Sunday, November 01, 2015

What’s the Secret? – Part II

Note: I have received an inordinate number of personal comments and emails regarding last month’s column outlining the book The Golden Age of Jewish Achievements. In fact, several mentioned they emailed copies to relatives and friends. (This can be done by going to, then copy and paste to your email). I have interrupted this series by incorporating some additional non-book information below that I believe will also interest readers. A shortened continuation of the original series will follow, plus Part III next month.

These are some of the findings of the Pew Research Center survey, conducted Feb. 20-June 13, 2013, among a nationally representative sample of U.S. Jews. This is the most comprehensive and latest national survey of the Jewish population since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. More than 70,000 screening interviews were conducted to identify Jewish respondents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Longer interviews were completed with 3,475 Jews, including 2,786 Jews by religion and 689 Jews of no religion.

Jews have high levels of educational attainment. Most Jews are college graduates (58%), including 28% who say they have earned a post-graduate degree. By comparison, 29% of U.S. adults say they graduated from college, including 10% who have a post-graduate degree.

Fully one-quarter of Jews (25%) say they have a household income exceeding $150,000, compared with 8% of adults in the public as a whole. At the same time, 20% of U.S. Jews report household incomes of less than $30,000 per year; about six-in-ten Jews in this low-income category are either under age 30 or 65 or older.

Roughly four-in-ten U.S. Jewish adults (39%) say they live in a household where at least one person is a member of a synagogue. This includes 31% of Jewish adults (39% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) who say they personally belong to a synagogue, temple or other congregation.

Jews think several other minority groups face more discrimination than they do. Roughly seven-in-ten Jews (72%) say gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination in American society, and an equal number say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims. More than six-in-ten (64%) say blacks face a lot of discrimination. By comparison, 43% say Jews face a lot of discrimination. Overall, 15% of Jews say that in the past year they personally have been called offensive names or snubbed in a social setting because they are Jewish.

Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.

Jews are heavily concentrated in certain geographic regions: 43% live in the Northeast, compared with 18% of the public as a whole. Roughly a quarter of Jews reside in the South (23%) and in the West (23%), while 11% live in the Midwest. Half of Jews (49%) reside in urban areas and a similar number (47%) reside in the suburbs; just 4% of Jews reside in rural areas.

As a whole, Jews support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by more than three-to-one: 70% say they are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 22% are Republicans or lean Republican. Among Orthodox Jews, however, the balance tilts in the other direction: 57% are Republican or lean Republican, and 36% are Democrats or lean Democratic.

More details are available by Googling “Pew Research * A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”

Now, back to “What’s the Secret?”

As questioned in last month’s article, (recounting the golden age of Jewish achievements as described in the book with that title), what is the secret behind the disproportional Jewish accomplishments, especially those that occurred over the 100-year period from about 1799 to 1899 (and subsequently through today) that compelled Mark Twain to write so effusively about the Jewish “contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning?” In that 624-page book, Steven Pease, the author, devoted only one chapter to answer that question. Essentially, he concluded that the resolution depended on whether the traits that produced this disproportional level of influential Jews were the result of nature (heredity based on genes and IQ), or nurture (predicated on culture consisting of tradition, environment and upbringing).

In January of this year, his new book, The Debate Over Jewish Achievement: Exploring the Nature and Nurture of Human Accomplishment was published in order to respond to that question more specifically, and in significantly more detail. However, Mr. Pease determined it was essential, and relevant to recognize that Jewish history was critical to a full understanding of what he terms “the Golden Age.” Like last month’s article, a large part of the text in quotes is attributed to the author.

Jewish History

A paradigm shift for the Jewish experience was enabled by the period now called the European Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, described in the History website as follows: “European politics, philosophy, science and communications were radically reoriented during the course of the ‘long 18th century’ (1685-1815) as part of a movement referred to by its participants as the Age of Reason, or simply the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers in Britain, in France and throughout Europe questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change. The Enlightenment produced numerous books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and revolutions. The American and French Revolutions were directly inspired by Enlightenment ideals and respectively marked the peak of its influence and the beginning of its decline.”

