Tom Stoppard is right: Jews are different

In his epochal new play Leopoldstadt, which has just opened in London’s West End, one of Tom Stoppard’s heart-stopping lines is this:

‘A Jew can be a great composer, but he can’t not be a Jew.’

I have developed that theme with variations in a pair of commentaries for the Spectator:

…. What the play addresses, more cogently than any I can remember, is the question of whether Jews can ever surrender their identity to Christian civilisation. …In a Spectator podcast last week, Damian Thomson asked me why it was that baptized Jews like Heine, Disraeli and Mahler clung so resolutely to their self-recognition as Jews. Why was Disraeli so proud (and Queen Victoria so amused) when Bismarck referred to him as ‘the old Jew’? Was his baptism merely a matter of convenience? Not at all, I responded. It was an available gateway to opportunity in the 19th century, like sailing to America, but only a fool would consider dropping his passport in the ocean along the way….

Read on here.

UPDATE: Here’s some more smart analysis of this important work.

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  • A very interesting piece about identity, ethnic and/or cultural. But with a couple of strange assumptions:

    “Leopoldstadt is also a state of mind, a nagging sense of unbelonging that persists for generations, long after a family has found apparent security elsewhere.”

    As Brian Magee has decribed in his ‘Aspects of Wagner’, such state of mind has meanwhile developed as the typical condition of the modern individual, entirely distinct from any ethnicity.

    https://www.amazon.com/Aspects-Wagner-Bryan-Magee/dp/0192840126

    It seems to me that the unbelonging of people from Jewish descent is not different in nature than the unbelonging of all those 2nd or 3rd generations of immigrants from non-European countries living in Europe. Also, there are groups in Western contemporary society which feel a greater degree of unbelonging than the mood in the general population because of being handicapped, or otherwise ill, or being an artist, or having been born from entirely inadequate parents. Today, the waiting rooms of psychiatrists are full, and the fact that Freud was of Jewish background does not seem to have anything to do with this.

    “There was always a degree of self-humiliation in their admission to the temples of art.”

    Why would involving oneself in a cultural world be ‘self-humiliation’? In the 19th century, organised religion appeared to dry-up in meaninglessness in relation to the ‘modern world’, and artists tried to capture the essence of religion in their art, to save its spiritual heart in an increasingly hostile environment (the developing materialist/scientific world view). Being involved in culture was the best way of ‘belonging’ for anybody, and especially for people of Jewish descent since they were confronted with antisemitism. I don’t see any hint of ‘self-humiliation’ in such processes, in contrary, one could say: people of Jewish descent saw better than anybody else the advantages of giving culture priority in an age of alienation, because of their experience.

    “Jews are different, they think differently and they remain different down to the nth generation, no matter how big their Christmas tree or how huge their donations to Palestinian causes.”

    What is the use of clinging to an ethnic identity in a modern society, other than a reaction to antisemitism? Isn’t that giving the barbarian too much worth? The sorry history of discrimination (not only of people of Jewish descent) stems from not understanding the nature of Western civilisation, and this ignorance both produced antisemitism and the reactions to it.

    https://www.euronews.com/2019/05/10/the-two-layers-of-western-society-view

          • Nice article….. it seems to me that the reason that there are, have been, so many great violinists from Jewish descent, is because no instrument can be as expressive in subtle ways than the violin, and you can pack it quite easily on journeys when you’re kicked-out of some place. The capacity of expression in great variety comes from suffering in great variety, and the more nuances one experiences, the more nuances one can play on the violin.

            “Why haven’t German composers since 1955 dominated classical music the way they did for the previous three centuries?” But that is not a difficult question, of which the obvious answer is: postwar modernism offered German composers the possibility to be on the moral right side of history since their own tradition had recently been besmeared by barbarians. And with modernism, it is impossible to be a ‘great composer’ – although one can become a ‘great modernist’ but who would want to be one?

          • One might as easily comment about the very many major pianists of Jewish descent. Perhaps even more than violinists.

          • @ Helene Kamioner:
            what’s the relevance of such list?
            We have not questioned this or made statements to the contrary.
            We are simply replying to the straw man proposition, Jews would have “to surrender to Christian civilisation” and because they can’t must remain “different”.

            That’s pure desperation in that straw man argument, to justify – in search for an identity? – an artificial division and construct of exceptionalism, that is simply not justified in relation to all humanity.

          • Dear Tamino, If you’re ever in Warsaw, Poland, you might find the time to check out POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews – AEJMwww.aejm.org › … › POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews
            POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the first and only museum in the world dedicated to restoring the memory of the civilization created by Polish Jews in the course of a millennium. Its core exhibition is a journey through the 1000-year history of Polish Jews – from the Middle Ages until today.

