Jonathan Kirsch

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (W. W. Norton/Liveright, 2013).

Kirsch is the author of twelve other books, including the best-selling A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization (HarperOne), the national best-sellers The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible (Ballantine) and King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel (Ballantine), and the best-selling God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism (Viking).

Kirsch’s books have been published in England, the Netherlands, Australia, Korea, Brazil, and elsewhere around the world.

Kirsch is an attorney specializing in intellectual property and publishing law, the book editor of The Jewish Journal, a longtime book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, a guest commentator for NPR affiliates KCRW-FM and KPCC-FM in Southern California, and an Adjunct Professor on the faculty of New York University’s Professional Publishing Program.

Biographical Information

JONATHAN KIRSCH is the author of thirteen books, including eight books of history and biography, two novels and two books on publishing law. (See below.) He contributed book reviews to the Los Angeles Times for more than 40 years, and now serves as book editor and book columnist for The Jewish Journal. He appears as a guest commentator on NPR affiliates KCRW-FM and KPCC-FM in Southern California, and serves on the adjunct faculty of New York University’s Professional Publishing Program.

Kirsch is a member of the Authors Guild, the National Book Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, and served as chair of the non-fiction judging panel for the National Book Awards in 2003. He has served three terms as President of PEN USA and continues to serve on its Advisory Council.

Kirsch has served as a guest lecturer at schools, universities, libraries, museums, synagogues and churches across the United States, including Antioch University, the Bowers Museum, the Center for Inquiry-West, the Center for Religious Inquiry (Los Angeles and New York) the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, the Skirball Museum and Cultural Center, the American Jewish University, the University of Southern California, and the Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz campuses of the University of California.

Kirsch has served as legal counsel on a pro bono basis for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Center for Media Literacy, and California Lawyers for the Arts. He is also general counsel for the Independent Book Publishers Association (formerly Publishers Marketing Association), which presented him with its Benjamin Franklin Award for Special Achievement in Publishing in 1994. Kirsch is a member of California Lawyers for the Arts, the Los Angeles Copyright Society, the Los Angeles Intellectual Property Law Association, and the Intellectual Property Sections of the California State Bar and the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

Kirsch writes and lectures on legal topics relating to the publishing industry for the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Western Publishing Association, the Publishers Association of the West, the Publishers Association of Los Angeles, the National Museum Publishing Seminar of the University of Chicago’s Graham School, the Authors Guild, the Practising Law Institute, the ABA Forum on Entertainment and Sports Law, the Intellectual Property, Internet and New Media Section of the Beverly Hills Bar Association, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Mystery Writers Association, the Independent Writers of Southern California, California Lawyers for the Arts, Sisters in Crime, Southwest Manuscripters, and other publishing industry associations and legal programs.

His featured lectures include: Commencement speaker at Antioch University Creative Writing Program, 2007; Keynote speaker at the Association of Jewish Libraries, 2007); Keynote speaker at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, 2008; and Distinguished Alumnus Lecture at the University of California at Santa Cruz, 2009.

Kirsch was born in 1949 in Los Angeles, attended high school in Culver City, and completed a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in Russian and Jewish history and Adlai E. Stevenson College honors at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California. A member of the California State Bar since 1976, he earned a Juris Doctor degree cum laude at Loyola University School of Law.

Before embarking on the practice of law, Kirsch was senior editor of California Magazine (formerly New West Magazine), where he specialized in a coverage of law, government and politics. Previously, he worked as West Coast correspondent for Newsweek, an editor for West and Home magazines at the Los Angeles Times, and a reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. As a book reviewer and a freelance writer, he has contributed to the Washington Post, Toronto Globe and Mail, California Lawyer, Los Angeles Lawyer, Los Angeles Magazine, New Republic, Publishers Weekly, Performing Arts, Human Behavior, L.A. Architect and other publications. He is also the author of two novels, Bad Moon Rising (1977) and Lovers in a Winter Circle (1978).

Kirsch is married to Ann Benjamin Kirsch, Psy.D., a psychotherapist in private practice in Beverly Hills.

Critical Praise for Books by Jonathan Kirsch


A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris

(W. W. Norton/Liveright, 2013)

“No novelist could invent a story with as many twists of history and character as the one Jonathan Kirsch tells about Herschel Grynszpan. The hapless Polish boy who, in 1938, assassinated a minor official at the German embassy in Paris single-handedly provoked Kristallnacht, galvanized American journalism, stymied the propaganda plans of Goebbels and Hitler, incurred the disdain of Hannah Arendt, and was promptly forgotten. With bemused compassion, Kirsch portrays Grynszpan as a schlemiel martyr and a courageous fabulator, as a megalomaniac, an intuitive student of history and a man underestimated by friends and enemies alike. The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan illuminates the countless short and tragic lives of Eastern European Jews running for shelter in the terrible days leading up to WWII.”

