This lively chronicle of the years 1847–1947—the century when the Jewish people changed how we see the world—is “[a] thrilling and tragic history…especially good on the ironies and chain-reaction intimacies that make a people and a past” (The Wall Street Journal).
In a hundred-year period, a handful of men and women changed the world. Many of them are well known—Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka. Others have vanished from collective memory despite their enduring importance in our daily lives. Without Karl Landsteiner, for instance, there would be no blood transfusions or major surgery. Without Paul Ehrlich, no chemotherapy. Without Siegfried Marcus, no motor car. Without Rosalind Franklin, genetic science would look very different. Without Fritz Haber, there would not be enough food to sustain life on earth.
What do these visionaries have in common? They all had Jewish origins. They all had a gift for thinking in wholly original, even earth-shattering ways. In 1847, the Jewish people made up less than 0.25% of the world’s population, and yet they saw what others could not. How? Why?
Norman Lebrecht has devoted half of his life to pondering and researching the mindset of the Jewish intellectuals, writers, scientists, and thinkers who turned the tides of history and shaped the world today as we know it. In Genius & Anxiety, Lebrecht begins with the Communist Manifesto in 1847 and ends in 1947, when Israel was founded. This robust, magnificent, beautifully designed volume is “an urgent and moving history” (The Spectator, UK) and a celebration of Jewish genius and contribution.
Music commentator Lebrecht (Why Mahler?) catalogues a century of important Jewish lives in this idiosyncratic and frantic cultural history. Each chapter centers on a single, pivotal year, allowing Lebrecht to weave together a collection of anecdotes and pared down biographical details of its subjects. He opens and closes his analysis outside the stated historical boundaries, beginning with Karl Marx's 1843 publication of "On the Jewish Question" and ending with the events leading up to the establishment of Israel in 1948, focusing throughout on Jews in Europe and the United States. Chapters are sometimes thematic, such as one devoted to Jewish developments in the study of sexuality, or another on early-20th-century music, while others are a strange melange of unrelated ideas, such as one that jumps among the filming of Casablanca, a trial convicting God in Auschwitz, a litany of suicides within Nazi-occupied territories, and the invention of birth control pills. Most of the figures are well-known and male, though there are some less familiar names, such as Eliza Davis, who influenced Charles Dickens's view of the Jews, or British rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who vigorously worked to expatriate Jews just before WWII. Lebrecht can tell an enjoyable story with verve, though the lack of clear trajectory or organization dilutes his points. While readers interested in 19th- and 20th-century Judaism might enjoy dipping in and out of these snippets from important people's lives, this overfilled work founders as a whole.