For one hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, our world changed. Many of those who helped bring about this change were Jews. They changed the way we live and look at this world. In Genius & Anxiety, Norman Lebrecht tells us how Jewish intellectuals and inventors brought about the change in our lives and how we think. The names of many of these Jewish intellectuals and inventors are easily recognizable – Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Einstein, Kakfa. Many names such as Karl Landsteiner may not be easily recognizable but their roles in changing our lives cannot be overstated. It is thanks to Karl Landsteiner’s genius that we can have blood transfusion and major surgeries today. Paul Ehrlich was behind the invention of chemotherapy. Without Siegfried Marcus, there would have been no motorcar. Rosalind Franklin made it possible to have a model of DNA. Fritz Haber made it possible to grow enough food to sustain life on Earth. Genevieve Halevy gave us grand opera and Emanuel Deutsch gave us Jews the State of Israel. They all were Jewish. If the Jews changed the world, the world also changed the Jews.
Lebrecht says that he is not making a case for Jewish exceptionalism, nor does he believe that Jews are genetically gifted above the average in mathematics, entertainment, and money. It is impossible to overturn such prejudices by reasoning alone. To make his view point clear, He gives the example of cosmetician Helena Rubenstein — the first woman to become a US dollar millionaire. Leaving Warsaw in her mid-twenties to find a husband in Australia, she discovered that women under the harsh Anti-Podean sun fear constantly for their skin. She had brought a cream to protect hers, and she was in the perfect place to manufacture more, having access to limitless supplies of lanolin, a fat secreted by sheep, and to herbs that deodorize it. By the time she left Australia in 1908, Helena had outlets in several countries. The following year, a Canadian woman of unmingled Cornish descent, went into business as Elizabeth Arden and struggled to compete with Rubinstein. If Rubinstein opened a showroom in Minneapolis or Madison Avenue, Arden opened one across the street. They poached each other’s executives and hired publicists to do the other down in the press. There is little to distinguish between the two queens of the beauty business except this: Rubinstein is Jewish, and Arden is not. Lebrecht says that operating under identical conditions, Arden amassed the same kind of fortune as Rubinstein.
Lebrecht argues that if Jews happen to excel in any particular area, it is generally a consequence of culture and experience rather than DNA. Jews learned from adversity to think differently from others, and harder. Norman Lebrecht quotes the composer Gustav Mahler as having said: “A Jew is like a man with a short arm. He has to swim harder to reach the shore.” Anxiety acts on them like an Egyptian taskmaster in the book of Exodus. It goads them to acts of genius. Lebrecht says that the story of genius and anxiety does not begin arbitrarily in 1847, nor does it end exactly a century later. Norman Lebrecht writes, “I use these two dates as bookends, marking out an age in which Jews engaged more intensely with the rest of the world than at any other time. The history of the Jews concludes, in a certain sense, with the United Nations’ recognition, on November 29, 1947, of the moral justice of founding a Jewish state in the biblical homeland. The fulfilment of a Zionist dream is, however, no more durable a solution to a human problem than Marxism or atonality. The birth of the State of Israel marks a new chapter. It is not the end of history.”
Genius & Anxiety is a mesmerizing account of Jewish intellectuals and inventors who remade our world from the middle of nineteenth century to the creation of the state of Israel. Norman Lebrecht tells us how the best minds of a persecuted people worked hard to remake the world both for us and for the Jews themselves. This was probably the only way for them to gain their rightful place in a world that left no stone unturned to persecute them. It is a hard-researched and beautifully written book. Norman Lebrecht is a natural storyteller and Genius & Anxiety is more gripping than a novel. It is a necessary book of history everyone would enjoy.