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Genius and Anxiety: How Jews changed the world, 1847-1947 by Norman Lebrecht

31 December 2020

William Whyte reads an account of their legacy in a troubled century

IT USED to be found everywhere — or, at least, everywhere in Scotland: in hotels, homes, tourist shops. But I remember it best in my Granny’s flat in a tenement in Dundee.

It was a ubiquitous tea towel. Decorated with the text of Tom Anderson Cairn’s poem “Wha’s Like Us — Damn Few And They’re A’ Deid”, this small patch of textile was an unabashedly boosterish account of Scots genius. “The average Englishman, in the home he calls his castle,” it begins, “slips into his national costume, a shabby raincoat, patented by chemist Charles Macintosh from Glasgow, Scotland. En route to his office he strides along the English lane, surfaced by John Macadam of Ayr, Scotland.” You get the idea.

Perhaps all peoples boost themselves like this. Certainly, when I showed my (Jewish) wife and her (Jewish) father this book, they both recognised it as part of a large and ever growing genre of similar texts about Jewish genius. They also both expressed their deep dislike of this literature.

That seems a little unfair. Genius and Anxiety is a cheerful, chatty, and generally well-researched account of how a very wide range of Jewish people helped to shape the modern world. The author, Norman Lebrecht, is a genial guide and terrifically well-connected. He has an eye for an anecdote, a good ear for the telling quotation, and is not afraid to voice his opinions.

So, we read about Freud and Kafka, Proust and Einstein, and many other important Jewish figures. Some he likes; others he dismisses; many of them he has met.

In the end, however, his project is not wholly convincing; nor is the book always utterly accurate. The odd decision to write it all in the present tense is a little off-putting. And, ultimately, for all its repeated claims, it is not really that much different from my and my Granny’s pride in the genius of the Scots. It just lacks brevity. Next time, it might be easier as well as quicker to put it on a tea towel.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


Genius and Anxiety: How Jews changed the world, 1847-1947
Norman Lebrecht
Oneworld £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.80

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