— Alice Kaplan, author of The Collaborator and Dreaming in French

“Kirsch tells a powerful story with the skill of a novelist and the precision of a historian. Like an artist painting a canvas, Kirsch is a master of context. This book is the product not only of prodigious research, but also of gifted storytelling. Yet Kirsch has brought Grynszpan to life again and, in the process, rescued his character from being merely a footnote to history. Kirsch has rescued Grynszpan from oblivion, and for that, no one would have been more grateful than Grynszpan himself.

— Michael Berenbaum, The Jewish Journal

“A lively and suspenseful tale,” writes Publishers Weekly. “Kirsch has eloquently provided a dramatic real-life mystery with broad appeal,” says Mark Levine in Booklist. “Thoughtful and illuminating.”


A History of Terror in the Name of God
(HarperOne, 2008)

The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual is a history of the Inquisition and a revealing account of how the “inquisitorial toolkit” has been put to use by authoritarians in the 20th century and our own times, ranging from Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia to the Salem witch trials, the Hollywood blacklist, and the war on terror.

Kirsch's powerful and cautionary account is essential reading for historians and anyone who wants to understand the potential dark side of religion. Kirsch, a prolific writer and documenter of our past (A History of the End of the World; God Against the Gods), offers up an amazing recounting of the abuses of clergy and state in those terrible times. Clinical in its descriptions, the narrative's lively and crisp prose brings us right into the torture chamber, shining a much-needed light into the mindset of the church and its representatives. Alarmingly, the author insists the inquisitional mindset is alive and well. Kirsch discovers many examples in more modern and familiar history: Hitler's Germany, Senator McCarthy's communist-hunting, the Salem witch trials and Roosevelt's placing Japanese-Americans in interment camps. All of these injustices, he says, find their root in the same sense of power and privilege.”

— Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization
(HarperSanFrancisco, 2006)

A History of the End of the World reveals the secrets of the Book of Revelation, the single most controversial book in the Bible, and shows how its strange text has been used and abused over the last twenty centuries. Selected by Library Journal as one of the Best Religion Books of 2006.

“Jonathan Kirsch has written an important book that is essential reading in our torn, conflicted world: it is articulate, learned and balanced.”

—Karen Armstrong, best-selling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase

“A learned, lively, politically astute, and agreeably literary tour of the life and, above all, the extravagantly improbable afterlife of the greatest apocalypse of them all.”

                        —Jack Miles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

“Kirsch takes the reader on a delightful 2,000-year journey as he explores a text he describes as ‘a romantic tale, full of intrigue and suspense.’ Written clearly and for a general audience, this is a fine book that merits wide readership.”

                        — Publishers Weekly

“Kirsch has written an important study of the ‘little book’ that almost didn’t make it into the New Testament: the book of Revelations. Kirsch, author of the best-selling The Harlot by the Side of the Road, does a masterful job of leading readers through the labyrinth of Revelations . . . highly readable . . . Fascinating — and sure to provoke heated discussion.”

             —  Booklist 


The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism
(Viking, 2004)

GOD AGAINST THE GODS: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, an exploration of the revolutionary era when the world turned from polytheism to monotheism between the reigns of the Roman emperors Constantine and Julian.

“A lively and engaging chronicle,” writes Publishers Weekly. “Kirsch helpfully points out that the conflict between the worship of many gods and the worship of one true god never disappeared from the lives of Jews or Christians…and demonstrates clearly the ways in which this conflict gave rise to tensions that exist even today.”

“No book in recent memory tells us as much about both the limits and necessity of supernatural beliefs,” writes David Rosenberg, co-author of The Book of J and author of A Poet’s Bible. “With an astonishing singularity of purpose and clear-headed exposition, Jonathan Kirsch extracts the civilizing elements of our religion from the bloody history of its origins and marriages of convenience. It is a breath-taking and history-making achievement.”

“Kirsch’s book tells us a great deal about the religious imagination and its ongoing struggle for meaning and value,” writes Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God. “This is an accessible and engaging study that will challenge some facile religious assumptions, but does so creatively and constructively.”

“In God Against the Gods, Jonathan Kirsch tackles the central issue bedeviling the world today — religious intolerance,” says Leonard Shlain, author of the best-selling The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. “Filled with fascinating anecdotes, Kirsch traces the historical origins of this relatively recent malevolent human tendency, focusing on the tipping points in history when people began to kill other people solely because they held different religious beliefs. A timely book, well-written and researched.”

“Jonathan Kirsch has written another blockbuster about the Bible and its world — before, during and after, down to our own day,” says David Noel Freedman, distinguished Bible scholar and general editor of The Anchor Bible and The Anchor Bible Dictionary. “It will evoke strong, even passionate, responses from different sides of the perennial argument about ‘God against the gods.’”


The Untold History of the Jewish People
(Viking, 2001)

THE WOMAN WHO LAUGHED AT GOD: The Untold History of the Jewish People (Viking Compass), a “counter-history” of Judaism that explores the richness and diversity in Jewish tradition by focusing on the surprising and shocking “counter-traditions” that have always shaped what it means to be Jewish.

“A grand story, grandly told,” is how the Chicago Tribune describes The Woman Who Laughed at God. “An entertaining tour of Jewish history,” says the Washington Post.

