So do Jews think differently?

From my article in The Spectator this weekend, linked to the screening of The Song of Names at the London Film Festival and the publication next week of my new book, Genius and Anxiety.


… What I’m bringing to light is not a conspiracy of Elders of Zion nor a ridiculous notion of Jewish exceptionalism – Jews, said the chemist Chaim Weizmann, ‘are just like everyone else, only more so’ – but a way of thinking that has allowed Jews to see the world from an oblique angle. Do Jews think differently? The moment I asked that question, there could be only one answer.

As I reached the final chapters, antisemitism intruded. Born in London after the Second World War, I have lived my life as a Jew without hindrance, leaving work early on winter Fridays for the Sabbath rest and never encountering ugly prejudice. Now I heard antisemitism forming a normal part of daily discourse, a mainstream political party held hostage by haters and friends packing up for emigration.

I don’t share their apocalyptic fear. Antisemitism is a pendulum. I have to believe that my country will swing back away from it (or it will cease to be my country). My film The Song of Names recalls a time when Britain gave shelter to Jews. That mercy is not forgotten. This trouble time will pass. Some dissenting Jew, somewhere, right now, is about to change the way the world revolves.


The Song of Names can be seen at the London Film Festival on October 6 and 8.

Genius and Anxiety is published by Oneworld on October 10, price £20. Amazon link.

Read on here.


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  • I had a Jewish professor at a leading conservatory who told several people that you had to be Jewish to have a real chance at making it in classical music. I wish he had told me that before my family spent six figures on tuition.

    • Did you take that seriously? I’ve had a gentile professor who had said you had to be Jewish, or …, or… to make it. The three characteristics were not mutually exclusive, and neither of us possessed any of them. But it was all tong-in-cheek, and we had a good laugh.

      Jokes aside, one can legitimately say that there was a disproportionate number of very great violinists born around the first decades of the twentieth century who were Jewish.

      • That is because in the Old Testament Jaweh particularly singled-put the violin as his preferred instrument, a detail that is often lost in translation.

        • As they say in Facebook code, LMAO. You’re joking right. The violin, viola, and cello were first made in the early 16th century, in Italy. Nowhere in the Old Testament is a violin mentioned. Perhaps you are thinking of the Jawbone of a Donkey, or Lyre for which King David was famous. And of course the Shofar sounded by Jews throughout the world in this season. FYI Miriam played a mean tambourine at Mt. Sinai, and the Levite tribe were in charge of Temple musical activities.

          • “All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the violin and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance.” Exodus 20:18

            “Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and violin.” Psalm 150:3

            But since this is from the original edition of the St James Bible it might be the result of sloppy editing. (The 10 Commandments include the instruction: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14)

          • Sometimes even programme booklets that try to be helpful for English speakers use translation programmes with dreadful results, like the one which translated ‘Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt’ as ‘Sick fried rino fart’.

      • The surge of great Jewish artists and scientists in the late 19th century is a direct consequence of the liberation of the Jews from the ghettos, and their subsequent exceptional urge to assimilate into their nations by using education, including learning classical instruments, as a vehicle for upward social mobility.
        Those days are over and the tradition seems to have been limited to late 19th century until late 20th century.

        • Indeed. This is exactly the explanation that Brian Magee gives for the phenomenon – a one-off thing, determined by historical circumstances.

        • I totally disagree. Today’s global society is burgeoning with Jews of prominence in every field, as it always has and God willing always will continue to do so. Especially now coming from the Jewish State of Israel and new immigrants. Frankly, I am amazed at the thoughts expressed in these pages expressing any other idea.

          • If it is true that also today, people who identify themselves as ‘Jewish’, are everywhere in the top achievement category, all the better. Only, that ethnic background is entirely irrelevant. An individual is not in the first place a representative of a group, of whatever composition.

            I wonder how on earth such ‘statistics’ could ever be executed. It all sounds like an inverted racism.

  • Not only antisemitism, but resurgence of chauvinistic nationalism in UK & parts of Europe in recent times are a growing concern. Brexit is a symptom of this. Ultimately it is difficult to believe such reactionary movements will win over cosmopolitanism & internationalism.

