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Biographies and Autobiographies

Apart from the Book of *Nehemiah , which may well be considered an autobiography, *Josephus ' apologetic Vita, and *hagiographic works, autobiographies and biographies are completely unknown among Jews in ancient times. The first biography known is that of *Saadiah Gaon which was written by his two sons She'erit and *Dosa at the request of *Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut (published by J. Mann, JQR, 11 (1920/21), 423–8, and by A. Scheiber in KS, 40 (1964/65), 571).

In Medieval Hebrew Literature

The biographic genre was also unknown to medieval Hebrew literature and there is almost no writing in the field. The lack of development of this literary vehicle is rooted in two main aspects of medieval Hebrew culture. Historians and chroniclers were mainly concerned with events and not personalities as such; a person was important only insofar as he influenced or participated in a major historical event. The lives of major Jewish personalities are, therefore, outlined only briefly in Jewish historiography, and there is no full biography in the modern sense. Historiographers, who were mainly interested in the process of the transmission of the Torah, tended to list scholars and rabbis in chronological order, briefly describing the achievements of each in the field of learning, and only mentioning by the way such details as birthplace, travels, family, and death. Jewish historiography, focusing primarily on historical events, developed the art of historical description at the expense of biography.

The Influence of Hagiography on Biography

Hagiography, however, influenced the fate of biographic literature probably more than historiography. Hebrew medieval writers who concentrated on an historical figure and gave some biographic facts, usually added legendary or panegyric details and thus turned their accounts into hagiographies. Medieval Judaism viewed the actions of an outstanding personality as model behavior to serve as an exemplum. No full description of his life and personality (his faults and his virtues) was, therefore, needed. The only interest the medieval writer and reader could find in the story of a great personage was in the moral to be drawn from his actions and his character. This ethical and didactic approach, driven to the extreme, rendered almost all Hebrew writings about major personalities into heroic legends and not authentic biographies. The cycle of stories about such figures as Abraham *Ibn Ezra , *Naḥmanides , *Rashi , *Judah b. Samuel he-ḥasid , Isaac *Luria , *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov , and many others are legendary hagiographies, having little direct historical data and giving a partial portraiture of the protagonist. Historians like Abraham *Ibn Daud , author of Sefer ha-Kabbalah, only briefly mention the sages and scholars who transmitted the Torah. When he dwells on actual personalities, like the scholars in "The Four Captives," his description is purely hagiographic. The same is true of Gedaliah *Ibn Yaḥya and many others, including the first Hebrew medieval chronologist, *Sherira Gaon . Personal accounts sometimes formed polemic material in a religious conflict, e.g., the biography of Anan, the founder of the Karaite sect. Sherira describes him as a frustrated, ambitious, evil man; the Karaites wrote hagiographies to extol his deeds. Biographic elements are scattered throughout Hebrew epistolary, hagiography, and historiography, but as a literary form, biography came into its own only in modern Hebrew literature. An exception to this, however, is the biographical introduction to the Ma'yenei ha-Yeshu'ah of Isaac *Abrabanel by Baruch Uzziel b. Baruch Forti (Ḥazketto) in 1551. The author probably gleaned Abrabanel's autobiographical fragments from his introductions to commentaries to Joshua, Kings, and Deuteronomy, and from his responsa to Saul Kohen. *Ahimaaz b. Paltiel wrote his Megillat Yuḥasin in the middle of the 11th century on the history of his family.

Historiography Written as Personal Experience

The autobiographic genre was a more apt vehicle of literary expression than the biography in the Middle Ages. This was mainly due to the intrinsic nature of the art itself. The need for self-scrutiny (the characteristic of autobiography) has greater impetus than the biographic sketches of authors. Medieval and Renaissance writings, letters, introductions to books, apologies, and personal diaries contain autobiographic elements and sketches much more than biographic elements. In these works, however, the writer also focused on the historical event and the part he had played in it rather than on his own personal life. Maimonides, describing his life in his letters, gives an account of his daily working schedule and of certain aspects of his life. Azariah dei *Rossi , in the introduction to his Me'or Einayim (Mantua, 1574), describes the Ferrara earthquake of 1570 which he witnessed and which in part was the stimulus of the book.

