From Clarence Darrow to William Kunstler, every generation has its celebrity attorney, and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz (immortalized in the 1990 movie Reversal of Fortune from his book of the same name) very much wants the job. At least that’s one conclusion to be drawn from Chutzpah, Dershowitz’s memoir of his life as what he is pleased to call ”Harvard’s first Jewish Jew.”

Which is not to say that Dershowitz’s frank and frequently irritating book is without merit. Any reader with more than a passing interest in the topics that obsess him — civil and religious liberties, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the plight of Soviet Jews, and the future of Israel — will find Chutzpah full of stimulating stuff. Even when he’s dead wrong, Dershowitz always devises an interesting angle to help him plead his case.

But as a memoirist dealing with territory previously explored by writers as diverse as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen, Dershowitz makes a terrific lawyer. Besides being essentially humorless, he is clearly uncomfortable writing about anything too intimate for, say, the New York Times op-ed page. For a writer who sets himself the task of explaining to his own children how he has come to be a nonreligious Jew with a ”permanent chip on my shoulder,” these are serious handicaps. C

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