    • The “anti-semites” are on the left in Britain. Brexit is largely a result of right-wing populism, and while its supporters are largely anti-immigrant, the movement really isn’t anti semitic.

  • The question is illegitimate because how you identify a group of people is illegitimate.

    1) Are they Jews or are they white?

    If you had grouped them as whites, then that just sets up the opposition of Europeans to Africans and Asians and Arabs, which just leads to Saul Bellow’s infamous, and racist question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be happy to read them.”

    2) Are they Jews or are they humans?

    Could Einstein have come up with his theory of relativity if he had to first invent the number system, generally attributed to Arabs and Indians?

    Would an advanced alien civilization arriving on Earth demand to speak to the leader of the Jews or the leader of the homo sapiens?

    3) The roots of anti-semitism, the reason why anti-semitism is still so strongly rooted in modern society, is precisely because of the perception of “Jewish exceptionalism” that Jews indeed “think differently”.

    Anti-semites don’t hate Jews because they are dumb, they hate Jews precisely because, according to them, they “control everything” from finance to the arts to the academy.

    To set Jews apart just gives fodder to that fuel of hate.

    • You raise good points. And I’d add that when anyone starts lumping people together into “groups,” the stereotyping can become a pretty slippery slope, pretty quickly.

      Is it proper to ask if Blacks “think differently”? Or Asians? Or Whites? Or Arabs? Or Gays?

      For some of these groups, to even ask such a question would invite derision and hate. Even worse if for some groups, the question invites nods of approval.

      Let’s never forget the three simple words that Anita Lasker Wallfisch says: “People are people.” It should be everyone’s mantra.

  • In support of your hopes Norman, here’s a quote from Elie Wiesel: “The survivors advocated hope, not despair. Their testimony contains neither rancor nor bitterness. They knew too well that hate is self-debasing and vengeance self-defeating. Instead of choosing nihilism and anarchy, they chose to opt for man. Instead of setting cities on fire, they enriched them.” This hope may hold true for some Jews, but not in the house where I grew up as a second generation daughter of Holocaust survivor parents, both of whom had lost entire families and leaving them as sole survivors. Their thoughts about Weltanschaung as Jews permeated mine, and influences my feelings to this day. And I witness the ongoing blatant world anti Jewishness, especially in view of Israel everyday, everywhere. I pray this pendulum you speak of can be stopped, but not in my lifetime….or ever. I wish you a gmar hatima tova and a better New Year.

  • Congratulations for Norman for his book…… a most interesting subject.

    I found the description of ‘the Jewish condition’ by philosopher Brian Magee strikingly apt:

    “The atomization of society, the increase in pace of change and hence problems of adjustment, the consequent rootlessness of the individual, his alienation from himself, from society, and from the past of both – these have become major themes of the culture of our time. Our age is characterized by superwars, the mass migration of entire populations, the scattering of dozens of millions of individual refugees, and by genocide. With every one of these things Jews are likely to be identified, and emotionally involved, more deeply than other people. At last they are in a position unconsciously to articulate the deepest concerns of the age they live in. The Jew has become the archetypical modern man. But this is only another way of saying that the rest of us are now almost as badly off as the Jews – which culturally speaking is true.”

    (Source: ‘Aspects of Wagner’, Oxford University Press, 1968, 1988, 1990; p. 25)

  • Wise words from British politician: “I never believed we would see the day when many British Jews would so fear our leader, that they would seriously consider leaving the country if he entered Downing Street,” before insisting that “I not only understand those fears. I share those fears.”
    “Yesterday,” she added, “on the conference floor, we saw a standing ovation given to a delegate who denied there was any antisemitism in the Labour Party. Not only that but a motion supporting boycotts was passed for the first time in Labour history. Let us be clear about what this means, the only country the Labour party calls to boycott is the world’s only Jewish state.”

  • I just attended a performance in Denver of “Indecent” based on the Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance”. So this question is especially compelling to me right now. I think that all minorities can relate to this completely. Members of a minority are regarded as belonging to the “other”, the exception, the different one, sometimes marginalized and always a curiosity, and often seen as special and important. Anyone who falls into this category must naturally think differently, I would say.

