Genius from the ghettos: Why were so many trailblazers Jewish?


Genius from the ghettos: Why were so many trailblazers Jewish?

A new book wonders if Jews’ outsider status – and Talmud tradition – enabled them to think differently

Norman Lebrecht

Arriving in London in July 1833, Felix Mendelssohn headed straight to the House of Commons. Hailed as the most gifted composer since Mozart and the most Lutheran since Bach, Mendelssohn was gripped by what the press were calling the “Jew Bill”, a heated political debate over whether Jewish citizens of the UK should be granted equal rights.

“Early today,” Mendelssohn wrote home to his mother in a long-suppressed letter, “the Jews were emancipated. This makes me proud ... it is better for us in England.” His report is peppered with Hebrew and Yiddish words for enemies and anti-Semites. It is a coded communication between an outwardly assimilated artist and his artfully buried Jewish identity. Reading it set me off on a search for the roots of a conundrum that had troubled me for half my adult life.

Why were so many of the men and women who transformed the arts between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries Jewish? Jews made up less than 0.002% of the world’s population, but comprised about half of the most influential writers, musicians and film-makers of this period, not to mention scientists (Einstein and Freud) and revolutionary thinkers (Marx and Wittgenstein). Gustav Mahler is the most thought-provoking composer of the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg the bedrock of post-tonal modernism, Franz Kafka the chronicler of anxiety, and Marcel Proust the most effective archaeologist of memory outside of Freud...

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