Enriching the landscape of Jewish memory

About a book which is a joy. Concise, vivid, well-written, antithetical to banality, it portrays events and people penetratingly Op-ed.

Dr. Inna Rogatchi ,

Bookstore (illustrative)
Bookstore (illustrative)
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Well-Grounded Expectations

Anyone who is aware of Norman Lebrecht’s name will not be surprised at the quality of his new book. Norman is the author of Why Mahler? ( 2010), in my view, the best book on cultural history in decades. Being one of the most prominent music critics and writers in the UK, Lebrecht is deservingly well-known to anyone who reads about music. He is also an established novelist.

Reading Lebrecht’s prose in Genius and Anxiety, How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 , (Oneworld, 2019, 442 pages. - Hebrew Edition - Kinnereth Publishing House, 2020. one not only enjoys the wealth of interesting facts and people, but is also delighted to be treated with many of his aphorismic pearls:

”Mendelssohn might have ceased to be a Jew, but he can never compose like a goy”;

“Freud, had he known these ( Karl Marx on his mother-IR) letters, would have had an Oedipus field day”;

“Can anyone but Brod imagine Franz Kafka in khaki shorts, laying bricks on a Tel Aviv housing estate or ( Kafka’s preferred option) carrying a tray as a waiter in a seaside cafe? Like so much else in Kafka, the self-image is simply surreal.”

There are many more delights of this kind.

The Book of One’s Life

Reading Lebrecht's mental journey throughout the formatting century between middle XIX and mid- XX century, one can see that the author had been writing this book in his head for decades. He was raised in a Jewish family with impressive German and French Jewish lineage in London, studied in Israel, first at a yeshiva, then graduated from Bar-Ilan University. He also had been working as a journalist in Israel before returning to Britain in the early 1970s and devoting himself more to the world of music of which he is undisputed master.

Analysing the cosmos of people and events within the time-frame of a century between 1847 and 1947, Lebrecht was interested in re-examining the roles, motivations, and outcome of the deeds of as many as fifty five extraordinary people who indeed enriched and in many cases changed the course of modern history.

The selection of his heroes by the author is refreshing. I was relieved not to find another sketch on Ben-Gurion in the new book on Jewish history – and justly so, having Tom Segev’s recent volume, A State At Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion ( 2019) - or another item on Hannah Arendt.

Genius & Anxiety is retrospective analysis peppered with findings and new material from such serious archives as the National Library of Israel, the Library of the US Congress, Bletchley Park Collection, and many others. It uses many of Lebrecht’s own new translations of important documents, such as the suicide note of Stefan Zweig, that certainly brings new sense into the tragic death of the great writer.

The writer’s command of many languages, his fluent German, French, Yiddish and Hebrew added to his native English makes his understanding of many cultures and people in the book organic, quite valuable in the book on history.

A Tapestry of Life

Places

Lebrecht has created his book as a tapestry of places, events and people, thus weaving in geography, politics, social life, education, music, literature, arts, accenting it with psychology, thoughts, questions, ideas, reflections, and sometimes simply beats of the human heart. Or when it stops, as in the cases of Felix Mendelssohn and his sister, or Stephan Zweig.

Instead of trying to make yet another replica of an abridged overview of modern Jewish history, Lebrecht goes for what he knows well, and feels authentically. The outcome is a personal and independent narrative whose subjectivity becomes an attraction.

Geographically, Lebrecht takes his readers to the Western European centres of Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, London, Paris, Strasbourg, Geneva, Central European Prague and Budapest; there is a lot of New York and some other American places, like Cleveland and Hollywood; there are interesting glimpses on Cairo and Baghdad; and there are Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, of course.

Pointedly, Lebrecht ends his historical survey with establishing the state of Israel. Even so, in many instances throughout the book, the events, reminisces, or even the author’s thoughts that occur to him in Israel are acting as a contrapunctus to all his narrative, to flow of his thoughts. The feeling of Jerusalem, as I call it, is unmistaken in Norman Lebrecht’s book which deals with people, some of whom died a hundred years before Hatikvah became our national anthem. To me, it is a meaningful expression of the silver thread which never was torn.

Lebrecht in Hebrew
Courtesy:

Events

In his journey through the eventful hundred years between the mid-XIX and mid-XX centuries, Norman Lebrecht turns his eye to things unusual and interesting, the things forgotten, and the things left unaddressed or misunderstood before. The inner motivation of the hardly explicable suicide of Stefan Zweig amidst his both physical and financial safety comes as very worthy episode in the book.

We read about another sadly forgotten person, Emanuel Deutsch who not only was a genius in the field of Hebrew manuscripts, but became a prototype for George Elliot’s formatting Daniel Deronda novel. We enjoy a dizzy story behind Bizet’s Carmen and admire the outstanding deeds of Sarah Bernhardt during the Great War and her brave stand during the Dreyfus Affair.

