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January 19, 2020 6:46 am

How Jewish Genius and Anxiety Changed the World

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


An aerial view of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 by Norman Lebrecht, is the best popular Jewish interest book in years. It is an amazing collection of stories about the widest possible range of Jews, spanning the century from 1847 to 1947. It is fun to read, and told with infectious humor and insight.

The book is both informing and entertaining and reflects the genius of Norman Lebrecht, himself. He is a well-known music critic and journalist. He has written novels that draw on his deep experience of Orthodox Jewish life. His book, The Song of Names, has just been made into a movie.

You might say the central thesis of the book is that Jews produce brilliant men and women who contribute to society and human affairs way beyond our numbers. Yet, almost every person mentioned in this book, in addition to being prodigiously talented, was seriously emotionally damaged or neurotic in one way or another.  They’re not exactly lovable either. Lebrecht gives us a fascinating roll call of known, unknown, and forgotten geniuses in almost every area of human endeavor — political, musical, artistic, literary, academic, and religious.

Many of the most famous characters he describes tried their best to repudiate or hide their Jewish origins or identities. Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the great Moses Mendelssohn, was baptized at seven. He was a brilliant musician and composer who was desperate to be recognized as a German composer, but reviled by Wagner as a Jew. He died a disappointed man in 1847 at the age of 38.

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Heinrich Heine was one of the greatest of German poets. He was a proponent of Jewish scholarship in his younger years. He too converted, claiming “it was a ticket of admission to European culture.” Heine met Karl Marx, who tried to convert him to Marxism. Marx’s father, descended from great rabbis, converted with his children (though his wife did not) in order to succeed in German society as a lawyer. Marx, who wrote crude antisemitism, was deeply ashamed of being Jewish and condemned Judaism as a barbaric religion.

Benjamin Disraeli was born into a Jewish family that converted out of pique. He wrote novels with positive Jewish characters and rose up “the greasy pole” of politics to become UK prime minister and a confidant of Queen Victoria. He was openly proud of his Jewish heritage and flaunted it. Yet he remained an exotic outsider — mistrusted and despised as a Jew.

Marcel Proust, the giant of French literature, was born to a Jewish mother but brought up in a society that looked down on Jews and spawned the Dreyfus Affair. Despite it all, Proust was interested in Judaism. And Kafka, who also rebelled against his father’s Judaism, returned to his Jewish roots before his premature death.

Sigmund Freud, who was born into an Orthodox family and educated in Jewish things, claimed not to have any knowledge of Judaism whatsoever and resented being typecast as a Jew in Vienna at a time when antisemitism was fashionable and rampant. He despised religion as a kind of pathology and refused to allow his wife to light Shabbat candles.

Vienna, in particular, produced many brilliant but deeply flawed culturally iconic Jews who wanted to be accepted but were not. Schnitzler and Zweig were best-selling authors. Mahler, the great composer, converted to Christianity for the sake of his career and promotion.

Famous names, one after another, crop up in every chapter. Sarah Bernhardt, Amedeo Modigliani, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and a host of others who contributed to science, medicine, music, art, and culture in its widest sense.

There are rabbis in this book, too. From Samson Raphael Hirsch to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Moses Gaster, Solomon Schechter, Solomon Schoenfeld, and Samuel Adler of Temple Emanuel.  Zionism, too, finds its place in the book — Herzl, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion. Their accounts are all interspersed with anecdotes, scandals, disappointments, and personal experiences. Some of them refused to acknowledge their Jewish birth — some reluctantly and others finally reconciling.

It is staggering how so much amazing creativity comes from such a small and much despised people. How does one explain it? Was it their Jewish alienation? The underlying theme of this book is that it was the cocktail of genius and anxiety that both damaged them and yet drove them on.

There is innate genius and talent, of course. But why so concentrated? Judaism has a long tradition of scholarship, study, and questioning. There is a deep-seated sense of alienation and of being rejected, which spurs one to succeed. Economic disadvantage and poverty can also play a part in motivating people. But all this can cause neurosis, a persecution complex, or a chip on one’s shoulder that often gets in the way of human relationships and makes people very difficult to love or get along with.

The irony of it all is that, a hundred years after a time when it seemed so many talented Jews were abandoning Judaism, a Jewish state and Orthodoxy is growing exponentially. For the first time, openly Orthodox Jews are listed among the Nobel Prize winners.

This book, with all its information, style, and humor is an absolute delight. I urge you to read it.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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