Article of the Day: 12/29/19 Thinking, A Lost Art?

How Jews Have Made an Impact on the Modern World

By Clémence BoulouqueDec. 12, 2019


From left: Albert Ballin; Albert Einstein; Sarah Bernhardt; Sigmund Freud
From left: Albert Ballin; Albert Einstein; Sarah Bernhardt; Sigmund FreudHamburg Marketing GmbH; Associated Press; Bibliothèque Nationale de France; Sigmund Freud Museum, via Associated Press

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How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947

By Norman Lebrecht

Reciting Jewish achievements and Judaism’s contribution to civilization in order to fight anti-Semitic propaganda is a well-established genre that flourished in 19th-century Europe. After reaching the United States in the first part of the 20th century, it arguably culminated in the 1960s with the writings of popular authors like Max DimontNorman Lebrecht’s “Genius & Anxiety” belongs to that genre: Both the subtitle of his book and the preface testify to Lebrecht’s commitment to demonstrating “how Jews changed the world” as a response to the current moment, which, he laments, is yet again beset by anti-Semitism.

Spanning a century, between 1847 (the death of Felix Mendelssohn) and 1947 (the United Nations’ vote in favor of the creation of the State of Israel), the book features dozens of remarkable scientists, artists and politicians of Jewish descent. Lebrecht’s wide net captures the usual suspects — Marx, Freud, Kafka, Einstein — but also many lesser-known, and equally fascinating, individuals, like Karl Landsteiner, the father of blood types; Albert Ballin, the shipping industry magnate who changed trans-Atlantic journeys and migration patterns; and Eliza Davis, an acquaintance of Dickens who harassed him until he amended “Oliver Twist,” doing away with negative Jewish references in the book’s later editions. Some of Lebrecht’s transitions from one vignette to the next flow particularly well: His account of the revival of ancient Hebrew under the auspices of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, meant to foster a Jewish national consciousness, is aptly followed and contrasted by the depiction of the near-simultaneous creation of Esperanto by the Polish idealist Eliezer Ludwig Zamenhof, who strove to create a universal idiom that would encourage greater understanding among peoples.

[ Read an excerpt from “Genius & Anxiety.” ]

Each chapter, while loosely thematic, is organized around a specific year. So “1875: Carmen Quand-Même” deals with people in the performing arts, from the composer Georges Bizet (who was married to a Jewish woman) to the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who invented stardom as we know it, while “1897: Sex and the City” revolves around Freud, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler and their analyses of the role of eros and the psyche in fin de siècle Vienna. In “1911, Blues ’n’ Jews,” Lebrecht, a music critic and biographer of Gustav Mahler, details the musical revolution of another composer of Vienna’s golden age, Arnold Schoenberg, presenting his employment of atonality as an outsider’s jab at the Viennese respectable bourgeoisie.

Lebrecht attributes the inroads made by Jews to their marginal status: “They do not expect acceptance. On the contrary, knowing that their ideas are likely to be rejected leaves them free to think the unthinkable.” However, some of his characters’ behavior does not fit his own description, and can be explained only by their desire to gain entry into a hostile society. In Germany and Austria particularly, their display of love for a fatherland that ultimately turned against them is part of the tragedy.

Such is the case with the scientist Fritz Haber, the Faustian character of Lebrecht’s tale, who developed and advocated chemical warfare during World War I in spite of the 1899 and 1907 Hague conventions that had banned it. Eager to show his patriotism, Haber notoriously declared: “During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world, but during wartime he belongs to his country.” In the 1920s, scientists in his research institute developed the pesticide Zyklon A, which paved the way to the invention of Zyklon B, used in gas chambers by the Nazis. Haber died in 1934, in exile. Many members of his family were killed in the camps.

Lebrecht does not dwell on tragedies, and opposes what the great historian Salo Baron called a “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” When he addresses the Holocaust, it is mostly to mention those who saved lives. In that regard, the project resembles Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews,” which also emphasizes continuities and contributions rather than disruptions, but whose narrative is more carefully crafted.

A major problem of Lebrecht’s volume lies in the disconnect between its title and its treatment. “Genius & Anxiety” feels like an afterthought, tagged on to a bubbly inventory of individual trajectories. The chapters’ contents often appear disjointed. “1938: Cities of Refuge” describes the activities of the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, Dr. Feng-Shan Ho, who helped 5,000 Jews escape to Shanghai in the wake of the Anschluss; it sketches the death of the Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam in a labor camp in Siberia (hardly a refuge) and closes with the role of Leo Szilard, a Hungarian Jew, in the Manhattan Project, which led to the atomic bomb. None of these compelling episodes fit the chapter’s title; what’s more, they extend far beyond 1938.

In his introduction Lebrecht writes of anxiety as “a sense of dread or apprehension,” which “most psychologists” consider “a negative, inhibiting emotion.” But Freud, he notes, “does not see it that way,” viewing it instead as an “engine of fresh thinking.” In a rather infelicitous simile, Lebrecht goes on to say that anxiety has acted on the Jews “like an Egyptian taskmaster in the Book of Exodus. It goads them to acts of genius.” But he should have gone much further. In “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety” Freud argued that “anxiety comes to be a reaction to the loss of an object.” Had Lebrecht analyzed his subjects’ anxiety in relation to loss and mourning, which all of them experienced, either personally or collectively, he would have written a more nuanced and richer book.

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