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Benjamin Disraeli (Jewish Encounters Series) 1st Edition

11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0805242492
ISBN-10: 080524249X
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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

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

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Product Details

  • Series: Jewish Encounters Series
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken; 1 edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080524249X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805242492
  • Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 1.1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,218,566 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Armchair Interviews on September 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In 1852 Benjamin Disraeli, Chancellor of the Exchequer, posed for a portrait created by Sir Francis Grant. The portrait depicts Disraeli as a young man with full, sensual lips, intelligent black eyes, and thick, dark hair. A detail from the portrait, which illustrates the cover of the new biography, Benjamin Disraeli, by Adam Kirsch, contrasts sharply with a photograph of Disraeli that is also included in the book.

That photograph represents the elder statesman in 1875, a portly gentleman with a receding hairline, his eyes tired yet wise; the corners of his mouth turned slightly upward in a weary smile. The contrasts suggested by these images deftly convey the themes of Kirsch's biography.

Kirsch reveals the complex, contradictory nature of a man born a Jew and raised in the Christian faith, a man who celebrated his Jewish heritage yet refused to join a campaign in 1840 to save Jews in Damascus from government sponsored torture. Liberal in his political outlook, Disraeli was both distrusted and resented by the conservatives in the House of Commons, but indispensable to their cause.

More than fifty biographies have been written about Benjamin Disraeli. Unlike his predecessors, Kirsch focuses his attention, not so much on Disraeli's political career, but on the psychological effects of his Jewish heritage. Kirsch examines how Disraeli and his contemporaries depicted Jews and Judaism in literature, and considers how such representations influenced social behavior and thought during the time of Disraeli's rise to power. Throughout the book, Kirsch provides fascinating details from Jewish history.

Benjamin Disraeli is the tenth book in the Schocken Books/Nextbook "Jewish Encounters" series. An exceptional portrait of an intriguing figure, this book will particularly appeal to those readers interested in studying the history of Jewish thought.

Armchair Interviews says: Most interesting biography.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Yehezkel Dror on February 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Capacity to Govern: A Report to the Club of Rome
From my perspective of the study and improvement of leadership, this book provides some fascinating perspectives. It demonstrates that every determined and talented person, to paraphrase Napoleon, carries in his kitbag the scepter of leadership, though much depends on brain, will and luck. Disraeli was the first (and still only) Jew, as he regarded and presented himself in spite of having been converted at a young age, to become Prime Minister of Great Britain, breaking through a steel ceiling. He succeeded thanks to being "special" in dress and behavior, standing out from the crowd of Aristocrats monopolizing at that time British politics. Being handsome helped a lot, as did his liking for rich and older women who served as mother-surrogates. But his main assets were total ambition, iron will and peak mental abilities.
Being an outstanding novelist maintained his mental balance during long periods of political failure. And, being mentally an outsider helped him to be a proto-neoconservative radical innovator, leading the Tories towards adopting a radical Reform Bill enlarging the franchise.
According to the author, Disraeli considered the option of becoming a Jewish People leader and return them to the Holy Land, but decided to become a leader of Great Britain instead. But, in bridging the abyss between being a Jew in mentality and a British in action, he helped bring about catastrophe. He advocated the idea that Jews are a "race", so that his having converted leaves his Jewish identity intact. Thus, he inadvertently helped lay the foundation for racial antisemitism leading ultimately to the Shoah.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Koz on March 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Disraeli by Kirsch is not a biography. It is a judeo-centric analysis of his political life.Every action is explained as a result of his Jewishness. It is a well-written dissertation, not an enlightening biography. Although it is short it is incredibly repetitive. There is no discussion of his life in the context of the history of the time. This should be your 4th or 5th book on Disraeli not your first. This is the third book I've read in the Jewish Encounters series (Maimonides by Nuland and Wicked Son by Mamet are the others). No more. They have all been lousy.
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Format: Hardcover
If you are looking for a comprehensive fact-laden, footnoted biography of Disraeli, this isn't it. But if you want insights into the ambitions and contradictions of one of the most intriguing political figures of modern history, Kirsch's book is well worth reading. The author artfully uses Disraeli's own novels to explore his subject's ambivalence about his Jewishness, his drive for power and fame, and his political beliefs. Disraeli comes alive in these pages as a recognizable human being - troubled, resourceful, brash...a man of his time and transcending his time. Beautifully written, this is a brisk, compelling, entertaining read, providing a both a concise history and convincing analysis of Disraeli's motivations. Highly recommended.
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By El Gringo on April 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Yes, the size of this book is slight compared to 400+ page behemoths that typically crowd the biography shelf. And yes, since this is part of the Jewish Encounters series, Adam Kirsch, the author, spends time discussing Disraeli's thoughts and feelings about being a Jew in Victorian England.

Still if you search for current biographies of Disraeli, you won't find much (at least on this side of the pond).

The book's size makes it ideal for the tote bag or carry-on; and in a day at the beach or a flight across the country a dedicated reader can learn something about and interesting man and his times.
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