  • Mr. Lebrecht, you wrote, “Gershwin composed in what he called a freygish mode, a Yiddish term for questioning, self-doubt.” I loved this but had to check the musicology.It seems you may have put the cart before the horse: “the Phrygian dominant scale is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale, the fifth being the dominant. Also called the altered Phrygian scale, dominant flat 2 flat 6 (in jazz), the Freygish scale (also spelled Fraigish), or simply the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale.”(

  • Interesting questions, though a dangerous topic given the rise of right wing populism. Modern DNA studies have found that the Ashkenazi are most closely related to Italians which raises interesting questions about the historical migration patterns of the diaspora. The largest Ashkenazi populations, however, ended up in Central and Eastern Europe (via the Roman Empire and the Italic peninsula?) where they eventually evolved Yiddish, a German dialect. DNA doesn’t affect how people think, but languages do, and especially the cultures those languages derive from. That perspective would suggest that the Ashkenazi think more-or-less like Germanic people with a heavy admixture of Talmudic thought. The family names and customs of the Ashkenazi communities in the USA seem to bear that out. German immigrants form by far the largest ethnic group in America (almost half the country.) Perhaps that’s why the Ashkenazi immigrants have also felt at home and thrived in the States? An irony of history.

    Still, I think there are obvious and serious dangers in over-doing attempts to define people by their culture (much less their DNA which as you note is patently ridiculous.) Ultimately, we are all individuals.

    Looking forward to the film.

    • It is a mistake to assume that people with what you call Ashkenazi names immigrated from Germany. My grandparents had the German surnames names forced on Jews at the end of the 18th century. Yet only one had recent history in Germany. The others were Polish, Czech, and Romanian.

    • William writes: “DNA doesn’t affect how people think, but languages do”

      Er…nonsense. This kind of reasoning is not unique to you, but is a commonplace. Many seem to believe that thoughts happen through words and that the availability of words determine what thoughts one can have. And it is wrong.

      Anyone who has ever tried to say something, and then said “that is not what I meant” while struggling to say what they do mean, knows that words do not determine thoughts.

    • William writes: “German immigrants form by far the largest ethnic group in America (almost half the country)”.

      No, this is just wrong. The largest ethnic group are “British”, and the second largest are “French”. These are also the oldest immigrant communities. It is simply absurd to claim half the US population are “German”.

  • I look forward to reading this. There IS something different about Jewish thinking and the truth is that the contributions of Jews to science, music, art, business, philosophy and so much else is far greater than their population would suggest. Why are so many top violinists Jewish? Don’t know why. I’ve noticed this about a lot of subgroups. People are often surprised at the large number of highly successful and well-known homosexuals. Mormon students may be only 15% of a southwest American high school, but they account for a large percentage of honor roll students, All-State orchestras and choirs. Maybe it’s a feeling that being a persecuted, misunderstood minority makes them work harder. Don’t know. I bet your book has some explanation.

    • The Jewish performers I had contact with, all confirmed that they felt they had to work harder, mobilize more intensity, more focus, more idealism, spend more time on their work, etc. etc. because they were Jewish and therefore had to overcome higher barriers than other people.

        • Incredible. And the same goes for lots of Muslem immigrants, I’ve seen from close how many of them are treated as Jews in prewar times. Which is ironic, since I’ve seen the same Muslems being quite surprised when finding-out that people from Jewish descent were actually normal people.

  • Jews think differently. It all begins with Thou Shalt Have no pictures of god. If you can picture it, it is not god. The same is true of quantum physics, for the same reason. Other religions are about the sin of pride and obedience vs. disobedience. Judaism introduces the idea of workarounds, which edge naturally toward cheating.

    • Originally, Judaism was a very local religion of very local tribes, with peculiar prescriptions, some of them constructive, other quite ridiculous. It was a parochial culture which withstood influences from aborad, hence the disasters of the Roman occupation, which invited the Jewish tribes to take part in a wider world which they refused. The absolutism inherent in orthodox Judaism is comparable with all other religious orthodoxes, and is not the best of the contributions of Judaism to Western civilization. The great talents of so many Jews is not the result of their religion but, in contrary, of their liberation from a restrictive, narrow-minded religious mindset.

