As he approached his ninetieth birthday, the historian Eric Hobsbawm published an essay revealing the one historical question he still wanted to explore: ‘After many centuries during which the intellectual and cultural history of the world … could be written with little reference to the contribution of any Jews, we almost immediately enter the modern era, where Jewish names are disproportionately represented.’
‘Disproportionately’ is the perfect word. Hobsbawm dated the ‘modern era’ to the turn of the 19th century, when, in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquests, the enforced ghettoisation of European Jewry came to an end. In the ensuing 150 years, the Jews of Europe burst into all sections of life. Jews formed barely 2 per cent of Europe’s population, but Jewish thinkers such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein and artists such as Gustav Mahler, Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka completely reshaped European (not to mention American) identity.
The subtitle of Norman Lebrecht’s book, ‘How Jews Changed the World’, underlines the importance of this story. But you will not come away from reading it with any deep understanding of the connection between genius and anxiety, or of the ways in which it gave this minority the energy to