We are engaged in the adventures of one of the most probable prototypes of Indiana Jones (Norman Lebrecht who did seen the film which I absolutely admire, cannot verify my suggestion on that), and founder of the United Synagogue of America, incredible Solomon Schechter in Egypt and his giant contributions to mankind in decrypting some of the original cornerstones of our civilisation there, in the work which was left unfinished, sadly.

There is also an important, interesting and dramatic story unfolding behind the scenes of the Balfour Declaration which is a must for anyone who is interested in the history of Israel, the Middle East and Britain.

Among the most interesting stories in the book is the one of making an immortal Casablanca film which still is on the height of human effort in cinema despite it having been made back in 1942. Another remarkable episode is the unfinished story about saving the Sixth Lubavitch Rebbe Schneerson by German officers acting on Admiral Canaris’ order and spiriting him, his family and closest circle out of occupied Warsaw in December 1939 in a real-life thriller.

The story is unfinished because after 70 years of silence, in 2009 Chabad applied to Yad Vashem with a request to honour the saviours of the Sixth Rebbe with the official status of the Righteous Among the Nations. There is no decision on that matter as yet, and I do not envy Yad Vashem on this one .

People

The elegancy of the author’s thinking in interconnecting many of his personages is both engaging and rewarding. We read on paradoxical interconnection and relationships between two distant relatives, Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx.

We deeply enjoy brilliant portraits of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein written by Lebrecht with outstanding knowledge, understanding and admirable intellectual honesty. In general, anything regarding music in this book by Norman Lebrecht is, as in all his other books, simply superb.

His understanding of the utterly sad dramatic life story of Max Brod is deep and sympathetic. His warmth toward the prematurely dead great Jewish poet Leah Goldberg is deeply touching.

Lebrecht shows us the drama of Michael Curtis born Mano Kaminez who despite the smashing success of Casablanca was so deeply unhappy in Hollywood, and who desired so desperately to see the Danube River again, and to find himself, somehow, in Budapest, even just once, before his life would end.

Lebrecht deals bravery and thoughtfully with the simply awful circumstances of Nobel laureate Fritz Haber who led himself so far in his effort to assimilate in the Kaiser's Germany that not only did he become the father of the lethal gas used by Germany in the mayor military crime in Ypre in May 1915, but the scientists from his institute's lab went on with the work – and we know what they had came up with by the time of the next world war, when Haber himself was thrown out of the institute that he led for decades.

The author also analyses the processes by doing it through the people involved, the most graphic way to see the impact of aspirations and mistakes. “Ever since Moses Mendelssohn broke bread with Christians, Reformers have pushed hard to ‘modernise’ Judaism, while traditionalists have held ever harder to arcane practices,” observes Lebrecht. His sharp and laconic analysis of the processes in that formatting century between 1847 and 1947 covers many core subjects.

With all these dramas and paradoxes, all these uneasy paths and lives in turmoil, what has distilled after the book’s reading to me is the author’s love. The love of a deep Jewish person towards many of those tormented souls. His portrait of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld is poignant and tangible, and it brings that rare man so very close to us, doing much deserved justice and deepening the memory of that unique person.

Lebrecht’s love is not blind. As understated as it is, it is the love of an essentially Jewish soul towards other essentially Jewish souls. This kind of love produces dignified, enduring and memorable warmth for which I salute Norman.

Past History, Worries Today

I wondered how the author would bring his reader to our life today, having left him on a November day in 1947, relating in detail that highly-charged emotional voting at the United Nations on establishing the State of Israel.

He did it simply and impressively. He jumped with us, his readers, into a sunny morning in Tel Aviv in 2019 and took us for a walk to his favourite book-store there. The last chapter of the book is just two pages. And it is not an Epilogue, not an Afterword, as many authors would choose to write. It is a full chapter, just a short one. A perfect bridge, in my reading, from that November day 72 years ago to our present day.

Being a bookish person, I just love the end of the book: “The book remains our hope and our salvation. It may contain an idea one has thought of before. A flash of genius. A world unimagined. A word remade”. Not only did I identify with every word of it, it gave me joy, the same that a meeting with a dear friend does. And it also gave me hope, the most required vitamin in our life.

In my view, every book of Norman Lebrecht is a creation. In the case of Genius & Anxiety, it is the creation of his personal reflection on Jewish destiny in its historical perspective. The publication of the book in Hebrew is a great present to the Hebrew-reading audience.

Norman Lebrecht
Courtesy

Like Jewish destiny itself, Lebrecht’s analysis is multidimensional, complex, and rich in substance. Importantly, it expresses the presence of strong anti-despair genes in it. Just like our Jewish DNA.

Dr. Inna Rogatchi is president of the Rogatchi Foundation and a prolific,historian, artist, film-maker, author and speaker. She is a member of the Board of the Rumbula Project and the author of the concept of Culture for Humanity Global Initiative.



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