          • And instead of throwing everyone into a melting pot society needs to try and respect and love the differences in people. In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth…His first creation was not a unified whole universe, but 2 distinct and different areas. He created Man and Woman, again distinctions, He created all sorts of different animals and fish in the sea….and “we and they’ couldn’t live together and ruined the original plan. George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ started out with the best intentions…how did the book turn out and why? Julliette asked Romeo to deny his name, and look how that turned out. Look what happened to Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ in the best of all possible worlds. And, I know who I am, where I came from and I like it, hence the tip about the Polin Museum. The last words of the Jewish Journalist Daniel Pearl before being beheaded was My mother is Jewish, My father is Jewish and I am a Jew, and for no other reason than that he met with an unkind,pointless, cruel and undeserving end. That’s my point…genocide is perpetuated by those who can’t accept differences in mankind. Vive la difference…and that was the Utopia God had in mind.

          • So the problem was, Romeo was a Jew? Montaguestein? But actually Romeo never did deny his name, so that’s a bizarre example. But your heart is in the right place, if not your cerebral cortex.

          • There is no God. (it’s a useful manmade concept though for many to deal with existential fears)
            Everyone is different.
            And we are all one humanity.
            Where it gets incomprehensible, is when some people say, we are different, but we are the same in relation to the others.
            That doesn’t make any sense.

          • Apart from any idea of a God – after all we don’t know whether there exists one or whether there doesn’t exist one – it is clear that nature and evolution have a preference for variety and diversity. But within the human species, the varieties and differences are often as big, or bigger, than between species, so we need some more time to get used to it, especially since modern media put the subject under our nose. I don’t think elephants worry much about variety within their species because there don’t seem to be many, not to speak of pinguins.

  • MOMENT MAGAZINE will publish a story about this play by former Smithsonian Magazine editor Diane Bolz. Definitely worth a read along all articles on this subject, and especially Tom Stoppard. I mean who knew he was a Jew? Does anyone here know if and when the show comes to the US?

    • According to the Guardian’s (glowing) review, the size of the cast (40) will prohibit either revivals or transfers. Not sure they are right– judging by the success of the play so far, I would imagine New York could probably afford it.

        • It might be a good idea. But plan ahead. It’s selling like hotcakes. Stoppard is iconic in the UK — he belongs to all British theatre lovers, not just Jewish ones. And he has hinted this may be his last play.

        • I think the theory was that 40 actors is too many for most producers to contemplate as commercially viable for a “straight” play. I suppose musicals have larger casts, but they would appear to charge more — it’s a long time since I went to the theatre in New York, and I think we used the half-price both anyway.

          Certainly there seems no reason the cast can’t be American, unless Sir Tom wants his son, who is one of the London stars, to continue on Broadway.

          • I imagine some of Shakespeare’s play utilize large casts, i.e. Macbeth, and I saw a Ten Commandments like cast in a production of Julius Caesar at the Macarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ (long ago), and Juilliard did a huge production of Murder in the Cathedral for which I served a metal mesh costume schlepper. In fact, I bet any Juilliard Drama student could be convinced to audition for Leopoldstadt, as so many deserving straight play actors in New York. I’d like to see the Joe Papp’s Public Theater produce it. You are right though about Musicals, and of course Operas having humongous amounts of people on stage. ie Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Les Mis and Phantom. And New York had tons of union and non union actors who would love the work….

  • “is the question of whether Jews can ever surrender their identity to Christian civilisation.”

    The problem with this question is its extremely narrow minded precondition.

    Western civilisation is so much more than only Christian. It is 250 years after the age of the enlightenment first of all secular and less irrational/religious.

    Jews are not asked to surrender anything. They are simply challenged like anyone else to shape their future identities around a humanistic and enlightened ideal, less religion, more humanism.

    Their constantly emphasised tribalism and (self-)constructed exceptionalism hinders them and their integration into humanity as a whole.

    • “Jews are not asked to surrender anything.” Except their lives. Ever hear of the Spanish Inquisition to begin with. And I would really like to know what your definition of “humanity” as a whole would be without us Jews.

      • I have no definition of humanity as a whole without Jews. But apparently Jews have such definition?
        I’m well aware of the history, Spanish inquisition (which is quite some time ago. that was also a time when women were burned for being witches, native indians were being slaughtered just because, etc.) and the more recent pogroms against Jews.
        Which IMO is exactly why we need an integrated concept and reality of humanity.

        • In case you haven’t noticed Jews are and have been and always will be integrated into humanity…from Abraham to Joseph, to Moses, Josephus to Maimonides to Spinoza to Kurt Weil, to Jonas Salk to Einstein to Barbara Streisand, Beverly Sills, etc. and Woody Allen, Mark Zuckerberg. and the list goes on forever. Amen.

        • Indeed. But such integrated concept can only be developed on the basis of universal Enlightenment values, however people protest against them for being too abstract and not relating to local cultures and traditions.

