Lead book review

Is there no field in which the Jewish mindset doesn’t excel?

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

More than 20 years ago, George Steiner, meditating on 2,000 years of persecution and suffering, posed the ‘taboo’ question that no one dared ask: ‘Has the survival of the Jew been worth the appalling cost?’  It was not just the horrors of the pogroms or of Auschwitz that ‘enforced’ the question for Steiner, nor the centuries of exclusion and violence but — equally destructive — ‘the fear, the degradation, the miasma of contempt, latent or explicit,’ which has been the hereditary birthright of every Jewish child ‘across the millennia’. ‘Would it not be preferable, on the balance sheet of human mercies,’ Steiner asked, ‘if he was to ebb into assimilation and the common seas?’

For the Orthodox believer, armed with the certainties of God’s covenant with His people, the question might not exist, but for those who cannot go down that road Norman Lebrecht’s urgent and moving history provides a different and stirring answer.  ‘Between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries,’ Genius & Anxiety opens,

a few dozen men and women changed the way we see the world. Some of their names are on our lips for all time. Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka. Others have vanished from our collective memory, but their importance endures in our daily lives. Without Karl Landsteiner, for instance, there would be no blood transfusion or major surgery; without Paul Ehrlich no chemotherapy; without Siegfried Marcus no motor car; without Rosalind Franklin no model of DNA; without Fritz Haber there would not be enough food to sustain life on earth.

I don’t know if Lebrecht actually buys into so simple a description of scientific progress, or whether it is just a good, combative kick-off to a book, but either way the main thrust of the argument is inescapable. For the best part of the past 200 years a small and threatened minority has exerted a creative influence out of all proportion to their numbers, and whether they flaunt it like a Disraeli or a Bernstein, or a convert like Mendelssohn, whether they hate it like Marx, are religious or atheist, Orthodox or Reform, assimilist or Zionist, the one thing they share is their ‘Jewishness’. While it seems a difficult thing to define without slipping into tautology — a ‘Jewish aphorism’ or a ‘Jewish joke’ takes one as close as one is probably going to get — the one quality, for Lebrecht, that distinguishes the ‘Jewish mindset’ is the rabbinical, counter-intuitive ability to think ‘outside the box’. He is quick to refute any suggestion of Jewish ‘exceptionalism’, but whether in the end it is a matter of culture, hereditary experience or the eternal, driven angst of a people who could only fear the worst, the western world has every reason to be grateful to this astonishing explosion of talent.

In Secession Vienna, Weimar Berlin and post-second world war New York, across the whole gamut of the sciences, in classical music and popular culture, in painting, philosophy, politics and the cinema, Jewish scientists, artists, musicians, thinkers, revolutionaries, film-makers and entrepreneurs led the world. There are moments when the hunt for the Talmudic in anything and anywhere from Proust to Einstein’s relativity can feel a bit remorseless, but Genius & Anxiety is as much an act of witness as narrative, and name after name — Heine, Mahler, Schoenberg, Modigliani, Wittgenstein, Weill, Kafka, Zweig, Gershwin — rises out of the gathering darkness of Lebrecht’s pages to answer Steiner’s question.

Lebrecht is not one to shy away from the big claim — was Sarah Bernhardt really the founder of modern ‘celebrity’ for instance? (what about Byron?) — yet while there is  a defiant sense of pride here, Jewish history is too tragic a story for triumphalism. In Britain, the Balfour Declaration smoothed the way for an interwar generation to be ‘good Jews’ and ‘good Englishmen’, but it was another story on the continent, where all those scientists, writers and intellectuals who had always seen themselves as champions of German culture — who were German culture — found themselves, at last, with no language that they could call their own and no home.

Nor, now that they do have one, has anti-Semitism gone, and it is perhaps a sense of that, more than anything, that lies behind the urgency of this book. By ending (more or less) the story at 1947 Lebrecht is able to skirt some of the major issues but, profoundly loyal as he is, he is not blind to the paradox at the heart of political, secular Zionism, nor the realities of Israeli state power. In 1978, he records, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer, on a visit to his son in Israel, was invited to tea by a fellow Warsaw Jew, the prime minister, Menachem Begin.

‘Tell me,’ says Singer, ‘why did you have to reinvent Hebrew when we have such a beautiful Jewish mother tongue in Yiddish?’ Begin explains that Yiddish is unfit for government. It has no administrative terms and its elaborate courtesies are unsuited to military situations. To order ‘shoot’ in Yiddish, an officer would have to speak a full sentence to indicate the possibility of a shot being fired. ‘Why,’ cries Begin, ‘Yiddish has no word for weapons, no word even for army.’ Singer surveys the Israeli prime minister with sad grey eyes. He raises a forefinger in the air and utters a single Yiddish syllable. ‘Oh!’, says Singer — meaning just imagine a world without such things.

‘The two men,’ Lebrecht adds, ‘never speak again.’

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