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Arts Essay

Do Jews think differently?

Why were so many of the people who changed our world Jewish? The Talmud, says Norman Lebrecht

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

Sixteen years into a stop-go production saga, I got a call from the director of The Song of Names with a suggested script change. What, said François Girard, if one of the two protagonists was perhaps, er, not Jewish? My reply cannot be repeated. I was, for a minute or so, completely speechless.

My novel, winner of a 2002 Whitbread Award, is the story of two boys bonding in wartime London. One is a refugee violinist from Poland, the other a middle-class kid of average abilities. ‘I am genius,’ says Dovidl to Martin. ‘You are — a bit everything.’ Beyond bomb sites, their friendship is rooted in a common heritage. The bond is savagely betrayed when Dovidl vanishes. Martin spends the rest of his life obsessively in pursuit.

To recast Martin as a non-Jew would, to my mind, undermine the symbiosis and weaken Martin’s desperate search. If they are two peas in a pod they must surely be broadly similar. Reconnecting tongue to brain, I argued for hours against changing Martin’s faith identity. What the hell difference does it make, I shouted, if he is Jewish or not? Why would an audience empathise more with Martin if he was not one of them? Is being Jewish suddenly a no-go on a multiplex screen?

As I heard myself ranting, I knew that my case was more emotional than rational, more about current politics than fictional coherence. The script fix I finally accepted can be seen when The Song of Names premières at the London Film Festival on 6 October but the issue remains raw within me.

While the film was shooting last year in London, Budapest and Treblinka, I was writing a book, Genius and Anxiety, against a rising tide of anti-Semitism. In Paris, a Holocaust survivor was found tortured to death. Jewish men were beaten up on the streets of Berlin and Warsaw. A synagogue was machine-gunned in Pittsburgh. Attacks against Jews rose 74 per cent in France, 57 per cent in the US and 37 per cent in the UK. The British Labour party became a haven for Jew-baiters. Some friends talked of emigration. The oldest hatred was back in our faces.

My book deals with a mystery that greater minds than mine had failed to crack. It’s a simple proposition: between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries some three dozen men and women changed the way we see the world. For no obvious reason, half of them were Jews. Why is that?

Some of these remakers of our minds are so famous they are known by surnames alone — Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Trotsky, Disraeli, Gershwin. Others were so anxious they went to great efforts to erase themselves from history; one actually went to court to have his name removed from an American Jewish directory.


Karl Landsteiner, his name was, and you may owe him your life, as I do mine. Landsteiner is the man who made surgical operations safe. An immunologist at the University of Vienna, he strayed outside his field in 1900 to ask why, after successful surgery, many patients died of shock. Might it have to do with blood transfusions? Scientific wisdom at this point held that blood was red and the same in all of us. Landsteiner took a needle to everyone in his lab and stuck the smears under a microscope. In no time at all he identified three types of blood, A, B and O. His discovery was howled down at a national convention of German scientists, but a twenty-something Jewish surgeon at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital decided to apply a Landsteiner test before operating on a valued patient in November 1907 and, ever since, all of us can face surgery with reasonable confidence.

The mystery is how Landsteiner saw what others could not. The little we know of his thinking is confined to a tiny German monograph and a 1930 Nobel prize citation. Landsteiner went on to isolate the polio virus and to patent an early blood method of identifying paternity. Although he was rigorously wedded to western scientific method, I wondered whether his brilliant shafts of insight might not derive from a very different school of thought.

As a lifelong Talmud scholar, I was aware that the medieval compendium of Jewish argumentation teaches that blood varies from one part of the body to another, cranial blood differing from abdominal. Might this piece of folk wisdom, unfounded in any empirical observation, have played a role in Landsteiner’s thought process giving him permission to dissent from scientific conformity? And if so, could a common ancestral way of thinking have freed Karl Marx or Benjamin Disraeli or Sarah Bernhardt or Magnus Hirschfeld (we’ll come to him) to change the world as we know it?

Consider Albert Einstein. No one to this day can fathom how a Swiss government clerk of no prior academic distinction managed to redefine, in four papers written between March and June of 1905, the nature of the universe, its potential to self-destruct and the horizons of outer space. If journalists asked Einstein to explain his theory of relativity, he would tell a Talmudic joke: ‘When you sit with a pretty girl for two hours it feels like a minute; sit on a hot stove and it feels like eternity.’