Legendary Autobiography

Since the early Middle Ages, another aspect of autobiography was known in Jewish writings: the legendary autobiography. *Eldad ha-Dani , the first writer of this autobiographic form (appeared in Babylonia in the late ninth century), claimed to be a member of the tribe of Dan. In his work, he describes the life of the Ten Lost Tribes in detail. This, however, forms only part of his whole account, much of which is devoted to his various adventures in faraway lands among strange peoples. This narration is typical of imaginary or legendary autobiography.

The thread of this literary expression was picked up centuries later by a much more accomplished autobiographer, David ha-*Reuveni . In a detailed autobiography he describes his birthplace in the lands of the Ten Lost Tribes, his numerous adventures on his way to Italy and especially in Palestine, and his political and diplomatic efforts to organize an army to conquer Palestine. He even includes in his work a detailed expense account, listing his expenditures at every step of his travels. His autobiography is, in fact, an apology: he blames various treacherous friends for the failure of his venture.

Another autobiography, also an apology, is Gei Ḥizzayon by Abraham *Jagel (16th century). It is an imaginative vision of the afterworld containing autobiographical elements. Jagel, in prison, relates his life story and how he came to be imprisoned, to his dead father who appears to him in a dream and takes him on a trip to the various heavenly spheres. This autobiography is probably the first to be written in Hebrew by a minor writer about a comparatively trivial life. The focus is not on any major historical event, nor on the author's participation in a noteworthy adventure. Jagel used the autobiographic form to express his misery and to complain about the injustice done to him. Due to its concentration on the personal. Gei Ḥizzayon may be described as the first autobiography to be written in Hebrew. Earlier works belong more to the field of historiography which were written as personal experience.

Modena's Hayyei Yehudah

Probably the most representative work of the genre and literally the best-developed autobiography written in Hebrew during the Middle Ages is Ḥayyei Yehudah ("The Life of Judah"), by Leone (Judah Aryeh) *Modena . In short passages and sometimes long stories, Modena describes in detail a 20-year span in his life. The sincere revelation of the inner self in Modena's account has not been equaled by any Hebrew writer until modern times. He candidly describes his addiction to card-playing, which repeatedly threw him into debt and obliged him to use any means and choose any work to earn enough to cover them. He depicts in detail the tragic fate of his three sons: one was killed in an unsuccessful alchemic experiment, the second, in a street fight, and the third left Italy after being condemned to row in the galleys without his father ever learning of his whereabouts. His various illnesses, those of his wife and of his relatives, are discussed in detail, as well as his dreams, his visions, and his astrological beliefs. A profound cynical skepticism can be discerned in his writings. Modena's work may also be seen as an apology: the apology of a man who saw himself as a failure in every way (history today contradicts this judgment). He blamed the stars for the tragedies he had suffered and the misfortunes which befell him. Probably his belief in astrological determinism psychologically allowed him to lay bare unashamedly the different facets of his character (of which he was far from proud).

Other Autobiographic Elements and Sketches

In line with Modena's work, almost full autobiographies can be reconstructed from the letters of R. Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto , and from the letters of other writers. Some autobiographic elements and sketches are to be found in ḥasidic literature where various rabbis sincerely describe their own spiritual development, e.g., R. *Naḥman of Bratslav. In kabbalistic literature, another type of autobiography is to be found: kabbalists describing their visions and the development of their mystical insight. The most noteworthy among these are the visions of Solomon *Molcho which, together with some actual autobiographical passages, form a full spiritual autobiography in the modern sense (Abraham b. Joseph Rothenburg, Ḥayyat Kaneh, Ḥazon Shelomo Molkho, ed. by A.S. Aescoly, 1938). Such elements are found also in Maggid Meisharim, R. Joseph *Caro 's diary on his heavenly revelations, and in other writings of kabbalists.

