By Janet Tassel
Amazingly, the last biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky in English appeared close to twenty years ago: Lone Wolf, a two-volume doorstop by Shmuel Katz (1996), which at almost 2,000 pages, deserves its reputation as “compendious.” Now, in a new biography, Jabotinsky: A Life, Hillel Halkin has done the impossible: He has gracefully condensed the story of this complex tragic figure into a page-turner that is at once concise and a rattling good read.
Jabotinsky, known principally as Zionism’s most polarizing and bellicose crusader, was also a cultured, indeed aristocratic, polymath— multingual, a prolific journalist, lawyer, translator of Poe and Dante, playwright, poet, playwright and author. (His novel Samson the Nazarite (1926) was later made into a Cecil B. DeMille movie with Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature.) That he may also have been a lover of women seems probable, given his early bohemian life in Rome and elsewhere, and his lifetime of traveling so much without his wife. Not that he embodied le beau ideal; indeed, though a fastidious dresser, he was small and rather “froggy” around the eyes, in Halkin’s words.
How a protean genius of Jabotinsky’s talents and superhuman energy arises among “normal” people is always a mystery, but Halkin suggests that the place of his childhood—Odessa, “carefree, contented Odessa,” Jabotinsky called it—may provide some clues. Born there in 1880, he left for the bohemian life abroad when he was only 17, and “said a last goodbye to it before World War I,” but “a part of him always remained there,” this intoxicating, cosmopolitan city where he studied, worked as a young journalist, and played the rascal as a boy.
Odessa, Halkin writes, was the only large Russian city in which Jews were not barred. A city with no established Jewish institutions, the thousands of Jews who flocked there were thus “less traditional and less subject to rabbinical influence” than other Jewish communities. A sophisticated, international city, Odessa’s lingua franca was for a time Italian before yielding to Russian. It was in Russian that Jabotinksy was raised, and his widowed mother kept a minimally observant home, perhaps engendering his lifelong laxity in Jewish ritual and his dedicated secularism.