      • As an Orthodox Jew, and therefore, presumably, an adherent of that restrictive, narrow-minded religious mindset, whose professional life is spent at the border between physics, chemistry and biology, and much of whose spare time is spent in the world of classical music [and the wider world generally], I think I disagree, John. But then, we’ve had occasion to disagree before, on this distinguished site, on the finer details of Jewish thought and practice. Best regards!

        • Thank you… I still believe that Brian Magee’s explanation of the Jewish Renaissance holds, in general, true. I don’t think Jews are ‘special people’, or that their culture is ‘special’. That culture has been special for the West because of its contributions to Europe; but also quite a few elements which show Christianity in not a very positive light, stem from Judaism as well.

  • So what do we think about one of the most famous ‘Jewish’ pieces of the last 30 years, known and loved the world-over : the theme from ‘Schindler’s List’ by that famous non-Jew, John Williams ?

    • I dearly love Williams’ theme music from Schindler’s List, have listened re[eated;u to as many versions as youtube has, and even found one with the words in Hebrew. In the end though, it is a popular piece of music, however inspired it may be, that could fit well into a number of other films. I prefer Ennio Morricone’s music to “Once upon a time in America”, especially Debra’s Song. Very soulful…Juxtaposed to John Williams handling of a Jewish theme, I wonder what your feeling are about Mahler’s handling of the non-Jewish theme of the Second Symphony, conducted here by Leonard Bernstein

    • Since art by Jewish artists has no longer the distinction it had in former times, there is no difference with art by non-Jewish artists, all artists find themselves in the same predicament – being born late and not knowing what to do.

      • “Since art by Jewish artists has no longer the distinction it had in former times…” Says who? To which”former times” are you referring? What do you mean by “distinction”? With all due respect, of course.

        • I mean the composers – Mahler, Schoenberg, and the many exile composers as researched by Michael Haas, and then scientists, and people like Freud and Einstein – they were far above the average of their fields, stimulated by the Jewish Renaissance. But since that Renaissance has run its course, its effects have subsided. And then, the majority of these people did not identify themselves at all as Jewish (Einstein was not ‘a Jewish scientist’, I don’t think there was anything particularly ‘Jewish’ about his work). They were fully integrated – as far as this term could have any meaning at all – they were merely European. Antisemitism was an invention of non-Jewish people, who tried to see such people as defined by their ancestry.

          • In 1921, Albert Einstein presented a paper on his then-infant Theory of Relativity at the Sorbonne, the prestigious French university. “If I am proved correct,” he said, “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.”

            Allow me please to quote Chil Kamioner, my father: “If you forget you are a Jew, a non-Jew will remind you.”

          • But what if Jews themselves want to alert other people about their Jewishness? Antisemitism appears to create circles all the time.

            Somewhere in the early thirties in Vienna, a Jewish intellectual was found by another Jewish intellectual (all Viennese intellectuals were Jewish) extensively reading, in a Kaffeehaus, one of those awful nazi periodicals. When asked why he would read such crap, he answered: ‘You know, ever when I feel a bit down, I read this stuff, because it appears that we are running the world, and that lifts my mood immeasurably’.

      • That is nice. After a period of hearing every violinist worth his/her salt — including the undisputed stars of the Kosher Nostra — play what I began to find the very insipid violin theme from SL, this enriches it sufficiently for me to modify my view. Thank you for posting it.

        • My pleasure….Here’s the English translation:
          “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my utmost joy”

  • One might as well try to draw conclusions about how men have changed the world, or women, or fair skinned people or …. I’m sure arguments could be made in each case, but they would be fatuous. Collective generalisations are never a good idea, as Jews should know better than anyone.

    • ==Collective generalisations are never a good idea, as Jews should know better than anyone.

      Yes – I haven’t read the book but I do hope it’s not just a compendium

    • Yes, we all look, sound and think differently like evrybody else, and yes, religion does really exist like human made illusions do.

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