Skip to main content

Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947

Review

Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947

Starting with the Communist Manifesto and ending on the brink of another new chapter of world history --- the foundation of the state of Israel --- Norman Lebrecht presents an expanded view of Jews and Jewishness.

Karl Marx was the guiding intellectual light in a world-altering revolutionary movement. Felix Mendelssohn composed grand choral music with Christian themes. The mind of Albert Einstein dominated the scientific world. Sigmund Freud invented the modern conception of psychology. Benjamin Disraeli argued for a bill that made it possible for non-Christians to serve in Parliament. Irving Berlin extolled the virtues of Christian holidays for the masses with “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” These are among the pantheon of famous Jews who Lebrecht cites for their well-known influence on mainstream philosophy, knowledge and culture.

"Invoking heroic, creative, courageous images through the large panorama and the small vignette, Lebrecht, a celebrated music writer, teases out more than 100 years of Jewish lore in this dense, entertaining work."

Intermingled in this shimmering chronology are many Jews less celebrated but equally fascinating. Eliza Davis, the Jamaican-born daughter of a synagogue cantor, sent letters of criticism to Charles Dickens concerning the character of Fagin, the “very old shriveled Jew” whose scurrilous personality was an integral part of the famous Dickens novel, OLIVER TWIST. Through polite exchanges, Davis inveigled the at-first reluctant author to ameliorate his depiction of the old man; doing so arguably gave his work more perennial popularity.

Another independent Jewish woman created the remarkable lines “Give me your tired, your poor…,” which grace the Statue of Liberty. “Emma Lazarus,” Lebrecht states, “has given the United States of America its human face.” And a little-known Lithuanian cantor, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, sought to establish the connection between ancient Jewish prayer song and the sacred tonalities of other Middle Eastern religious traditions. Though decried for these views even by those of his own faith, especially Zionists, Idelsohn would also compose “Hava Nagila,” widely considered now to be “an Israeli anthem.”

Invoking heroic, creative, courageous images through the large panorama and the small vignette, Lebrecht, a celebrated music writer, teases out more than 100 years of Jewish lore in this dense, entertaining work. He shows that those extolled were not all alike --- many were irreligious, some were intermarried, and all had strong personal opinions and may or may not have agreed with the majority of their peers.

What is clear, though, from Lebrecht’s many examples is that Jews have exerted themselves through a compulsion to succeed, never to leave well enough alone. Our world would be a poorer place without their perseverance --- and their humor, as when Einstein described his famous theory as such: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 6, 2019

Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947
by Norman Lebrecht

  • Publication Date: December 3, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1982134224
  • ISBN-13: 9781982134228