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In praise of Jewry

by Mark Nicholson

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

How odd of God to choose the Jews But not as odd as those who choose A Jewish God and spurn the Jews

I am frequently surprised by concatenation, when a series of events, issues or conversations occur more or less at the same time and converge into a common theme. Just before Christmas, I was invited to a cocktail party in Nairobi by a couple I had recently befriended and with whom I found I had plenty in common. I normally eschew and abhor these events because I don’t drink much, I can’t hear anyone and anyway no one really seems to take much notice of anything I or anyone else is saying. On that occasion, I slinked inside from the garden to refill my glass and was joined by a glamorous lady who sat down to chat. She was an American opera singer residing in both Geneva and London who had accompanied her husband to Kenya. He had just gone off to hospital to visit his father. We started talking about conductors with whom she had worked, including my two favourites, the Siberian Kirill Petrenko and the St. Petersburger Valery Gergiev, both of whom I hear at every opportunity on my annual pilgrimage to Britain. I was annoyed that Gergiev had been asked to leave Britain but my companion said he had to go as he was a close pal of Vlad the Invader. Why does politics always have to impinge on sport and art? Anyway, it soon became clear that my new friend was Jewish. We talked about anti-semitism which she admitted she always felt under the surface in Europe but never in the USA where 45 percent of all the Jews in the world now live. I asked about London and she told me how often she had heard the expression there “ …but they’re Jews, you know”. We were then joined by our hosts, and we left three hours after everyone else had departed.

Shortly thereafter, I was sent a YouTube clip about Alice Sommer, a 109 year old pianist in a care home in London, the oldest survivor of the Holocaust1. She reminded me so much of my Nairobi piano teacher whose parents were gassed in Auschwitz. Then last month Ben Ferencz died, the last of the Nuremberg prosecutors. My godfather, later a Professor of War Law, worked with him and Lord Shawcross, the lead UK prosecutor, as an understudy. He was told never to engage eye to eye with Göring who was wily, charming, funny and seemingly unconcerned by the seriousness of the indictment.

That same week I was clearing out old papers and found a letter from an old friend of my father’s about his netsuke collection which made me re-read Edmund de Waal’s extraordinary family history in The Hare with Amber Eyes. In that book he describes the real horror of anschluss in 1938 when his septuagenarian great-grandparents’ palace in Vienna was raided by Eichmann and his gang and the Ephrussis lost their priceless collection of objets d’art. De Waal’s great-great uncle Charles amassed 108 Impressionist paintings when he supported the impoverished Renoir, Manet, Cezanne and Monet, only to have them turn on him during the Dreyfuss affair.

In some early Only Connect issues, there were a couple of articles about the resurgence of anti-semitism in the USA which depressed me greatly because I am a dedicated anti-anti-semite. As far as I am aware I have no Jewish blood in me, if only because Jews until recently have always shunned miscegenation. I would be thrilled if a DNA test proved otherwise. From school onwards I have always had Jewish friends. More importantly, Jews have had a major influence on my chief interests, be they music, chess, swimming but above all, science. So almost every person in this article has Jewish heritage. Interestingly, 95 percent of them come from families who originated within 1000km of Vienna during the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

My father always taught us that anti-semitism has nothing to do with religion and was based solely on envy. Christ was a Jew, worshipped a Jewish God and never tried to create a new God. So jealousy of the Jews stems from their ability. It also led to their homes, their land and their valuables being forcibly taken from them wherever they migrated, with the exception of the New World. They learned to save, to keep their wealth mobile while honing their financial acumen. So they worked in banks, were soon owning them, thereby creating the Jewish banker stereotype.

Jews, Israel and Judaism are three quite separate issues. Like most people I am appalled by the current political situation in Israel. I have met many educated and delightful Palestinians in Jordan and elsewhere. I am totally supportive of a Palestinian state but I am realistic enough to accept that it is not going to happen soon. Judaism is a religion and while most Jews adhere to their culture (Yom Kippur, Brit milah etc.), the majority of the well known Jewish scientists and philosophers of the last one hundred years are committed atheists who treat all religions with scepticism, led by Jewish anti-theists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Jewish culture has always valued education and intellectualism. I admit that I have never met an Orthodox Jew, so maybe my view is biased. It is the worldly, migrant Jews who have had such an impact of civilization. Talk about punching above one’s weight: how is it that 0.2% of the world populace has won 23% of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded? A person with Jewish descent is one hundred times more likely to end up a Nobel Laureate than anyone else.

