From Publishers Weekly
Although he was a practicing Christian, baptized into the Church of England at age 12, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's (1804–1881) Jewishness was a central fact about him. Drawing on previous biographies, histories of English Jewry and Disraeli's autobiographical novels and other writings, poet and New York Sun
book critic Kirsch (Invasions
) interprets Disraeli's life as emblematic of both the possibilities of emancipation for European Jewry, and its subtle impossibilities. Kirsch sheds welcome light on Disraeli's father's ambivalence toward Judaism and his decision to baptize his children; the crude Jew-baiting Disraeli encountered at school and, later, in politics; his imagining Palestine as the site of Jewish national sovereignty; his ascent in the Conservative party, which, Kirsch says, was paradoxically a testament to English liberalism; and the half-century rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone that defined Victorian politics. Two of Disraeli's greatest political achievements, recounted here, are the passage of a bill that broadly expanded voting rights and the purchase, with a loan from his Rothschild friends, of a share in the Suez Canal Company for the British government. This is a lively, inquiring biography that reveals the prideful, exceptional man behind the famous politician. (Sept.)
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In his long public career, including two terms as prime minister, Disraeli encouraged the vast expansion and consolidation of the British Empire and presided over monumental changes in British political and social affairs. Yet this quirky, narrow-based, but intriguing biography pays scant attention to those landmark shifts. Instead, Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, has focused on Disraeli’s Jewish identity and the role it played in both his private and public life. Technically, Disraeli was not Jewish. His father, an assimilated writer, had his son baptized at the age of 12. Disraeli was a practicing Anglican who often showed disdain for some “barbaric” Jewish religious practices, and his direct contacts with Britain’s relatively small Jewish community were minimal. Still, as Kirsch convincingly asserts, Disraeli clung tight to his Jewish identity. He took immense pride in the cultural heritage of Judaism, and he used that pride as a weapon to fend off bigots, within and without Parliament, who attacked him as a “foreigner.” Those seeking a comprehensive account of Disraeli’s career must look elsewhere. --Jay Freeman