Kirsch, Jonathan 1949–

views updated

Kirsch, Jonathan 1949–

PERSONAL: Born December 19, 1949, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Robert (an author and book critic) and Dvora Heller (a teacher; maiden name, Nisman) Keller; married Ann Benjamin (a psychotherapist), December 27, 1970; children: Adam Benjamin, Jennifer Rachel. Education: University of California, Santa Cruz, B.A. (with honors), 1971; Loyola University School of Law, J.D. (cum laude), 1976. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Hiking, beach combing, rock-hunting.

ADDRESSES: Office—Law Offices of Jonathan Kirsch, 1880 Century Park E., Ste. 515, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Agent—Laurie Fox, Linda Chester Literary Agency, Rockefeller Ctr., 630 5th Ave., New York, NY 10111. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Novelist, author of nonfiction, book reviewer, and attorney specializing in intellectual property rights. Book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1968–; editor for California magazine (formerly New West), 1977–83; correspondent for Newsweek, 1979–80; Law Offices of Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles, CA, attorney, 1988–.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, National Book Critics Circle, PEN Center USA West (past president), California Lawyers for the Arts, Intellectual Property Sections of the California State Bar, Los Angeles Copyright Society, Los Angeles Intellectual Property Law Association, Los Angeles County Bar Association.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Bad Moon Rising, Signet (New York, NY), 1977.

Lovers in a Winter Circle, Signet (New York, NY), 1978.

NONFICTION

Kirsch's Handbook of Publishing Law: For Authors, Publishers, Editors, and Agents, Acrobat Books (Los Angeles, CA), 1995.

The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1997.

Moses: A Life, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1998.

Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract: For Authors, Publishers, Editors, and Agents, Acrobat (Los Angeles, CA), 1999.

King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2000.

The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold Story of the Jewish People, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, Viking Compass (New York, NY), 2004.

A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book of the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2006.

OTHER

Contributor of more than one thousand articles and book reviews to periodicals.

SIDELIGHTS: Jonathan Kirsch's versatility has led him into a varied career, during which he has written on publishing law for authors and editors; has published suspense novels; and, in a high-profile venture, has delved into biblical scholarship for the general audience.

Kirsch's Handbook of Publishing Law: For Authors, Publishers, Editors, and Agents was published in 1995. It tells writers, editors, publishers, and agents what they need to know about the often complex field of intellectual property law, in which Kirsch, as an attorney, specializes. Kirsch's second book in this vein is Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract: For Authors, Publishers, Editors, and Agents, which "picks up where his well-received Handbook of Publishing Law left off," reported Booklist reviewer Marlene Chamberlain.

Kirsch's first effort as a novelist was the 1977 paperback Bad Moon Rising, which is based on a true crime that occurred in Santa Cruz, California. The hip, collegiate setting is populated with druggies, professors, faculty wives, students, townspeople, cops, and reporters. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found that Kirsch had sensationalized the material and that the setting was "curiously dated" and the characters unsympathetic. But the critic nevertheless concluded that Kirsch had demonstrated himself to be "a young writer of talent."

Hirsch gained wide notice with his 1997 book, The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Here Kirsch sets out to examine certain Old Testament tales that, because of their unsettling sexual and, in some cases, violent content, have tended to be glossed over in Sunday School treatments of the Bible. The seven tales Kirsch focuses on include the seduction of Judah by his daughter-in-law, Tamar, while she posed as a harlot (the title story); the rape of Dinah and the subsequent murder of her rapist and three hundred of his soldiers; Lot and his daughters' sexual encounter after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; David's affair with Bathsheba and his indirect killing of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah; the sacrifice by Jephtha of his daughter; and two others. Kirsch retells the tales in a modern descriptive style that psychotherapist Naomi Harris Rosenblatt applauded in the Washington Post Book World as enjoyable and skillful: "Kirsch successfully evokes the atmosphere of a hot midday in the Negev…. The author's storytelling talents are beautifully displayed in his poignant retelling and analysis of the shocking tragedy of Jephtha's daughter."

