From the cover of "Memories After My Death," Yair Lapid's new biography of his father
From the cover of "Memories After My Death," Yair Lapid's new biography of his father

New biographies tell the stories of Jews who aren’t as famous as they should be

The books section is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

Although we tend to read biographies of people we care about, I just finished reading two books about figures who meant little to me — and I’m glad I did.

It was not long ago that I first learned of Julius Rosenwald, the former head of Sears, Roebuck and the subject of “Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World,” historian Hasia R. Diner’s entry in Yale University Press’ splendid “Jewish Lives” series. It turns out that I am hardly alone: the introduction is titled “The Forgotten Millionaire.”

Rosenwald’s parents, immigrants from Germany, settled in Springfield, Illinois, where Julius was born in 1862. After dropping out of high school, entering the clothing business and setting up shop in Chicago as a purveyor of ready-to-wear suits, Rosenwald fell into an opportunity with the rapidly growing mail order operation of Sears, Roebuck. He was soon one of the company’s co-owners, and, not long afterward, he became the leader of what would become the nation’s largest retailer.

LITofftheshelf-rosenwaldDiner is less interested in exploring Rosenwald’s genius in running Sears’s complicated system of production and distribution than in recounting how he used the wealth that came his way. Rosenwald believed in giving his money away to better humanity, and did so in accordance with firm principles. They included refusing to seek name recognition; making gifts that were contingent upon being matched by others; and spending voluminously in the present to make a greater impact, rather than creating an endowment for the long term. Diner concentrates most of the book on his primary areas of giving and social involvement: Jews and blacks.

Rosenwald’s philanthropy in the Jewish world was extraordinary. He was a leading benefactor of Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and many other institutions and organizations.

In contrast to many of his peers, however, he was disinterested in Zionist nation-building efforts. Although he gave generously to various projects there, he was emphatic that these gifts were to benefit Jewish life, but not the Zionist cause. And his decision to champion the funding of Jewish agricultural colonies on the Crimean Peninsula in the 1920s, while passing on supporting parallel efforts in British Mandate Palestine, left many Jews fuming.

Rosenwald is best remembered for his support of African American causes. Spurred into action by reading Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Rosenwald gave Washington a strong advisory role as he distributed his fortune.

His largest-scale project, initiated at Washington’s suggestion, was the building of schools to serve black children in the South. Begun in 1913, this effort came at a time when federal involvement in education was minimal, with no checks on the Southern states’ dereliction in the provision of public education opportunities across racial lines.

Rosenwald’s largest-scale project was the building of schools to serve black children in the South.

In accordance with both Rosenwald’s own philosophy and Washington’s emphasis on self-help, Rosenwald’s matching gifts would impel communities not only to raise funds locally, but to contribute their own labor to build the schools. It worked. Although Washington died in 1915 soon after the project began, Rosenwald went on to fund the construction of nearly 5,000 elementary schools, as well as more than 200 teachers’ homes. And the impact was enormous.

Rosenwald’s other efforts included spurring the creation of YMCAs and YWCAs that would serve blacks, supporting black colleges, and offering fellowships for black scholars and artists, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson.

Rosenwald received some criticism from within the black community — notably the charge that, in primarily supporting institutions that exclusively served blacks, he was helping to shore up a segregated system, rather than challenging it. There is validity in this critique, but Rosenwald worked within a framework that was profoundly entrenched, and his philanthropy lacked a strong political dimension.

And, as Diner notes, it can be posited that Thurgood Marshall might not have been able to lead the fight against school segregation in the courts if Rosenwald had not led a 1925 effort to keep Howard University’s law school, from which Marshall would graduate in 1933, from losing its accreditation.

Diner explores the Jewish dimension of these efforts on behalf of blacks — embedded both in how Rosenwald understood his own activity, and in how both admirers and detractors viewed it. And she makes it clear that this man, part of a generation of upstart Jews who were “ever nervous that their American hosts tolerated them as guests in the Christian nation,” was, by investing in black achievement, putting his standing at risk by challenging a caste system that the nation tolerated.

Tommy Lapid was a household name in Israel, but little known in the United States. With “Memories After My Death,” his son, Yair Lapid — a prominent journalist and politician in his own right — has memorialized his father in a most unconventional manner. Rather than writing a biography, he composed a memoir in his father’s voice. Published in 2011 by a small, independent printer in England, it is now available in the United States in a translation by Evan Fallenberg.

And it’s an extraordinary story.

LITofftheshelf-lapidBorn in 1931 in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, Lapid experienced a harrowing childhood that included seeing his father taken away by the Gestapo, never to return. Lapid escaped death several times — he and his mother were part of a group being marched to their death in Budapest when the German and Hungarians guarding them were distracted by Soviet reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead, enabling the prisoners to slip away and hide in a nearby lavatory. The remaining group was shot and dumped into the Danube.

After arriving in Israel, Lapid served in the Israel Defense Forces, obtained a law degree and became a journalist, making a name for himself while covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann. He subsequently held numerous positions in the government, including deputy prime minister, minister of justice, and head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

The pugnacious Lapid was best known for his fierce secularism and his opposition to the government granting political favors to religious parties in exchange for their support. When the Shinui party, which he led for years, placed third in the ballot in the 2003 election, he vowed to join Ariel Sharon’s government only if no ultra-Orthodox parties were part of it.

Lapid, who died in 2008, was the last Holocaust survivor to serve in the Knesset, and this book makes clear how profoundly his wartime experience informed his life and career. Writing as his father, Yair Lapid summons all of the qualities that the Israeli public found endearing and abrasive in this unique figure. It is a fitting eulogy.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.