[Joseph Dan]

Memoirs and Introductions

Memoirs, from those of Glueckel of *Hameln of the 17th century to the diary of Anne *Frank , may be termed "unconscious autobiographies" which were not intended for publication. The valuable autobiographical material, which was sometimes included in the introduction to halakhic works, is the nearest approach to autobiographies of the rabbis. Notable among them are Isaac *Abrabanel 's introductions to his biblical commentaries, and those which were produced under the stress of two great catastrophes which overtook European Jewry, the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the *Chmielnicki massacres of 1648. Prominent among those who described their sufferings in the expulsion from Spain was the author Isaac *Caro (see H.H. Ben-Sasson, in Zion, 26 no. 2 (1961), 23–64). Shabbetai b. Meir ha-Kohen and Moses b. Abraham *Mat of Przemysl (in Matteh Moshe) are among those who described the period of the Chmielnicki massacres.

Modern Times

With the dawn of emancipation and enlightenment, real biographies began to make their appearance. Among the first of these was Isaac *Euchel 's Toledot Rambaman on Moses Mendelssohn. Ezekiel *Feivel 's Toledot Adam on Solomon Zalman b. Isaac of Volozhin (1801), and Moses Kunitz's Beit Rabbi on Judah ha-Nasi (1805). Dov Ber *Birkenthal of Bolechow wrote his Zikhroynes, an important source for material on Jews of Galicia in the 18th century (Heb., Eng., Yid., 1922). Solomon Maimon's autobiography (1792) was revolutionary in more than one sense and evoked the approval of such literary giants as Goethe and Schiller. The autobiography of L. *Bendavid (1804) also belongs here. The scholarly impulse given by the movement for Wissenschaft des Judentums and the related Haskalah in Eastern Europe prompted men like L. *Zunz and S.J. *Rapoport to write biographical sketches of the great Jewish scholars of the past, whose lives – as distinct from their scholarly work – had remained obscure. Zunz wrote a "Life of Rashi," a task that was later taken up by Maurice Liber and Eliezer Meir Lipschuetz. Rapoport published a series of biographical sketches (Toledot Gedolim) covering Eleazar Kallir, Saadiah Gaon, *Hananel b. Ḥushi'el , Nissim b. Jacob, and others. Since then, biographies or lengthy monographs have been written about many of the significant figures in Jewish history and literature. Some, like Louis Finkelstein's Akiba, have been major studies, as is the two-volume work in history on The House of Nasi by Cecil Roth (Dona Gracia, The Duke of Naxos), while Louis *Ginzberg wrote a series of penetrating biographical studies of famous scholars. In recent years some biographies of ḥasidic rabbis, who were previously described in a distinctly hagiographic character, have been written on a rational and scientific basis, an example of which is The Zaddik on *Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye , by S.H. Dresner. The list is too numerous to be given, but mention may be made of what may be called biographical anthologies. Israel Kammelhar has written biographies of all the great figures of medieval German Ḥasidim. The Sarei ha-Me'ah on the rabbis of the 19th century by Rabbi J.L. *Fishman , though sometimes uncritical, is a treasurehouse of biographical material. Much biographical material from prominent Jewish characters of the 18th–20th centuries is contained in the last three volumes of "The Jewish Library" series, edited by Leo Jung (vol. 6, Jewish Leaders 17501940, 1953; vol. 7, Guardians of Our Heritage, 1958; vol. 8, Men of Spirit, 1964). Naturally the general vogue of compiling biographies of contemporary Jewish figures after their decease is as marked among Jews as in general literature, but it contains no specific Jewish aspect. From the end of the last century autobiographies have become more common. Mention may be made of those of Isaac Hirsch Weiss, J.L. Gordon, Ḥ.N. Bialik, Chaim Weizmann, Cyrus Adler, and Nahum Goldmann. H. Ribalow has published an anthology of autobiographies of American Jews (1965). Other collections have included Leo W. *Schwarz 's Memoirs of my People (1943) and H. Bach's Juedische Memoiren aus drei Jahrhunderten (1936).

