Article Library / Annual Assessment

2017 Annual Assessment

“Stress” is a semantic shortcut for a number of incentives: reactions to or fear of discrimination, persecution and threats, frictions due to religious, social or political struggles, sub-conscious tensions due to forgotten traumas, and economic or social pressures.

Life responds to adversity – predators or a changing environment – by evolving new and better adapted organisms. Paleontologists are discussing what caused the “Cambrian Explosion,” the revolution in the history of life that took place 540-520 million years ago. During the preceding billions of years, all life was single-celled, and then suddenly, the first vertebrates and the ancestors of all animals alive today appeared. A frequent explanation attributes this development to predation, and the stress predation creates. The first fossil records of the Cambrian period show true predators – animals that catch and eat other animals.14 Life forms had to become creative in order to survive and avoid being eaten. So much for a biological concept of creativity.

The most creative and far-reaching transformations of Judaism and Jewish history occurred in the wake of the three greatest catastrophes of Jewish history, the destruction of the First and the Second Temples and the Holocaust. Each catastrophe created enormous stress and new needs. The three “major” prophetic books – Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel – all address the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile. Their written words explain how the Jewish people could make sense of the catastrophe. They have become an integral part of Judaism, Jewish ethics and liturgy. The destruction of the Second Temple led to the development of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Literature, mainly the Talmud responded to the danger that Judaism would splinter or disappear without a temple. Rabbinic Judaism has shaped Jewish faith and history until today. And finally, the foundation of Israel was, among others, a creative response to the acute awareness, in the wake of modern anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, that the Jewish people could not be protected without a Jewish state.

Apart from these three “mega-stress” events, there are many specific socio-economic reasons for stress and difficulties. Diaspora Jews were often a “middleman minority.” They made their living bridging the difference between consumers and producers and were often at risk of triggering the enmity and envy of one side or the other, if not both. When emancipation began to ease but not completely abolish the burden of discrimination, Jews flocked to and helped set up new economic sectors, such as department stores, electrified transport, journalism, and the film industry.

While external conditions – war, persecution, discrimination – were the dominant stress and need generators in Jewish history, Jewish religious changes and infighting since Biblical times created no less stress. Whether this stress was creative or destructive could depend on the position and beliefs of later observers. Was the emergence of Christianity, splitting off from Judaism as a “heretic sect” as the historian Salo Baron called it, creative or destructive?

In 1919, Thorstein Veblen, one of the most respected American sociologists of his generation, published a paper that is rarely quoted now because its title offends current political correctness: “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe.”15 Veblen argues that Jewish “intellectual pre-eminence,” which he calls indisputable, is the direct result of discrimination and persecution. It is the defense mechanism of the Jews, their creative response that protects them from being “devoured” Veblen privileges discrimination, fear, and stress as the true sources of Jewish creativity, not education or cultural versatility. Logically then, he predicts that Jewish pre-eminence will disappear should Zionism succeed in creating a Jewish state where Jews would become a “normal,” not discriminated against people like every other people. In fact, his prediction was quite similar to the hopes of Theodor Herzl and other early Zionists.

Jews had to develop creative ways to survive, prevail, and if possible, thrive. There are many examples that show modern Jewish survival creativity as a response to hostility and stress. Anti-Jewish hostility can be overt, crude, and violent. Chaim Weizmann remembers in his memoirs his childhood years in a Russian school. His teacher of Old Church Slavonic, a very difficult language, was an anti-Semitic Russian priest. Weizmann and the other Jewish boys made a particular effort to be the best in Slavonic in order to outdo the Christian boys. They knew this would infuriate their anti-Semitic school master. They succeeded beyond expectation. This is a good example of the sources of Jewish “intellectual pre-eminence” as explained by Veblen. Little Weizmann developed a creative response to open hostility that was typical for what occurred in many other cases.16

But in America and Western Europe, apart from the Nazi period, modern anti-Semitism is more often disguised, smug, and insidious. Some Jews notice it and feel stress but others don’t or don’t want to notice it (but nevertheless can also feel stress sub-consciously). The Ephrussis of Vienna did notice it and responded in grand style. The Ephrussis originated in Odessa, spoke at least four if not five or six languages, and created in the second half of the 19th century one of Europe’s great banking empires, an innovative, multinational finance institution that helped drive European economic development. There were Ephrussi banks in Paris, London, and Vienna. The Vienna family remained formally Jewish but was assimilated. They consorted less with the Jews of Vienna than with each other and with the Austro-Hungarian nobility they had joined at the discretion of Emperor Franz Joseph. He made them “Von Ephrussi.” They seemed fully integrated and accepted. They owned the largest palace on Vienna’s prestigious Ringstrasse. Edmond De Waal, a late descendant of the family and also their biographer, recently visited the pre- First World War Palace Ephrussi in Vienna and made a significant discovery in the ballroom.