So let’s start with science and philosophy. The name which will always come up first is Albert Einstein. We had a debate at University about which Jew has had more impact on modern humanity, Jesus or Einstein. Predictably, the scientists overwhelmingly opted for Einstein.

If relativity is proved right, the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.” Albert Einstein

In my University days, it was Carl Sagan who enlightened the world into the wonders of cosmology. His place these days has been taken by others like Neil de Grasse Tyson (the only non-Jew in this article), the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and earlier, Richard Feynman and Wolfgang Pauli (the fathers of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle). Yet how many people understand or appreciate the discoveries these amazing people made were it not for science communicators? It was the mathematician Jacob Bronowski with his memorable 1973 television series ‘The Ascent of Man’ that popularised science and its influence on civilization. Other great science writers included the rather cerebral Karl Popper (essential reading at university) and Steven Jay Gould2, the most entertaining writer ever on the philosophy of science. Even if you are not a scientist, Gould is well worth reading. Today two well-known philosophers are Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky who are well worth listening to on YouTube.

In the sphere of contemporary music, Bob Dylan, baptised Shabtai Zisel ben Abraham (neé Zimmermann) led the field in my generation, closely followed by Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and the gloomy crooner Leonard Cohen. Later it was other Jews like Carly Simon, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel etc. At University, the brilliant and witty Harvard mathematician Tom Lehrer entertained everyone with his outrageous songs. The BBC banned him which greatly increased his popularity. Only a Jew could get away with such blatantly anti-semitic songs as National Brotherhood Week (still on YouTube). It was Lehrer’s song about Alma Mahler that introduced me in my late teens to Gustav Mahler, whose second symphony (along with Schoenberg’s Gurreliede) remain for me two of the most titanic works in the classical repertoire.

I am thrice homeless. A Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew among the whole world.” Gustav Mahler

As regards classical instrumentalists, most would accept that the ten greatest violinists in history were all Jewish. Pianists likewise, from Horowitz onwards, even if more recently overtaken by the Chinese and Koreans. I was 16 when a young Argentine Jewish pianist came to my school to give a recital. My job was to turn his music. His name was Daniel Barenboim and it was the only time in my life I have encountered a prodigy close up. I still have his signed programme of Mozart, Beethoven and J.S. Bach. Within ten years he and Vladimir Ashkenazy were among the most sought after pianists in the world. Although he also became a world famous conductor, his greatest contribution has to have been the creation of the East-West Divan Orchestra comprising exactly 50 percent players of Jewish extraction and 50 percent Arab/Muslim and/or Palestinian origin and everyone gets on. Barenboim is utterly scathing of Israeli politicians whom he regards with contempt. Interestingly, he was brave enough to introduce Wagner’s music to Israel, banned by common understanding since 1948.

In the world of chess, Jewish ancestry is almost a sine qua non, with the possible exception of Magnus Carlsen. From Steinitz to the paranoid Bobby Fischer and the supremely arrogant Garry Kasparov (neé Garik Weinstein, a name he was surely happy to lose), Jews have dominated. Kasparov was an appallingly bad loser (he had very little experience) and stated that women’s brains were too small to play chess well. The Hungarian Polgar sisters were the greatest female chess players ever and Judit was the only woman ever to have won a game against him.

No one surely would associate Jews with swimming. Yet as a boy, one of my favourite films was Tarzan of the Apes with Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. He was the greatest swimmer of the early 20th century having broken six world records and won six Olympic medals. Fifty years later at the Olympics in 1972, known for the horrific murder of Israeli athletes in Munich, I watched and idolized Mark Spitz as he won five Gold medals.

The final absurdity about the Jews is the belief that they are mean. The Russian Grigori Perelman, probably the greatest mathematician since Wittgenstein a century before, turned down the Millennial Prize of $1m and two other large prizes for solving the Poincaré conjecture. He considered others had an equal right to the prize. Likewise, when the actor Paul Newman, from a Jewish Polish-Hungarian family, died in 2008 after a life of philanthropy, the Economist described him as the most generous man in the United States.

The Lady in Number Six

2 Start with S.J. Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus


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