How adversity shaped a century of Jewish creativity and invention.
“A Jew is like a man with a short arm,” said the composer Gustav Mahler. “He has to swim harder to reach the shore.” In this beautifully crafted work, music historian and novelist Lebrecht (Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World, 2010, etc.) argues convincingly that “existential angst”—a dread of losing their rights to citizenship and free speech amid widespread persecution—freed many Jews to pursue unusual accomplishments with abandon. Not expecting acceptance, “free to think the unthinkable,” Freud, Proust, Einstein, and others worked brilliantly in such fields as science, art, and music, not because of any genetic advantage but out of opportunity made possible by “marginality.” With anxiety as a “primary motivating factor, the engine of fresh thinking,” they began in the mid-19th century, and especially in the decade after the Dreyfus Affair, to engage in acts of genius. Such individuals as Marx and Disraeli set the tone for “a century of Jewish invention,” unafraid of criticism from those in power. They paved the way for diverse successors, as well, including Trotsky, Sarah Bernhardt, Jonas Salk, and through to Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg. Taking us into many spheres of endeavor, Lebrecht offers revealing portraits of and stories about these Jews, practicing and not, as they crossed artistic boundaries, advanced science, and reshaped myriad aspects of Western society in the period through the 1947 founding of Israel. He provides nuanced explorations of individuals from Einstein, “a religious man of no religion, a perfect Jewish paradox,” to Kafka, who knows “something terrible is about to happen and there is nothing anyone can do about it.” Written with passion and authority, this book shows how these great minds always took a different point of view—and changed how we see the world. Lebrecht also includes a helpful glossary of Jewish terms.
An absorbing, well-told story of Jewish achievement that is a pleasure to read.