36 Under 36 2009: Adam Kirsch, 33

Though he now considers himself a non-affiliated Jew, Adam Kirsch grew up in Los Angeles where he attended the Conservative synagogue Adat Shalom and went to Hebrew school at Sinai Temple Religious School. "I received a good Jewish education at home," says Kirsch, whose father is the biblical scholar Jonathan Kirsch. "Though not yeshiva-like," he adds, as if to clarify.


"I define my Jewish identity mostly through culture, history, and literature rather than through Jewish belief," says the celebrated poet, literary critic, and biographer.


Kirsch worked as a book critic for The New York Sun until it folded in 2008. Since then, he’s embraced Judaism in his work — first by penning a biography of former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, and more recently by writing a weekly book column ("The Reader") for Nextbook.org.


In his work, he tends to grapple with the question: "How is a person’s Jewishness related to various national identities?" He explains: "I want to know, what does it mean to be an American Jew? What sort of obligations and allegiances do you have?"


Writing about Disraeli, who converted to Christianity but was proud of his Jewishness and at times used it to his advantage, helped Kirsch advance his thinking about Jewish history in Europe. "It made me realize, as American Jews, we enjoy a much greater sense of belonging than Disraeli did, even as prime minister."


What he’s reading now:  "Armenian Golgotha" by Grigoris Balakian. "The Armenian version of Primo Levi," Kirsch says. Not such a world traveler: Though Kirsch writes a lot about Israeli history, he’s never been to Israel.


Staff Writer


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