Yiddish Life-Writing

With the exception of a few pre-modern Yiddish memoirs, most notably the memoirs of Glueckel of Hameln (1689–1719; publ. as Zikhroynes, 1896), Yiddish life-writing has developed since the 1860s, beginning with fictional autobiographies Sholem Yankev *Abramovitsh 's Dos Kleyne Mentshele ("The Little Man," 1864) and Yitskhok Yoel Linetsky's Dos Poylishe Yingl ("The Polish Lad," 1867). The first biographical entries on Yiddish writers appeared in Nahum Sokolov's Sefer Zikkaron le-Sofrei Yisrael ha-Ḥayyim Itanu ka-Yom ("A Memoir Book of Contemporary Jewish Writers," 1889), and *Sholem Aleichem presented biographical entries on Yiddish writers in his Di Yidishe Folks-Bibliotek ("The Yiddish Folk Library," 1888). While the first Yiddish literary autobiography was Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh's Shloyme Reb Khayims ("Shloyme, Hayim's Son," 1894–1914, first part in Hebrew, Petikhta, later reworked in Yiddish), the two other classical Yiddish writers, Sholem Aleichem (Funem Yarid, "From the Fair," 1913–16) and I.L. *Peretz (Mayne Zikhroynes, "My Memoirs," 1913–16), also wrote autobiographical novels.

In addition to literary autobiography, other subgenres emerged in the 20th century. Yekhezkel Kotik's Mayne Zikhroynes ("My Memoirs," 1913) exemplifies the rich subgenre of Yiddish ethnographic memoir, while the memoirs of Jewish political leaders and party members, cultural leaders, actors, painters, and other artists also appeared. A rich subgenre also developed in the poeme or long narrative poem, e.g. Menakhem Boreysho's Der Geyer. Kapitln fun a Lebn ("The Walker: Chapters from a Life," 1943). A particularly rich sub-genre is the Holocaust memoir, originally crafted as testimony and eyewitness account to the era's unspeakable crimes, exemplified in Mark Turkov's 176-volume series, Dos Poylishe Yidntum ("Polish Jewry," Buenos Aires 1946–66), which includes Elie *Wiesel 's Un di Velt hot Geshvign ("And the World Was Silent," 1955, later reworked in French, La Nuit, and English Night).

The outstanding examples of Yiddish life-writing are Jacob *Glatstein 's autobiographical novels Ven Yash iz Geforn ("When Yash Set Out," 1938) and Ven Yash iz Gekumen ("When Yash Arrived," 1940); Jonah *Rosenfeld 's Eyner Aleyn ("All Alone"); Y.Y. *Trunk 's seven-volume Poyln: Zikhroynes un Bilder ("Poland: Memoirs and Pictures," 1944–53); I.J. *Singer , Fun a Velt Vos iz Nishto Mer ("From a World That is No More," 1946): Dovid *Bergelson 's Bam Dnyepr ("On the Dnieper," 1932, 1940); and I.B. *Singer 's rich and diverse œuvre. More recent examples include Joseph Buloff's Fun Altn Mark-plats ("From the Old Marketplace," 1995) and Boris Sandler's Lamedvovnikes fun Mayn Zikorn ("Lamedvovniks from My Memory," serialized in Forverts, 2005).

While Yiddish women writers have produced few major novels, some, in addition to Glueckel of Hameln, have excelled as autobiographers: e.g., Bella *Chagall 's Brenendike Likht ("Burning Lights," 1945) and Ester Singer *Kreitman 's Sheydim-Tants ("Demon's Dance," 1936; published as Deborah, 1983). One of the greatest achievements of modern Yiddish literature, Yiddish life-writing differs significantly from the genre in mainstream literatures: the Yiddish writer tends to reject the model of self-revelation that has characterized the genre since Rousseau's Confessions (1781) and instead elaborates on his life in entertaining, often humorous ways that depicts "a world that is no more."

