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Review: Elinor Burkett's 'Golda' is rich, resonant

Golda Meir died 30 years ago. Yet she is probably more recognized as an Israeli head of state than anybody who held the position before or after her tenure.

Her remarkable rise to influence has been told in previous biographies. But if anybody has written a better researched, better written biography in English than American journalist Elinor Burkett, I am unaware of it.

Burkett has 80 years (1898-1978) of rich material to mine about a life story that tracks with the founding and survival of the Israeli nation.

Biographers often falter when portraying childhood and adolescence, because verifiable material is thin. Burkett, however, provides a detailed portrait of Golda Mabovitch's dreadful childhood in czarist Russia. Every day she, her older sister and their parents worried about death from either starvation or anti-Semitic violence. When Golda was a child, the family resettled in Milwaukee but still lacked money to eat well.

Extremely independent despite (or because of) a pessimistic, controlling mother and an often-unemployed, indecisive father, Golda pretty much lived on her own by age 16, influenced heavily by her rebellious older sister Sheyna's escape from the household.

As Morris Meyerson's teenage bride and later as a mother, Golda demonstrated mostly self-centeredness in her family life. She made decisions on the basis of her devotion to the creation of a Jewish homeland and her ambition to succeed professionally in a world dominated by men.

A gifted behind-the-scenes organizer and public orator, the woman who became famous using the name Golda Meir suffered great personal hardship in the barren territory that became the sovereign nation of Israel in 1948.

For readers interested in the travails of Israel and international politics in general, the second half of the book skillfully weaves strands from Meir's personal life into the tapestry of her public life as a politician and diplomat.

Given her primarily American audience, Burkett wisely includes numerous examples of Meir's dealings with the United States. The ways Meir manipulated President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy guru Henry Kissinger are especially insightful and delightful.

The nearness of Hillary Clinton's approach to the presidency gives the Meir biography special resonance in 2008. Meir never denied gender differences but was not trapped by those differences, either.

For better (given her skills as a diplomat) and worse (her hawkish attitudes as a world leader on a planet starving for amity), Meir will serve as a touchstone far into the future.

Steve Weinberg's most recent book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."


By Elinor Burkett

Harper, 483 pages, $27.95

Review: Elinor Burkett's 'Golda' is rich, resonant 06/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 1:23pm]
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