Norman Lebrecht

Stoppard is right. Jews are different, they think differently and they remain different down to the nth generation

Leopoldstadt is to Vienna as the East End is to London and the Lower East Side to New York, an entry point for Jewish migrants in flight from Russian pogroms and in search of a better life. Unlike first footfalls in other cities, however, Leopoldstadt is also a state of mind, a nagging sense of unbelonging that persists for generations, long after a family has found apparent security elsewhere. Popularly known as Matza Island, after the flatpack Passover bread which is not allowed to rise, Leopoldstadt was where Sigmund Freud, who grew up there, mapped the unconscious mind.

In Tom Stoppard’s self-mapping new play, most of the conversation takes place away from crowded tenements, in a high-ceilinged mansion on the Schwarzenbergplatz, some time after the Merz family made its fortune in textiles and, as Stoppard snipes, got ‘baptised and circumcised in the same week.’ But Stoppard will not let it go with a cheap quip like this, and nor can I.

What the play addresses, more cogently than any I can remember, is the question of whether Jews can ever surrender their identity to Christian civilisation. ‘A Jew can be a great composer,’ asserts Stoppard, ‘but he can’t not be a Jew.’

So true. In a Spectator podcast last week, Damian Thomson asked me why it was that baptized Jews like Heine, Disraeli and Mahler clung so resolutely to their self-recognition as Jews. Why was Disraeli so proud (and Queen Victoria so amused) when Bismarck referred to him as ‘the old Jew’? Was his baptism merely a matter of convenience? Not at all, I responded. It was an available gateway to opportunity in the 19th century, like sailing to America, but only a fool would consider dropping his passport in the ocean along the way.

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