          Very interesting article by German philosopher Silvio Vietta about the rubbing of Western and Eastern values:

          https://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/reflexionen/vermessungen/2048015-Globalisiertes-Unverstaendnis.html?em_no_split=1

          • Where did “universal Enlightenment values” get the multitudes who perished at the hands of Nazis? As in the case of Spinoza, these values for Jews are a lose lose situation. “As Stephen Sondheim says in West Side Story “stick to your own kind, one of your own kind.” No sense in dying for a lost cause.

          • @Helene Kamioner
            they concept didn’t exist yet. That’s why the ideas based on “universal enlightenment values” didn’t get anywhere.
            What existed and was promoted were ideologies of exceptionalism and separation on all sides. And those got us into the 20th century multiple genocides catastrophies.

          • The Haskalah, often termed Jewish Enlightenment (Hebrew: השכלה; literally, “wisdom”, “erudition”) was an intellectual movement among the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, with certain influence on those in Western Europe and the Muslim world. It arose as a defined ideological worldview during the 1770s, and its last stage ended around 1881, with the rise of Jewish nationalism. Moses Mendelssohn (6 September 1729] – 4 January 1786) was a German-Jewish philosopher to whose ideas the Haskalah, the ‘Jewish enlightenment’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is indebted.Born to a poor Jewish family in Dessau, Principality of Anhalt, and originally destined for a rabbinical career, Mendelssohn educated himself in German thought and literature and from his writings on philosophy and religion came to be regarded as a leading cultural figure of his time by both Christian and Jewish inhabitants of German-speaking Europe and beyond. He also established himself as an important figure in the Berlin textile industry, which was the foundation of his family’s wealth.His descendants include the composers Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn; Felix’s son, chemist Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy; Fanny’s grandsons, Paul and Kurt Hensel; and the founders of the Mendelssohn & Co. banking house.

          • Wasn’t the very message of West Side Story that “sticking to your own kind” was the route to war? As it always has been.

          • Of course inevitably the Holocaust is thrown-in, as if it were an argument.

            Ideas have no power over people, it is people who give power to ideas. Enligthenment values are not responsible for the behavior of people who don’t understand them and then set-out to commit genocide, in the same way that a Schubert song recital is not responsible for the behavior of a nazi in the audience who continues to murder people next morning.

            By all accounts, and supported by the news in our own time, the Enlightenment is not finished as yet.

        • Tamino, thought this from Wiki might be enlightening for you

          The Haskalah, often termed Jewish Enlightenment (Hebrew: השכלה; literally, “wisdom”, “erudition”) was an intellectual movement among the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, with certain influence on those in Western Europe and the Muslim world. It arose as a defined ideological worldview during the 1770s, and its last stage ended around 1881, with the rise of Jewish nationalism. Moses Mendelssohn (6 September 1729] – 4 January 1786) was a German-Jewish philosopher to whose ideas the Haskalah, the ‘Jewish enlightenment’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is indebted.Born to a poor Jewish family in Dessau, Principality of Anhalt, and originally destined for a rabbinical career, Mendelssohn educated himself in German thought and literature and from his writings on philosophy and religion came to be regarded as a leading cultural figure of his time by both Christian and Jewish inhabitants of German-speaking Europe and beyond. He also established himself as an important figure in the Berlin textile industry, which was the foundation of his family’s wealth.His descendants include the composers Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn; Felix’s son, chemist Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy; Fanny’s grandsons, Paul and Kurt Hensel; and the founders of the Mendelssohn & Co. banking house.

          • Thanks Helene Kamioner, but I know all that already.
            Haskalah was ultimately defeated by its antagonist, the supremacist, pseudo-ethnic and separatist ideology of Zionism.

    • Sorry your bigotry is showing. The sort of humanity you seem to support is not worth joining. Your patronising comment precludes integrating with people like you. Most Jews integrate very well with decent human beings

      • Which bigotry? What is not worth joining?

        “is the question of whether Jews can ever surrender their identity to Christian civilisation.”

        My point is that in the 21st century “christian civilisation” is a straw man as far as present and future is concerned.
        There is no such thing as a “Christian civilisation” today.

        People with Christian backgrounds in their family history have to surrender as well in that sense. Or just adapt to the times, as one would say in a less historically charged argument.

        • The secular humanism which you appear to promote arose entirely from Christian traditions, more recently mixed with Jewish ones. In case you hadn’t noticed nothing of the sort emerged from Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism.