[Jan Schwarz (2nd ed.)]

Biographical Lexicons

Although much biographical material about Jews can be found in the medieval Jewish chronicles, the first lexicon of Jewish biographies did not appear till the end of the 18th century. S. Shunami's Bibliography of Jewish Bibliographies (1965; supplement 1975) contains sections on biographical dictionaries of Jews in general (nos. 2594–2661), of Jews in Zionism (nos. 1872–76), Jews in America (nos. 2172–83), Jews in the Holocaust (nos. 2539–44), Jews in Palestine and Israel (nos. 2017–27, 2057–66a), as well as on biographical literature (nos. 2662–67). The following is a list of dictionaries of the history of the lives of individual Jews:


S. Wininger, Grosse juedische National-Biographie (7 vols., 1925–36), the most comprehensive work of this kind;

Juedischer Plutarch; oder biographisches Lexikon der markantesten Maenner und Frauen juedischer Abkunft (2 vols., 1848);

Juedisches Athenaeum. Galerie beruehmter Maenner juedischer Abstammung und juedischen Glaubens (1851), limited to the 19th century;

H.S. Morais, Eminent Israelites of the Nineteenth Century (1880), 100 biographies, mainly of rabbis and community leaders, but also of some Jews prominent in public life;

A. Kohut, Beruehmte israelitische Maenner und Frauen in der Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit (2 vols., 1901), classified by professions, such as writers, composers, etc.

R. Heuer (ed.), Lexicon deutsch-juedischer Autoren, 11 vols. (1992–2002).


J. Heilprin, Shemot Ba'alei Meḥabberim (1769);

Ḥ.J.D. Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim (2 vols., 1774–86, reprinted and revised several times, latest edition 1967);

H.J. Michael, Or ha-Ḥayyim (1891, reprint 1965). The author, who died in 1846, left incomplete a bio-bibliographical work including over 1,200 entries, covering the same ground as Azulai, but with more modern scientific tools. The work also had the benefit of being edited by the great scholar Leopold Zunz;

A. Hyman, Toledot Tanna'im ve-Amora'im (2 vols., 19642), sages of the Talmud;

M. *Margaliot , Enẓiklopedyah le-Ḥakhmei ha-Talmud ve-ha Ge'onim (2 vols., 1945–46), sages of the Talmud and the geonim; idem, Enẓiklopedyah le-Toledot Gedolei Yisrael (4 vols., 1945–50), Jewish scholars from the 9th to the 18th centuries;

S.J. Fuenn, Keneset Yisrael (1886), scholars from the geonic period up to the present; incomplete, ending with the Hebrew letter Yod;

Abraham Stern, Meliẓei Esh (3 vols., 1930–38; 19622), medieval and modern rabbis and scholars;

A. Walden, Sefer Shem ha-Gedolim he-Ḥadash (1865), continuation of Azulai (see above);

B. Eisenstadt, Dorot ha-Aḥaronim (vol. 1, 1913–15; vol. 2, 1937–41), rabbis of the recent past;

I. Lewin, Elleh Ezkerah (6 vols., 1956–65), rabbis and scholars who perished during World War II;

S. Federbusch, Ḥokhmat Yisrael be-Ma'arav Eiropah (3 vols., 1958–65). Vol. 3 also deals with East European scholars.


A. Sáenz-Badillos and J. Targarona, Diccionario de Autores Judíos (Sefarad. Siglos X–XV) (1988);

M. Orfali, Biblioteca de Autores Lógicos Hispano Judíos (Siglos XI–XV) (1997).


Y. Raphael, Sefer ha-Ḥasidut (19552).


G. Kressel, Leksikon ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit be-Dorot ha-Aḥaronim (2 vols., 1965–67);

W. Zeitlin, Kirjath Sepher, Bibliotheca hebraica post-Mendelssohniana (1891–99).


Z. Rejzen, Leksikon fun der Yidisher Literatur, Prese un Filologye (4 vols., 1926–30);

Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur (8 vols., 1956–81), ed. by Saul Raskin.

