The Person or the Noise?

November 27, 2011 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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I had a primary school teacher who said that “history” was really “his story”.  I can forgive his sexism – but not his etymology…writes Rabbi Raymond Apple.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

The word is actually from the Greek “historein”, to see, enquire, account or narrate (“histor” is a judge). But in one sense I concede that my teacher did have a point, in that much of history is what people were and did. As a child I read Van Loon’s Lives, which shows that the way to history is not only economic, political, cultural, ideological, geographical, but also biographical. So back to Greek origins.  “Bios” means life (hence words such as biology, biochemistry, etc.), and “graphein” is to write.

Biography is hard to write. Its focus is on a life or lives. It was said of Hitler: “That man does not exist. He is only the noise he makes”. So I ask every biographer, “What are you writing about – the person or the noise?”

My own experience as a biographer is mostly of rabbis and intellectuals: I have written about Nathan Marcus and Hermann Adler, Berlin, Billigheimer, Brodie, Cohen, Danglow, Davis, Goldman, Hirschell and others, and am working on a series called “Great Australian Rabbis”.  I have even written a personal memoir (titled To Be Continued, published by Mandelbaum Publishing and the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 2010), not out of vanity but to ponder my areas of activity and involvement. I have learned a few things along the way.  I call them “Warnings to the Biographer”:

  • • You may not always like the person you are writing about, but let the sources speak for themselves – and place the person in their context.
  • • There are extremes to avoid – one is tokhehah: revenge or punishment, and the other is hesped: fulsome flattery or whitewashing.

Alexander Marx says in his Essays in Jewish Biography (1947): “I have striven, as far as it is humanly possible, to present an objective picture… not permitting my personal feelings of admiration or intimate friendship to blind my judgment”.  Good advice.  The question when you have done your work is, Did the person I wrote about really exist, or was it all just noise? Does the reader see what Israel Zangwill called “pages filled with coloured pictures?”

Depicting people’s lives is easier in relation to an earlier age because so much of the material is extant. These days it’s harder.   People don’t write letters any more (is it because of computers, a lack of manners or time, or both?)  But how can one write biography without letters and bundles of papers? We have a looming new problem of source material – and emails are not likely to help since most get trashed when an inbox begins to burst.

In Jewish biography, how do we measure the way a person flitted in and out of their Jewish identity?  Or the impact of their environment?  Some Jewish biographers want to preach a sermon on pride in one’s heritage.  As a preacher I am always tempted to follow that view: as a historian I have a different task. I have to paint what my eyes see, not how my dreams brush it up. It’s not easy.

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