  • Violins, like Jews are different. The violin, known as the Messiah (Messie in French), remained in Stradivari’s workshop until his death in 1737. It was then sold by his son Paolo to Count Cozio di Salabue in 1775, and for a time, the violin bore the name Salabue. The instrument was then purchased by Luigi Tarisio in 1827. Upon Tarisio’s death, in 1854, the French luthier Jean Baptiste Vuillaume of Paris purchased The Messiah along with Tarisio’s entire collection. “One day Tarisio was discoursing with Vuillaume on the merits of this unknown and marvelous instrument, when the violinist Jean-Delphin Alard, Vuillaume’s son-in-law, exclaimed: ‘Really, Mister Tarisio, your violin is like the Messiah of the Jews: one always expects him but he never appears’ (‘Vraiment, Monsieur Tarisio, votre violon est comme le Messie des Juifs: on l’attend toujours, mais il ne paraît jamais’ [2]). Thus the violin was baptized with the name by which it is still known.”[3]

  • Tired of hearing people claiming what their religion is, or is not, for that matter..
    I dream of a world where we would only define ourselves by our achievements and the things we are actually responsible for…

  • I’m a Jew myself but I don’t believe that a discourse that espouses a “us vs. them” viewpoint is helpful at all. Such a discourse is overly simplistic and overlooks the multifacetedness of anyone living in a global world in the 21st century. In fact, I don’t view my being a Jew as playing a bigger role, for instance, than my having grown up in a European country and my being equally shaped by that portion of my heritage. One is never just a Jew, but also conditioned by a multifariousness of cultural forces which inevitably shape who one is and becomes — even when, in fact especially when, one remains unaware of such conditioning. I have met people who I would consider to be saints who happened not to be jews, and conversely have been profoundly disappointed, on a human and moral level, by people who happened to be jews. There are no hard-and-fast rules here. These divisions are utterly outdated and unnecessary. Paradoxically, they also contradict one of the most central aspects of judaism — namely the idea of an all-embracing, universal concept of humanity.

    • Agreed.

      The characteristics which are shared by people are on a deeper level than the differences.

      Judaism has contributed immensily to Christian concepts of human dignity and as such, on the development of the Enlightenment. However, Judaism is more than an all-embracing universal concept of humanity; like every world view and every religion, it has its truths and its flaws. If the rabbis had that concept of universality as a priority in the times when they were part of the Roman Empire, they would not have protested so much when the Romans built a temple next to their own, they would have asked to have it built a little bit down the road, and not provoked a terrible rebellion which had such catastrophic consequences. And today, the ‘Jewish Nation’ does not feel inhibited to perpetrate injustice, like so many nations.

  • To call Jewish people “different” is literally meaningless since science has established that every human being has a different DNA. In addition, it’s silly to stereotype and generalize about “Christians” — the Encyclopedia of American Religions lists over 900 separate denominations in my nation alone, ranging from authoritarian right-wingers (Roman Catholics, Baptists) to easygoing liberals (Unitarians) to Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Mormons, Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, yadda, yadda. Plus, these entities are not only internally distinct, they’re often hostile to each other. Again, “different” is flatly meaningless.

    Of course Jewish people can be proud of their culture, just as others of us can be — e.g., New Englanders, Native Americans, and myself as an Ohio boy. (Back in the 1950s my gentile culture somehow managed to breed an unending love of classical music in me … aided, I’ll add, by great assimilated Jews such as Rubinstein, Heifetz, Mahler, Bloch, and Gershwin.) But if some Jews use the adjective “different” to imply “superior” (i.e., to other cultures or religions), small wonder that they can antagonize other human beings and create conflicts for themselves.

    In his notorious essay “The Jewish Culture and Music,” Wagner criticized Jewish artists not with routine racial, anti-Semitic arguments but because their secluding themselves from the rest of humanity prevented them from SPEAKING for all humanity, from moving all mankind, influencing it, affecting it, benefiting it. Though Wagner is regularly blamed for a colossal array of historical evils (ironically, almost “scapegoated”), I believe he was right on this point: Jewish art would became vastly more precious when Jewish artists joined all humanity. And so it has proven.

    • Wagner’s critique on Judaism was a mixture of personal hatred caused by frustration and a serious cultural critique. The cultural part was directed against the negative sides of the industrial revolution with its materialist world view, where indeed many people of Jewish descent were in leading roles. Wagner thought that their doings were caused by their being ‘Jewish’, in the way that red-haired communists cultivate their world view because of their hair colour, so quite a mistake to make. Before antisemitism got that quasi-darwinist biological aspect, it was rather a form of ‘anti-judaism’ as a world view, where ethnicity, culture and modern materialism were thrown into a pot and stewed to provide jealous misers with arguments to excuse their failures. Because of his confusion, Wagner always got into crazy troubles with ‘Jewishness’ and ‘Jewish’ contacts, which puzzled him a lot. People of Jewish descent were numerous among his admirers in the 19th century, thinking that by becoming ‘Wagnerian’ they had ‘overcome’ Judaism, as Wagner had advised in his writings.

      History is an excellent showcase to expose human folly, so that we can discover it in our own time.

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