“Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947” is a captivating book that explores the diverse range of human experiences through the lives of Jewish individuals across the globe. The author skillfully challenges commonly held Jewish stereotypes, leaving readers in awe and admiration.
Lebrecht has a unique writing style that can be compared to the Talmudic stream of consciousness. He combines different elements with a common theme and adds a personal touch by including connections from his life, family, or acquaintances. The book could rightly be named “Truth is Stranger than Fiction” as Lebrecht consistently provides the backstory of the characters’ lives, often sourced from their diaries or letters.
The book recounts the stories of several influential figures who contributed to the arts and sciences, including Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and others whose impact was lesser-known but significant. It includes fascinating short stories about the creation of the first contraceptive pill, the pioneers of blood transfusions, the discovery of DNA, and the self-testing of radiography for cancer treatment.
The later chapters of the book, especially those that come after 1905, are highly engaging, featuring stories of notable individuals intertwined with the most recent events of their time. Chapter 12 covers political assassinations that many have forgotten and occurred in 1933. Additionally, Chapter 13 focuses on the Nazi persecution of Jews and highlights the extraordinary efforts of both Jews and non-Jews who were involved in rescue missions during 1938.
“Genius and Anxiety” extends its narrative to 1947, documenting the lives of Jews who managed to emigrate to America, Israel, and China during the bleak period of 1942.
Chapter 15 offers a unique perspective on the Chabad Rabbi’s escape from the Warsaw Ghetto. It also provides insight into the development of the movement in Brooklyn, which has had a significant impact on Jewish life globally.
Norman Lebrecht is a writer known for his meticulous research, which he draws from extensive personal diaries and letters. His book on Gustav Mahler, “Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World,” is densely annotated and showcases his depth of knowledge. Lebrecht’s literary repertoire is diverse, ranging from the novel “The Song of Names” to insightful works on Jewish life, such as “Genius and Anxiety.” The latter is a remarkable companion to Amos Elon’s “The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews In Germany, 1743–1933.” Both books leave an indelible mark on the reader’s mind and earn a lasting place in their library.