Genius & Anxiety

  • Review
By – February 3, 2020

Nor­man Lebrecht’s study is filled with ener­gy, irony, and new angles of vision. He makes a pow­er­ful point that most of the fig­ures fea­tured in this book made their con­tri­bu­tions in what was essen­tial­ly an anti­se­mit­ic world. While the par­tic­u­lars of such con­di­tions run through the book’s six­teen chap­ters, more engag­ing is the author’s blend of diverse per­son­al­i­ties with var­ied rela­tion­ships to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty: reli­gion, cul­ture, law, and peoplehood.

Although most of the chap­ters detail impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions by Jews to the ben­e­fit of mankind with­in the stretch of this hun­dred-year peri­od, many chap­ters focus on sig­nif­i­cant changes par­tic­u­lar to Jew­ish cul­ture and iden­ti­ty. His­tor­i­cal writ­ings con­tin­ue to applaud the accom­plish­ments of Ein­stein, Kaf­ka, Marx, Freud, and oth­ers of world-chang­ing stature, but it is inside the inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that the con­tri­bu­tions of giants such as Theodor Her­zl and Solomon Schechter are celebrated.

Lebrecht enjoys devel­op­ing his explo­rations through com­par­isons and con­trasts. The Her­zl-Schechter chap­ter titled 1890: Two Beards on a Train” is one pow­er­ful exam­ple. It ends with the intro­duc­tion of a third shaper of Jew­ish des­tiny, a foil to Schechter’s role in birthing the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment; this part­ner is Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, who invig­o­rat­ed and mas­ter­mind­ed Chabad Lubavitch.

Lebrecht’s prose is live­ly and his voice is dis­tinc­tive. He doesn’t mind putting him­self in the nar­ra­tives that he shapes with vig­or and aplomb. He seems most excit­ed when explor­ing Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tions to the arts, par­tic­u­lar­ly sym­phon­ic music and oth­er per­for­mance-relat­ed cat­e­gories. For exam­ple, his por­trait of Fan­ny Brice, illus­trates her remark­able chutz­pah as well as that of the author, who gives her cred­it for invent­ing celebri­ty. Sim­i­lar­ly, his treat­ment of how Jews influ­enced the writ­ings of Charles Dick­ens and George Eliot is anoth­er exam­ple of Lebrecht’s adven­tur­ous schol­ar­ship and his love of bold strokes.

The twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry por­tion of Lebrecht’s study include the Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tion to Amer­i­can musi­cal the­ater; Blues N’ Jews” rehears­es the Jew­ish musi­cal genius let loose by the Gersh­win broth­ers, Arnold Schoen­berg, Irv­ing Berlin, and a host of oth­ers. And, of course, Jew­ish dom­i­nance in the film indus­try receives appro­pri­ate, thought­ful attention.

Addi­tion­al­ly, Lebrecht doc­u­ments less well known, but world-chang­ing, con­tri­bu­tions of Siegfried Mar­cus, father of the auto­mo­bile; Ros­alind Franklin, whose research fos­tered the under­stand­ing of DNA and the whole field of genet­ic sci­ence; and Karl Land­stein­er, who iden­ti­fied the major blood groups and made blood trans­fu­sion a rou­tine med­ical prac­tice, sav­ing count­less lives.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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