by Norman Lebrecht
Scribner (Dec 3 2019)
Reviewed by Ralph Wintrob
“In every genius runs a current of existential angst…”
May 22, 2023, Toronto ON – Now here’s a page-turner if there ever was one…a Wikipedia of Jewish movers and shakers over the course of a tumultuous century. And not just their accomplishments, but the backstory as well, in fact, all the dirt that’s fit to print, that contributed to their greatness. A perfect combination, artfully interwoven.
Lebrecht is upfront with his thesis right from the start: “In every genius runs a current of existential angst…Knowing their ideas are likely to be rejected drives them to think the unthinkable. As one of the geniuses put it: Someone had to do it so why not me? But Lebrecht goes further, The angst he’s talking about is souls conflicted over their Jewishness, in a society, especially in Europe, that rejects them. Their genius transcends their situation.
Lebrecht starts off in 1847, with Heine, (Felix) Mendelssohn, Marx, and Disraeli. Heine, he tells us, “blew away complex German sentence structure, and morbid romanticism, and changed German literary expression forever.” His motive? “To make German a holy tongue, considering Judaism not a religion but a misfortune. “ Circumstances, as Lebrecht tells us, changed his view ultimately. Marx, of rabbinic heritage on both sides, saw religion ‘as an opiate of the people’ and never wavered in his rejection. He advocated total assimilation. But his theories were suffused with Jewish ideas drawn from his heritage.
That’s just the start. Sarah Bernhardt, Lebrecht tells us, pioneered, and deliberately cultivated, the art of stardom. Her endless affairs were just part of the game, to reach the top in her profession, and in the public eye.
Proust, a contemporary, was a model of Freud’s Oedipus Complex theory, who transformed the novel into an exposition of human behaviour, based on the most intimate details of his characters’ daily life, jumping back and forth in time, that echoed Einstein’s theory of the relativity of time, who is also dealt with here.
Lebrecht tells us that an assimilated Herzl’s early suggested solution to The Jewish Question was mass conversion, but covering The Dreyfus trial for a Vienna newspaper and witnessing the violence against French Jews that the guilty verdict produced in France, transformed him, to advocate for a territorial home for Jews, where they could control their safety and security. But Herzl also pioneered a method to achieve this goal: advocating at the highest levels. He met the Kaiser the plead his case, once in Jerusalem, And Lebrecht then tells us the backroom story that produced The Balfour Declaration.
And then there’s Kafka, with his multiple neuroses, expressed in what Lebrecht describes as “his prevailing anxiety: that something awful was about to happen (to the Jews) and nothing could stop it.” Wow!
Also fascinating is the fact that many of the Movers and Shakers he describes, and there are dozens of them, knew one another intimately, and influenced one another’s thinking. For example, Freud’s best friend, Arthur Schnitzler, the most famous playwright of his time, was a compulsive flasher, to strangers, in the Vienna woods. A perfect match.
But one of the saddest stories Lebrecht reveals is that of the award-winning German chemist Fritz Haber, who transformed his formula for fertilizer, which kept Germany afloat in World War I, into a lethal gas, so Germany could win the war. To be a hero of the Fatherland was his greatest wish. He was given his own scientific research institute as a reward but was stripped of all his honours by the Nazis, and fled for his life to Switzerland, where in his final hours, he renewed his ties to his people and his religion. But, tragically, the Zyklon gas he invented was the Nazis’ weapon of choice for The Final Solution.
No question, to read this book is to want to know more of the famous, and not so famous, movers and shakers Lebrecht describes, as Jews forsook their religion for a place in the world. So, the extensive bibliography and footnotes, and welcome sources of further study, of personalities, and their conflicts, who, on the whole, made the world a better place, and a safer place for Jews.♦
Credit: Scribner; Wigmore Hall/YouTube
Ralph Wintrob is a former journalist, teacher-librarian
Do you have comments or questions about this book review? Ralph Wintrob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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