February 27, 2020

Influential Jews Share in ‘Genius & Anxiety’

A certain buzz has attached itself to “Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947” (Scribner), by London-based author, journalist and broadcaster Norman Lebrecht, if only because the role of Jews in world history is always a fraught subject. The author himself is quick to disavow any intention “to make a case for Jewish exceptionalism,” and he denies any belief in the proposition that “Jews are genetically gifted above the average in mathematics, entertainment, and money, as is often claimed, usually with malice.”

Still, Lebrecht insists that “a handful of men and women changed the way we see the world” during the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 20th century, and “what these transformers have in common is being Jewish, some by having Jewish parents, others by practicing the Jewish faith.”

The author readily admits, for example, that Theodor Herzl “is, by any reckoning, not much of a Jew.” But there is another “connective factor,” as Lebrecht put it: “In every person of genius who appears in this book, there runs a current of existential angst.” The collision of two characteristics is hardly unique to the Jewish people, but they have resulted in a kind of creative fission among the Jews of Europe: “A Jew is like a man with a short arm,” quipped Gustav Mahler. “He has to swim harder to reach the shore.”

So the author’s cast of characters includes the usual gang of world-changers — Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka — but he also calls our attention to such high achievers as biologist and physician Karl Landsteiner, who pioneered the use of blood transfusions; chemist Rosalind Franklin, whose research was the key to the modelling of DNA; and Emanuel Deutsch, a scholar of the Talmud without whom, he argues, there would have been no State of Israel.

By the way, the argument in favor of Deutsch as a sine qua non of the Jewish state is too nuanced to explain in a brief review, but it turns on Deutsch’s role in teaching Hebrew to George Eliot, the author of “Daniel Deronda.” And it is precisely Lebrecht’s gift for finding and explaining the unlikely and unsuspected linkages between personalities and events that make this such a lively and pleasurable book.

Some of the Jewish exemplars in “Genius & Anxiety” will come as a surprise and perhaps even a shock. Sarah Bernhardt, “the Einstein of fame,” was “born Jewish to a high-class prostitute and baptized by order of her mother’s lover,” and the author calls her “the prime inventor of the twenty-first-century cult of celebrity, the first person to grasp the meaning of soft power and its manipulation.” And Magnus Hirschfeld — “morally impelled, inflexibly principled [and] discreetly gay” — was a physician in 19th century Berlin who conducted scientific research into what he called “sexual inversion” and served among the founders of the movement to repeal the German law that criminalized homosexuality.

Lebrecht describes himself as “a music historian and novelist,” and most of his previous books focused on music, including “Why Mahler?” “Who Killed Classical Music?” and “The Complete Companion to 20th Century Music.” But he also mentions his early yeshiva studies in Jerusalem, his lifelong study of Talmud, and his command of Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish. For that reason, we should not be surprised to discover that “Genius & Anxiety” includes a great many musicians of Jewish origin, starting with Felix Mendelssohn and continuing through Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin.

Mendelssohn, in fact, provides a good example of how Lebrecht regards the Jewishness of the people he writes about. A grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and a famous convert to Christianity, Mendelssohn preserved the melody of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” — “a Romanian Hasidic ditty” — in the Reformation Symphony, which Lebrecht describes as “Mendelssohn’s ultra-Christian symphony.” For Lebrecht, it is a clue to the imprint of Jewishness on Mendelssohn that baptism could not wash away.

“Jews hate silence,” he proposes. “They hum and drum while waiting in line, walking in the street, or cooking supper. The infant Felix must have heard synagogue melodies at his mother’s knee.”

Lebrecht may not persuade every reader that there is something inherent in Judaism that explains the remarkable achievements of the men and women whom he describes so vividly, but he makes a good case that Jewishness includes markers that cannot be eradicated.

But Lebrecht widens the lens of his book to include Jews who changed history in other ways. The Seligman family, for example, founded its fortune on providing soft goods and financial services to miners during the gold rush and later rose to prominence in New York City. “When General Ulysses S. Grant threatens to expel Jews from territory under his control, he gets a reminder from Jesse Seligman that his family used to extend him credit when he was a penniless lieutenant and that they are now selling $200 million in US bonds to Europe to support the Union cause,” the author writes. “Grant rescinds his expulsion order.”

Lebrecht finds the threads of Jewishness in the work of such disparate figures as Marcel Proust, whom he credits with “the most famous opening sentence in modern literature,” and he links Proust to both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. “As far as we know, Proust never read Freud or referred to him,” the author explains. “Their similarity of approach arises from a classic Jewish way of observing and understanding small things that others take for granted.” And he insists that “Proust’s concept of ‘lost time’ is not light-years apart from Albert Einstein’s insights into the relativity of time.”

“Genius & Anxiety” is a guided tour through the history of the Western Diaspora — colorful, often provocative and always compelling. Lebrecht may not persuade every reader that there is something inherent in Judaism that explains the remarkable achievements of the men and women whom he describes so vividly, but he makes a good case that Jewishness includes markers that cannot be eradicated.


Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.