea of an afterlife through history and across religious traditions.

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American Jewish writers fascinated by Monroe included Norman Rosten, Alvah Bessie, and most notoriously Norman Mailer, who published Marilyn: A Novel Biography in 1973. A couple of years later, Mailer met Barbara Davis Norris, a woman half his age who had been raised as a Free Will Baptist in Arkansas and had previously dated another womanizer by the name of William Jefferson Clinton who was destined for national celebrity. In 1980, she married Mailer in his Brooklyn Heights home, taking on the name Norris Church Mailer and becoming his sixth wife. She describes their tumultuous lives together in A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir (Random House, April).

While his weddings kept him plenty busy, Mailer pursued interests in more than just matrimony: In fact, the greater and more universal the icon, the further he pushed himself to capture it with his prose. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of his Of a Fire on the Moon (1970)—not to mention the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that the book lovingly describes—an enterprising art publisher has packaged Mailer’s text with high quality photographs to produce a volume titledNorman Mailer,MoonFire: The Epic Journey of Apollo 11 (Taschen, April). The 1969 limited-edition copies retail for the appropriately astronomical price of $1,500.

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During the past year, two very different men who represent Jewry at its best and worst, respectively—Maimonides and Madoff—have been the subjects of an astonishing number of books. This month sees the publication of yet another volume about each of them, by a single publisher; the pleasant surprise is that both constitute worthwhile additions to their respective crowded bookshelves. T. M. Rudavsky, an expert in medieval Jewish thought at Ohio State, offers up Maimonides (Wiley, March), a brief, philosophically inclined introduction to Rambam’s life and works. Harry Markopolos, meanwhile, describes his attempts to alert authorities to Madoff’s fraud over eight years and the SEC’s uselessness in No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller (Wiley, March). According to this persistent whistleblower, Madoff wasn’t just a financial fraudster, but a gangster—his scheme was, as Markopolos says, “a remake of the Jewish mafia of the ’30s and ’40s, with Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Only instead of using a Tommy gun, Madoff used a pen, a computer, and a set of golf clubs to lure in his victims.” Yes, it’s an overblown and clumsy metaphor, and one wonders if Markopolos might strain his arm a little, patting himself on the back so much. But being on the record against Madoff nearly a decade before the story broke surely earns him the right to some self-righteous rhetorical excess.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

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