E.E. Lifschutz, Bibliography of American and Canadian Jewish Memoirs and Autobiographies (1970);

National Yiddish Book Center list: "BI, Biography, Autobiography, Memoirs" (approx. 850 titles).


Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater (6 vols., 1931–69).


S.L. Zitron, Leksikon Ẓiyyoni (1924).


M. Fruehling, Biographisches Handbuch der in der k.k. oesterreichisch-ungarischen Armee aktiv gedienten Offiziere juedischen Stammes (1911), on Jewish officers in Austria-Hungary.


S. Osborne, Germany and Her Jews (1939);

E.G. Lowenthal, Bewaehrung im Untergang (19662), German Jews who perished during World War II;

E. Duckesz, Ḥakhmei AHW (1908), religious leaders of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek; with German summary.


M. Mortara, Indice alfabetico dei rabbini e scrittori israeliti in Italia (1886).


D. Tidhar, Enẓiklopedyah le-Ḥaluẓei ha-Yishuv u-Vonav (18 vols., 1947–67, in progress), for 19th and 20th century; a combination of national biography and current Who's Who.


S. Buber, Anshei Shem (1895), lay and rabbinic leaders in Lemberg (Lvov) from 1500–1900;

P. Kaplan, Byalistoker Leksikon; Biografyes fun Byalistoker Yidishe Perzenlekhkeyten (1935), for Bialystok.


J.R. Rosenbloom, A Biographical Dictionary of Early American Jews, Colonial Times Through 1800 (1960).


Who's Who in World Jewry (1955, 1965, 1972, 1978).

World Jewish Register (1955–56), same material as in Who's Who in World Jewry (1955), arranged by professions.

Rabbis and Scholars

B. Eisenstadt, Dor, Rabbanav ve-Soferav (6 vols., 1895–1903). Volume 5 is devoted exclusively to the United States;

S.N. Gottlieb, Oholei Shem (1912), mainly for Eastern Europe.


Sefer haIshim (1937) and Palestine Personalia (1947);

Who's Who in Israel (1945/46–1967/68), title of first edition: The Near and Middle East Who's Who, published almost every year;

Ishim be-Yisrael (1960, 1966), personalities in Israel.

United States

J. Pfeffer, Distinguished Jews of America (1917–18). Volume two was also published separately under the titles: Eminent Jews of America and Prominent Jews of America; Who's Who in American Jewry (1925, 1926, 1928, 1938/39);

Biographical Encyclopedia of American Jews (1935);

American Jews, Their Lives and Achievements (1947, 1958);

Israel Honorarium (5 vols., 1968). Volumes 2–5 contain biographical sketches of American Jews.

M.D. Sherman, Orthodox Judaism in America: A Bibliographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1996);

P.S. Nadell, Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1988);

K.M. Olitzky, L.J. Sussman, and M.H. Stern, Reform Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1993);

P. Hyman and D.D. Moore, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (1997)

[Theodore Wiener]


D.S. Zubatsky, Jewish Autobiographies and Biographies: an Annotated Bibliography of Books and Dissertations in English (1989); S.W. Baron, Bibliography of Jewish Social Studies (1941), 324–48, 214–8; C. Roth, Mag Bibl, 114–56; Waxman, Literature, 2 (19602), 506–16; 3 (19602), 575; 4 (19602), 838–66, 1044–47, and index S.V. biography, memoirs; H.U. Ribalow, Autobiographies of American Jews (1965), 3–14 (introd.); J. Mazeh, Zikhronot, 4 (1936); L.W. Schwarz, Memoirs of My People (1943), introduction, 13–26, a popular survey of autobiographies. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Moseley, Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (2005); J. Schwarz, Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers (2005).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.