Rosenblatt and other critics raised the question of whether the tales Kirsch had chosen for The Harlot by the Side of the Road really were "forbidden." Although not usually told to children, the stories had been known to adults for thousands of years. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper noted that two of them—the stories of David and Bathsheba and of Lot and his daughters—had been dramatized on the television program Myster-ies of the Bible. Rosenblatt pointed out that virtually no character in the Hebrew Bible is without flaws and that the authors and editors of the Bible had ample opportunity to whitewash the characters in order to portray the Jewish people as perfect, but had not done so. Not only was critical examination of sin one of the major features of the Bible, but characters such as David had been held up to public scrutiny in their own lifetimes for their shortcomings.

Rosenblatt commented, too, that readers in the present were fortunate that the Bible's sacred status had kept it from being bowdlerized or censored by later commentators. Setting this point aside, Rosenblatt hailed Kirsch for his "thorough" research and analysis. She observed that Kirsch is obviously "fascinated by the Bible … and has produced a valuable contemporary commentary." In a similar vein, Cooper praised Kirsch's "meticulous research and … enticing style," proclaiming that the book "thoroughly addresses layers of meaning" in the Bible. Cooper alluded specifically to Kirsch's examination of anti-female cruelty in the Old Testament. A Publishers Weekly critic concluded: "Kirsch succeeds in bringing these ancient stories to vivid life, and in revealing the human passions and frailties often left out of the telling of familiar Bible tales."

The humanity and frailties of the Bible's great lawgiver are evident in Moses: A Life. Kirsch portrays him as something of a complainer, basing his depiction of Moses not only on the Bible's accounts, but also the other stories that have grown up around him. The latter, which flesh out the Bible's rather thin material on Moses, include writings by ancient Greek and Egyptian scholars, midrashic commentaries, which are interpretations handed down from medieval rabbis, and the works of modern thinkers, such as Sigmund Freud. This approach produced a book that, several reviewers observed, could not be categorized strictly as a biography.

"Readers who expect … a historically grounded biography will be disappointed," asserted a Kirkus Reviews critic. "What Kirsch achieves instead is a curious syncretism of views of Moses from sources that do often speak to each other." Tim Callahan, a commentator for Skeptic, had a more positive take on Kirsch's work: "Since Kirsch's book has been written in a combination biographical and novelistic style it presents an intriguing mix of narrative and analysis. As such, it treats readers to a wonderful story of a man's life, and at the same time to the intricacies of ever-changing and occasionally volatile biblical scholarship about that man and the only written source on his life, the Bible." It bothered Callahan that Kirsch sometimes "treats alternate versions of a story as though they were two different tales," but the reviewer also thought "Kirsch shows that he understands something of the oddities and contradictions, and even the pagan mythic origins of much of the biblical text, in other parts of the book." Booklist contributor Steven Schroeder wrote that "a novel might better sustain the competing images of Moses … but the historical approach will better please serious though nonspecialist readers." Callahan concluded: "All in all Moses is a compelling, page-turning read and a book which strikes a balance between those who would dismiss Moses as a figure of legend rather than history, who might not even have ever lived (a distinct possibility) on one hand, and those who are overly reverential to the point where they assert that Moses did indeed write the first five books of the Bible on the other. Kirsch presents a Moses who is most quirky, hence human."

As with Moses, Kirsch draws on the Bible and a variety of other sources for King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel. Kirsch believes David existed, but he also believes that biblical accounts of him are the ancient equivalent of a public-relations campaign and are therefore biased and not wholly reliable. Kirsch depicts David as an astute politician and an oppressive, sometimes brutal ruler. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, although finding the book entertaining and informative, complained that Kirsch failed to make clear "whether he wishes to find the truth about David" or if he wanted to merely list "the various and contradictory readings of his life." Writing in another Booklist review, Schroeder contended that Kirsch's portrayal of David "may be no more real than others" and advised the public to read Kirsch's sources for themselves. Library Journal contributor Eugene O. Bowser deemed Kirsch's style "unsettling, if quite skillful" and also recommended turning to other biblical commentaries. He did, however, call Kirsch "a master of the storyteller's art."

