“Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947” is an enthralling exploration that delves into the diverse tapestry of humanity reflected in the lives of Jewish individuals worldwide. The book skillfully challenges prevailing Jewish stereotypes, evoking a sense of sheer wonder.
Authored by Norman Lebrecht, a London-based journalist with a profound passion for music, the narrative unfolds through the lens of a novelist. Lebrecht takes readers on a journey into the personal lives and imagined thought processes of numerous Jewish geniuses spanning the realms of arts, music, science, and politics from 1857 to 1947.
Lebrecht’s writing style, reminiscent of a Talmudic stream of consciousness, weaves together disparate elements with a thematic focus, incorporating personal connections—whether his own, his family’s, or acquaintances’. The book aptly could be titled “Truth is Stranger than Fiction,” as Lebrecht consistently provides the backstory of characters’ intimate lives, often gleaned from diaries or letters.
The narrative unfolds through the lives of iconic figures such as Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and lesser-known yet impactful contributors to the arts and sciences. The book offers brief yet captivating vignettes, ranging from the development of the first contraceptive pill to pioneers in blood transfusions, the discovery of DNA, and the self-testing of radiography for cancer treatment.
The latter chapters, particularly those post-1905, captivate with stories of personalities entwined in the recent history of the times. Chapter 12 delves into forgotten political assassinations in 1933, while Chapter 13 highlights the Nazi persecution of Jews and the remarkable efforts of both Jews and non-Jews 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 provides a unique perspective on the Chabad Rabbi’s escape from the Warsaw ghetto and the subsequent development of the movement in Brooklyn, influencing Jewish life globally.
Drawing from extensive personal diaries and letters, his meticulous research sets Lebrecht apart. This depth is evident in his densely annotated book on Gustav Mahler, “Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.”
Norman Lebrecht’s diverse literary repertoire, including the novel “The Song of Names,” offers a rich tapestry of Jewish life, from prewar London to the intricacies of the music industry. “Genius and Anxiety” is a remarkable companion to Amos Elon’s “The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews In Germany, 1743–1933,” leaving an indelible mark on the reader’s mind and earning a lasting place in their library.