“Writing with vivacity, Kirsch has produced a readily accessible and entertaining version of Jewish history,” writes Publishers Weekly in its review of The Woman Who Laughed at God. “Kirsch’s well-written re-examination of Jewish history tells the remarkable story of how Jewish diversity has contributed to Jewish survival.”

“A new way of thinking about a very old subject,” says Booklist. “Kirsch makes a persuasive case that orthodoxy has only existed in the minds of those who considered themselves Orthodox. Of considerable interest is Kirsch’s treatment of goddess worship hidden in the Bible.”

“Recommended,” says Library Journal. “Kirsch, author of such well-received and popular titles as King David and The Harlot by the Side of the Road, here uses stories from the vast history of the religion (including the story of Sarah, alluded to in the title) to show that Judaism has always been characterized by creativity, strength, and growth. His insights will be appreciated by Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike.”


The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel
(Ballantine, 1999)

KING DAVID: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled is a biography of the single most crucial and controversial figure in the Hebrew Bible. Drawing on the sometimes suppressed passages of the biblical text and the latest discoveries of biblical scholarship, King David shows David to be a compelling but disturbingly complex man who was also a voracious lover, a troubled father, and a merciless warrior. Above all, Kirsch offers an open-eyed reading of the Bible that reveals David as a strikingly modern figure who prefigures Shakespearean tragedy, Machiavellian politics, and Freudian psychology. An abridged audio version of King David is published by Dove Audio, and an unabridged audio version is published by Books on Tape with the author as reader.

“With his energetic, modern reading of the best story in the Hebrew Bible, Kirsch achieves an immediacy more scholarly works can’t touch,” the Washington Post writes. “The book can be heartily recommended for the questions it raises and the attention it draws....Readers’ appetites will be whetted for this handsome, troubled king.”

King David bids fair to become the favorite portrait of the most-favored son in the biblical tradition and also the best-selling life of King David in present company,” writes international Bible scholar David Noel Freedman in the Los Angeles Times. “He emerges from the shadows of legend and myth into the full glare of history. Kirsch has retold this very dramatic, suspenseful tale exceedingly well.”

“The significant discoveries of scholars and the fanciful speculation of literary critics alike have provided the ground for a stunning synthesis in Jonathan Kirsch’s King David,” writes David Rosenberg, author of The Book of David and co-author of The Book of J. “Kirsch has fashioned a story that is the first of its kind — a biography of biblical proportions, anchored in the imaginative sweep of fiction and the tactile surprise of fact.”

“Kirsch welcomes a wide audience to a scandalous, violent and surprisingly familiar ancient Israel,” writes Publishers Weekly. “King David both educates and entertains.”


A Life
(Ballantine, 1999)

Among Kirsch’s other national best-sellers is MOSES: A Life, a definitive but “unauthorized” biography of Moses, published in both hardcover and paperback by Ballantine Books. MOSES: A Life explores the “real” Moses as depicted in the Bible and biblical traditions, and shows him to be a much richer and stranger figure than we are accustomed to seeing in Sunday school lessons and movie matinees. MOSES: A Life is published in audio by Dove (abridged) and Books on Tape (unabridged). A national best-seller, MOSES: A Life was named as one of the best books of 1998 by the Los Angeles Times, and was selected by the Book of the Month Club.

The Washington Post called MOSES: A Life “a brightly written work that shows how much life remains in the Bible.” The San Francisco Chronicle calls the book “a deeply probing search for ‘the real Moses’...the writing is clearly fired by a conviction that the unexamined Moses is not worth having.” According to the Los Angeles Times, “Kirsch takes us perhaps as far as we can go in the search for the historical Moses.” And the Toronto Globe and Mail writes: “Kirsch expresses himself with zeal and showmanship, skill and sensitivity...he makes the riches of 20th-century biblical research accessible to a much larger audience.”


Forbidden Tales of the Bible
(Ballantine 1997)

Kirsch is also the author of the best-selling THE HARLOT BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, an exploration of Bible stories that have been censored or suppressed because of their erotic, mystical or violent content, Published in hardcover by Ballantine Books in the U.S. and Rider Books in Great Britain, and by publishers in Holland, Italy, Portugal, Brazil and Korea, The Harlot by the Side of the Road has been called “masterful” by the Washington Post, “fascinating and refreshing” by the Christian Science Monitor, “readable and insightful” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and “guaranteed to turn the heads of bookstore browsers from coast to coast” by the Los Angeles Times. And the San Francisco Chronicle urged: “Go out and buy Jonathan Kirsch’s fascinating new book.” The audio edition of The Harlot by the Side of the Road (Audio Literature, 1997) was honored by Publishers Weekly as one of the “Best Audio Books of 1997.”



Kirsch is also the author of two leading reference works on publishing law, Kirsch's Handbook of Publishing Law for Authors, Publishers, Editors and Agents (Acrobat Books, 1996) and Kirsch's Guide to the Book Publishing Contract (Acrobat Books, 1998), both of which are currently being revised and updated for republication in a single volume.