Dr. Abi­gail Green is the author of Moses Mon­te­fiore: Jew­ish Lib­er­a­tor, Impe­r­i­al Hero. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

What makes a good biog­ra­phy? I thought about this ques­tion a lot when I was writ­ing my book about Moses Mon­te­fiore, and I’ve been think­ing about it again recent­ly. As a his­to­ri­an, my pref­er­ence has always been for biogra­phies that illu­mi­nate the broad­er con­text – books like Eli­she­va Car­lebachs The Pur­suit of Heresy, which brought the world of the itin­er­ant Jerusalem rab­bi Moses Hag­iz so vivid­ly to life, or Per­fect­ing the World – a won­der­ful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quak­er phil­an­thropist and physi­cian Thomas Hodgkin.

Of course, such books don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make for easy reading.

A cou­ple of weeks ago I con­tributed to In Our Time, one of the most pop­u­lar and long-lived dis­cus­sion pro­grams on British radio. The sub­ject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter about whom I know rather less than I should. Prepar­ing for this broad­cast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s bril­liant­ly read­able lit­tle biog­ra­phy of the Ger­man-Jew­ish philoso­pher, which just came out in the Yale Jew­ish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throw­ing stones at Mendelssohn and his fam­i­ly as they walked down Unter den Lin­den, Berlin’s smartest prom­e­nade; and end­ed, by allud­ing both to this episode and to Ger­man Jewry’s ter­ri­ble future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was writ­ten by the author of The Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment, a superb piece of schol­ar­ship but famous­ly heavy-going.

Biog­ra­phers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no excep­tion. Some­thing about the brief, inter­pre­ta­tive for­mat of the Yale series seems to have lib­er­at­ed Fein­er. He tells us every­thing we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is pre­cious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s clas­sic, 900 page intel­lec­tu­al biog­ra­phy and infi­nite­ly more enlightening.

Feiner’s ele­gant­ly con­cise approach con­trasts stark­ly with the oth­er biog­ra­phy I’m read­ing at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly dri­ven Bis­mar­ck, which I’m review­ing for the Euro­pean His­to­ry Quar­ter­ly. It’s a bulky vol­ume, and like me he had dif­fi­cul­ty cut­ting a life down to size. Steinberg’s ear­li­er books, such as All or Noth­ing: the Axis and the Holo­caust seemed to me to ask the right ques­tions (why did the Ital­ians and the Ger­mans behave dif­fer­ent­ly dur­ing the Holo­caust?) with­out com­ing up with real­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry answers. This time, how­ev­er, he seems to have struck gold. The style is gen­uine­ly sparkling, and focus­ing on an indi­vid­ual rather than broad­er soci­etal struc­tures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that res­onat­ed for me were Steinberg’s empha­sis on the emo­tion­al dimen­sion of Bismarck’s approach to pol­i­tics and the way in which the sto­ry of Bismarck’s life was inter­twined with the evolv­ing and deeply ingrained hos­til­i­ty Junkers like Bis­mar­ck felt towards Jews as alien sym­bols of change and modernity.

Odd­ly then, these are both books about the Ger­man-Jew­ish sym­bio­sis. Despite their dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties, they share the same fun­da­men­tal virtue. Both Fein­er and Stein­berg are draw­ing on a life­time of knowl­edge – and you can tell that in writ­ing these biogra­phies they had the time of their lives.

Dr. Abi­gail Green is Lec­tur­er (CUF) in Mod­ern His­to­ry at Brasenose Col­lege, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the 2011 Choice Award win­ner for the Sami Rohr Prize. Her new book, Moses Mon­te­fiore: Jew­ish Lib­er­a­tor, Impe­r­i­al Hero, is now available.