Here, on the ceiling…there is a series of paintings of stories from the Biblical book of Esther: Esther crowned as queen of Persia, kneeling in front of the chief priest in his rabbinical robes…. And then there is the destruction of the sons of Haman, the enemy of the Jews, by Jewish soldiers. It is beautifully done. It is a long-lasting, covert way of staking a claim for who you are…. This is the only Jewish painting on the whole of the Ringstrasse…17

What De Waal discovered was a residual anguish and a hidden ancestral pride behind the financial creativity and social success of the Von Ephrussi family. Even they were still not entirely sure of their position.

However, not all stress, fear, and pressure is generated by external enemies. The long march of emancipating Jews “out of the Ghetto” was accompanied by internal social and psychological stress. An extreme, but probably not isolated illustration of how violent internal Jewish pressure could be and how it might push creativity is the life story of the painter Chaim Soutine. Today Soutine is regarded as one of the most brilliant and unusual members of the “School of Paris” of the 1920s and 1930s. His paintings sell for millions. Soutine was born to pitifully poor traditional parents in a Lithuanian shtetl, the tenth of eleven children. His father wanted him to become a cobbler or tailor, but he liked to draw. His biographer writes: “Two of his older brothers constantly taunted him, saying ‘A Jew must not paint,’ and beat him mercilessly. Their cruelty almost became a ritual.”18 As can be seen in the comprehensive catalogue of Soutine’s hundreds of published landscape and portrait paintings, there is not a single one with a Jew or a Jewish subject, but there are many with churches and catholic choir boys. Soutine never felt free of stress.

The march out of the Ghetto was accompanied by new Jewish search for excellence in science, art, literature, and economic activity. A simple explanation for this is that the emancipation opened new professions for Jews that were closed to them before. There is a more complex explanation. Was this search for excellence in science etc., a search for a new “truth” that had to replace the old, increasingly invalid truth – Judaism? Science, but also beauty in art convey a universally valid, objective ethics which religion could no longer do.

Veblen tried to identify a particular character trait that could explain Jewish creativity. He called it “creative skepticism.” This is his argument: when Jews were discriminated they tended to question the validity of the established “truths” of the societies in which they were living – not only the political and social traditions that excluded them, but all “truths,” including those in science and culture. Jews are “skeptical” – at least the emancipating Jews of the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, many innovations by Jews represented a complete break-away from established traditions. Such breaks require considerable courage, which cannot always be found among well-respected members of the ruling majorities. It took years before Einstein’s overturning of traditional physics became – hesitantly – accepted, and decades before the twisted landscapes and human bodies in Soutine’s paintings were appreciated. In his lifetime the French art critics ridiculed him.

Veblen had predicted hundred years ago that in a Jewish state where Jews would become a people like all others, the Jewish creativity driven by stress, hostility and skepticism would come to an end. He was surely wrong in regard to the Jewish state. There, for external and internal reasons, tension is obvious.

Israel’s greatest economic success, its innovative high-tech sector, is a direct result of its struggle for survival supported by its defense research. Nearly all of the best-known Israeli novelists are driven by, and write in permanent anger about their country’s Palestinian policies, and few Israeli movies are comedies. Most focus on conflict. But maybe Veblen’s prediction will turn out to be correct for much of American Jewry? The ease and unease of being a Jew in America in the 20th and 21st centuries is a huge subject that cannot be examined quickly.

The data show that Jews, apart from Indian Americans remain the best educated, well-to-do, successful, respected minority of the United States. Identified and even Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews are now to be found in important and responsible positions in all branches of the economy and in leading law and financial firms, including those that did not hire Jews in the past. Young Americans of Jewish origin but without any Jewish links or commitment, and without any interest in Israel, should be free of the stresses that plagued Jews across the centuries. But American Judaism is a politically torn community, Israel is an embarrassment to some, and outside hostility to Jews continues to emerge in new forms. Stress and tensions – triggers of creativity for Veblen – have not disappeared. His prediction that normalization will put an end to Jewish intellectual and cultural “pre-eminence” may be premature for America’s Jews too.