Autobiographical Jews examines the nature of autobiographical writing by Jews from antiquity to the present, and the ways in which such writings can legitimately be used as sources for Jewish history. Drawing on current literary theory, which questions the very nature of autobiographical writing and its relationship to what we normally designate as the truth, and, to a lesser extent, the new cognitive neurosciences, Michael Stanislawski analyzes a number of crucial and complex autobiographical texts written by Jews through the ages.
Stanislawski considers The Life by first-century historian Josephus; compares the early modern autobiographies of Asher of Reichshofen (Book of Memories) and Glikl of Hameln (Memoirs); analyzes the radically different autobiographies of two Russian Jewish writers, the Hebrew Enlightenment author Moshe Leib Lilienblum and the famous Russian poet Osip Mandelstam; and looks at two autobiographies written out of utter despair in the midst and in the wake of World War II, Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday and Sarah Kofman’s Rue Ordener, Rue Labat.
These writers’ attempts to portray their private and public struggles, anxieties, successes, and failures are expressions of a basic drive for selfhood which is both timeless and time-bound, universal and culturally specific. The challenge is to attempt to unravel the conscious from the unconscious distortions in these texts and to regard them as artifacts of individuals’ quests to make sense of their lives, first and foremost for themselves and then, if possible, for their readers.