Einstein, who had a boyhood phase of observing Sabbath and eating kosher, saw the universe through a prism of Davidic psalms, which he quoted at the slightest impulse. He said he had a moral duty to complete God’s work of creation, ‘to draw His lines after Him’. Being Jewish, and Zionist, was central to his science. To blur these convictions (as many do) is to falsify the origins of modern physics.

Einstein was a product of 2,000 years of exile, persecution, ghettoisation and Talmudic immersion. Liberated by Napoleon, Jews burst like corks from a magnum with perspectives that were alternative, innovative, often outrageous. In 1898 the Berlin physician Magnus Hirschfeld submitted to the Reichstag a petition calling for homosexual equality, the first of its kind anywhere. The son of a synagogue president, Hirschfeld developed theories of sexual diversity that drove Sigmund Freud, his early admirer, to apoplexy.

Freud himself applied Talmudic reasoning in psychoanalysis. Six of the 13 statutory methods of Talmudic exegesis can be found in Freud’s analytic thinking. While Freud, an atheist, falsely claimed ignorance of Judaism, an awareness of Talmud was lodged in his unconscious. At the first meeting of terrified psychoanalysts after the Nazis entered Vienna in March 1938, Freud comforted them with the Talmudic story of Rabbi Jochanan’s rescue of Jerusalem’s sages from the murderous Romans. Freud now cast himself in the role of this rabbi.

Beneath each genius of this fertile century lay an undercurrent of anxiety. Franz Kafka, in The Trial, foresaw the workings of Stalin’s great terror. Trotsky, as early as 1923, railed against Soviet anti-Semitism. Gershwin composed in what he called a freygish mode, a Yiddish term for questioning, self-doubt. The founders of Hollywood were Jews in flight from Tsarist pogroms. Casablanca, their most enduring movie, is a parable of Jewish anxiety in a Californian desert; the director, Michael Curtiz, was a Budapest emigré. In the Mojave desert other Budapest Jews tried to blow up the world.

Carmen, the most bankable opera of all time, is, in my reading, not so much the story of a gypsy girl as a covert portrait of the composer’s neurotic and libidinous Jewish wife, Geneviève, who had a second life as chief muse to Marcel Proust. In Proust’s languorous search for lost time, he cites a debt to a physicist cousin, the Nobel winner Henry-Louis Bergson, who clashed with Einstein in a celebrated disputation over the flexibility of time, itself a Talmudic concept.

Three Jews changed the use of language. Heine released German verse from Goethe’s corsets; Proust introduced autumnal violins to the sound of French and the vividly Jewish Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, invested English dialogue with new freedoms. In music, Arnold Schoenberg overturned five centuries of Christian tonality, replacing the diatonic scale with a revivifying 12-note row. In the past half-century, Jews have found a cure for polio, invented the contraceptive pill, established their own state and started Facebook.

What I’m bringing to light is not a conspiracy of Elders of Zion nor a ridiculous notion of Jewish exceptionalism — Jews, said the chemist Chaim Weizmann, ‘are just like everyone else, only more so’ — but a way of thinking that has allowed Jews to see the world from an oblique angle. Do Jews think differently? The moment I asked that question, there could be only one answer.

As I reached the final chapters, anti-Semitism intruded. Born in London after the second world war, I have lived my life as a Jew without hindrance, leaving work early on winter Fridays for the Sabbath rest and never encountering ugly prejudice. Now I heard anti-Semitism forming a normal part of daily discourse, a mainstream political party held hostage by haters, and friends packing up for emigration.

I don’t share their apocalyptic fear. Anti-Semitism is a pendulum. I have to believe that my country will swing back away from it (or it will cease to be my country). My film The Song of Names recalls a time when Britain gave shelter to Jews. That mercy is not forgotten. This troubled time will pass. Some dissenting Jew, somewhere, right now, is about to change the way the world revolves.

The Song of Names can be seen at the London Film Festival on 6 and 8 October. Genius and Anxiety is published by Oneworld on 10 October.


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