In 2004 Kirsch released another religion-inspired work of nonfiction, God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism. The latter traces the "twists and turns, and the long-lasting reverberations" of the progression from belief in many gods to belief in one supreme being, as K.E. Fleming noted in History: Review of New Books. According to Fleming: "Kirsch's trademark ability to make religious history accessible without dumbing it down is once again on display in his latest offering." Kirsch examines both the psychological reasons for monotheism as well as the historical growth of such a belief and its resonance with the growth of imperial political systems. Booklist contributor Patricia Monaghan further explained that Kirsch's book "maintains that sectarian conflicts and religious wars are inevitable results of monotheism." Kirsch devotes almost half the book to the exact point in time at the end of the Roman Empire when monotheism prevailed over polytheism. Monaghan considered the work to be both "brilliant and controversial." More praise came from Library Journal contributor Glenn Masuchika, who felt "the writing is elegant, forceful, and highly energized."

Kirsch once told CA: "When I sat down to write my first novel, I copied out a phrase from an essay by Isaac Bashevis Singer and posted it at eye-level over my desk: 'GOD'S NOVEL HAS SUSPENSE.' Back then I understood Singer's idea—'Yes, God is a writer, and we are both the heroes and the readers'—as a clever literary conceit, but even then it captured something I had already observed in yourself and so many others, a passion that drives some of us to scribble down our words on paper. I first experienced that passion in childhood, and it only deepened during a long stint in newspaper and magazine journalism and more than thirty years of book reviewing. Even when I began practicing law in my thirties and set out to specialize in publishing law, the same passion was at work—I felt such a strong sense of identification with my fellow writers that I took real pleasure in working on solutions to their legal problems. But it was not until my forties, when I began to write books on the subject of Bible as literature, that I fully appreciated the cutting edge of Singer's insight. The Bible assures us that we are created in the image of God, and one of the qualities that finds its way into the human mind and heart—surely a God-like quality!—is to exercise in the realm of their own creation. 'The fear of death is nothing but the fear of having to close God's book,' concluded Singer, and now I realize that each one of us is struggling against precisely that fear each time we pick up the pen and thereby seek to project ourselves into an unknown and unknowable future."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, May 15, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, p. 1545; October 1, 1998, Steven Schroeder, review of Moses: A Life, p. 292; May 15, 1999, Marlene Chamberlain, review of Kir-sch's Guide to the Book Contract: For Authors, Publishers, Editors and Agents, p. 1647; August, 2000, Steven Schroeder, review of King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, p. 2079; March 1, 2004, Patricia Monaghan, review of God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, p. 1113.

History: Review of New Books, summer, 2005, K.E. Fleming, review of God against the Gods, p. 131.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1998, review of Moses, p. 1436.

Library Journal, June 1, 1999, Joan Pedzich, review of Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract, p. 138; September 1, 2000, Eugene O. Bowser, review of King David, p. 215; March 1, 2004, Glenn Ma-suchika, review of God against the Gods, p. 83.

Publishers Weekly, November 28, 1977, review of Bad Moon Rising, p. 48; April 14, 1997, review of The Harlot by the Side of the Road, p. 69; September 14, 1998, review of Moses, p. 65; August 14, 2000, review of King David, p. 352.

Skeptic, spring, 1999, Tim Callahan, review of Moses, p. 84.

Washington Post Book World, August 3, 1997, Naomi Harris Rosenblatt, review of The Harlot by the Side of the Road, p. 6.

ONLINE

Jonathan Kirsch Home Page, http://www.jonathankirsch.com (March 21, 2006).