‘Genius & Anxiety’ Review: Lights That Shone Brightly

Examining a century during which a number of Jewish thinkers—among them Freud, Herzl and Einstein—changed how we “see the world.”

Albert Einstein meets with David Ben-Gurion.

Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Nationalists to the right of us, socialists to the left, thugs in the streets and mobs on Twitter: The “Jewish Question” has returned on a resentful tide of lies and violence. It is now, Norman Lebrecht observes in this thrilling and tragic history, “cool to be cruel about Jews (though not about other minorities).” Frightening for Jews, this should alarm all Americans. The fever of Jew-hatred is an inerrant symptom of moral rot and civilizational crisis.

香蕉视频苹果下载Mr. Lebrecht’s “Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947” describes the century from the opening of the ghettos to the closing of the camps and the start of a new era in Jewish history with the creation of the state of Israel. In the 19th century Europe’s Jews, freed from centuries of legal discrimination, finally had a chance to join non-Jewish society. First in Britain, France and Germany, and then in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, they entered schools, libraries, laboratories, salons and assemblies. Many recognized that they were only conditional members of Europe’s nation states. Some, Mr. Lebrecht writes, “changed the way we see the world.”

These big names are synonymous with modernity: Marx, Disraeli, Herzl, Trotsky and Ben-Gurion in politics; Mahler, Schoenberg and Gershwin in music; Heine, Proust and Kafka in literature; Einstein in science; Wittgenstein in philosophy—and, somewhere between literature and science, Sigmund Freud, the Socrates of the modern soul. There is no Jewish gene, Mr. Lebrecht argues, only Jewish genius; no “Jewish exceptionalism,” only an exceptional situation. Jews’ minds were sharpened by the hermeneutical whetstone of the Talmud, their lives perpetually threatened. They were conditional insiders and eternal outsiders, “driven by a need to justify their existence in a hostile environment and to do it quickly.”

Photo: WSJ

Genius & Anxiety

By Norman Lebrecht
Scribner, 438 pages, $30

香蕉视频苹果下载This account begins in the 1840s, with the torments of assimilation. In a German magazine, Richard Wagner calls for the eminent German composer Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, to be expunged as a “foreign element.” In Britain, Benjamin Disraeli turns from novelist to politician and “turns England’s stupid party into One Nation conservatives.” In France exile Karl Marx, the future author of “On the Jewish Question,” introduces himself to the German poet Heinrich Heine as a distant cousin. Mendelssohn was the son of a convert to Christianity, Disraeli and Marx were converted as children by their fathers’ apostasies. Heine converted, famously, for a “passport to European civilization.” Disraeli and Heine flaunted their Jewishness as a career asset, but Marx and Mendelssohn hated “the Jew within” and hid it, Marx with historical theories and Mendelssohn with Christian music.

香蕉视频苹果下载Mr. Lebrecht, a music critic and novelist who studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, expertly explores the Jewishness of Marx and Mendelssohn. When Marx derides Judaism as a “polytheism of the many needs” that “makes even the lavatory an object of divine law,” he betrays “deep personal intimacy with Jewish life.” How else could Marx have known that religious Jews recite a “quiet blessing after each visit to the toilet”? And how else could Mendelssohn have acquired the opening of the third movement of his “ultra-Christian” Reformation Symphony, the “Romanian Hasidic ditty” better known these days as the ultra-Zionist ditty “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”?

Unlike many popular historians, Mr. Lebrecht gives equal space to Jewish counter-movements, with accessible accounts of the splitting of Ashkenazi Judaism—into Reform, Conservative and Orthodox streams—and of the birth of Zionism. With six German Jews apostasizing every day in the early 19th century, Isaac Bernays of Hamburg blows a black shofar, excommunicating Reform assimilationists. Bernays is the first German rabbi to hold a Ph.D., while his “bedazzled disciple” Samson Raphael Hirsch creates the neo-Orthodox doctrine of Torah im derekh eretz香蕉视频苹果下载, translated by Mr. Lebrechts as “God’s law in the real world.” Samuel Adler, a distant cousin of the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, creates the flagship of Reform, Temple Emanu-El in New York City.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, another academic, Solomon Schechter, uncovers a genizah 香蕉视频苹果下载(a storage area for superfluous materials in Hebrew) in the attic of a Cairo synagogue, packed with boxes of medieval documents. The Cairo genizah, Mr. Lebrecht writes, “refutes Christianity’s view of Judaism as defunct by demonstrating its vivid evolution through engagement with other cultures.” Schechter proceeds to the United States to launch Conservative Judaism. Similar revivals start in Jerusalem, where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda coins thousands of new words and writes the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and in Basel, Switzerland, where Theodor Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

Mr. Lebrecht is especially good on the ironies and chain-reaction intimacies that make a people and a past. Rabbi Bernays’s granddaughter Martha marries Sigmund Freud, who meets Mahler, whose Resurrection Symphony is performed in the hall at Basel where Herzl holds the First Zionist Congress. Kafka dreams of working as a waiter in a cafe in Tel Aviv. The chemist Fritz Haber, a patriotic German Jew “more Prussian than the Junckers,” does work on pesticides in the early 1920s that leads to Zyklon B, the gas used at Auschwitz.

We know how it ended, who planned it, and who joined in. The murder of Europe’s Jewish civilization was the suicide of Europe’s Christian civilization: Nothing, Churchill wrote, has falsified the truth of Benjamin Disraeli’s assertion that “the Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews.” The genocide of Europe’s Jews was not fated but became increasingly likely due to cumulative acts of free will. Similar acts saved thousands and created the Jewish state.

Mr. Lebrecht writes in the present continuous tense, placing readers in a dynamic drama and emphasizing that the future was always unwritten. The odyssey ends where it began, with storm clouds and the prospect of redemption. Security guards now protect Jewish kindergartens in Europe and the U.S., while “techies, inventors and investors” from India and China look for “the deal of the century” in Israel, “a small state living expansively from its wits.” Mr. Lebrecht has written a lament for a lost world and a celebration of human endurance and the religious imagination. “This story is not over yet,” he concludes. “The book is our hope and our salvation.”

Mr. Green is life & arts editor of the Spectator (U.S.).

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