The Jewish Enlightenment

The new era of Jewish enlightenment could not have occurred without what is termed the Jewish Emancipation. Here is how that movement is described by the Museum of Family History: “Jewish emancipation was the abolition of discriminatory laws as applied especially to Jews in Europe in the nineteenth century, the recognition of Jews as equal to other citizens, and the formal granting of citizenship to European Jews. Emancipation was a major goal of European Jews of the 19th century, and led to active participation of Jews in the civil society.” The explanation continued:

“In 1791, France became the first European country to emancipate its Jewish population. By 1796, France, Britain, and the Netherlands had granted the Jews equal rights with gentiles. Napoleon also freed the Jews in areas he conquered. However, it was not until the revolutionary atmosphere of the mid-19th century that Jewish political movements would begin to persuade governments in Central and Eastern Europe to grant equal rights to Jews.”

It’s important to emphasize the Jewish Emancipation, its influence on subsequent Jewish history, and what resulted from the freedoms generated during this less discriminatory period for Jews. The Virtual Jewish Library describes the beginnings of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, that was an intellectual movement in Europe that lasted from approximately the 1770s to the 1880s. “The Haskalah was inspired by the European Enlightenment but had a Jewish character. Literally, Haskalah comes from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning ‘reason’ or ‘intellect,’ and the movement was based on rationality. It encouraged Jews to study secular subjects, to learn both the European and Hebrew languages, and to enter fields such as agriculture, crafts, the arts and science. The maskilim (followers of the Haskalah) tried to assimilate into European society in dress, language, manners and loyalty to the ruling power. The Haskalah eventually influenced the creation of both the Reform and Zionist movements.”

Although the above reveals how Jews attained the opportunity to participate in a freer society, it does not explain the disproportionate level of achievements they produced. In his newest book, the author Steven Pease (who also authored The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement covered in last month’s article) calls attention to one of the first attempts to solve the mystery.


Pease writes: “Before Emancipation there was little reason to take note of Jews as high achievers except in matters of religion and philosophy. Then, following the Jewish Emancipation, a small trickle of Jewish high achievers turned into a stream and later into a torrent covering many domains of secular achievement. The torrent continues. In 1846 we began to hear mid-Emancipation mention of Jews with Lord Ashley speaking before Parliament of their ‘powerful intellect,’ their being accomplished in music, poetry, medicine and astronomy and, in every field (being) more than a match for their competitors.”

Later, in 1853, French Count de Gobineau found the “Northern Europeans and Jews to be the two most intelligent people.” It is Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, writing in his book, Exploring the Nature and Nurture of Human Accomplishment, Jews are “rich in intellectual endowments”— which he believed were inherited.

As early as 1910, Dr. Mendel Silber’s book, Jewish Achievement, directly made the case for culture (nurture) as a driving force. Silber identified more than a thousand high achieving Jews, organizing his discussion into domains such as jurists, statesmen, painters, composers, actors, etc. For each domain, Silber explained how Jewish culture and history had led to success. Three thousand years of experience with Jewish Law shaped them into successful attorneys and judges. Literary knowledge arising from study of Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud contributed to their skills as authors. And their long history as physicians helped explain their contemporary importance in medicine. For Silber, it wasn’t that Jews were “chosen,” or gifted. They just knew their stuff and worked hard.

Ashkenazi Dominance

It appears that by the end of the 19th century, there was acknowledgement that Jews, especially Jews, had achieved extraordinary success. Pease dwells on the specific history of this group of Jews in an effort to determine what in their background might have contributed to their exceptional accomplishments. Here is Mr. Pease’s understanding of Ashkenazi history:

“Ashkenazim first appear in recorded history sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries CE. The Ashkenazim most likely trace back to Jews who left the Middle East during pre-Roman, or early Roman times— but perhaps even as early as the Babylonian era they migrated through what is now central Italy up into the northern Roman Empire, and then on to Northern and Central Europe. The genetic data also appear to show that the Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations are much closer genetically than was thought just a few years ago. Both of them appear to have migrated through present day Italy, with the Sephardim then moving west to Spain and Portugal.”

It is probably through the limited intermarriage with local non-Jewish women that some Ashkenazim inherited northern European physical traits such as blond, brown, and occasional red hair, as well as blue and green eyes. (This probably explains how I inherited similar traits.)

The Ashkenazim are thought to have experienced a dramatic drop to perhaps as few as 3,000 families by the early to mid-sixteen hundreds. Then that decline was reversed and Ashkenazi Jews rebounded from that tiny base. By 1940, they made up more than 80 percent of the world’s 16.5 million Jews. In that increase, Jews quadrupled to eight-tenths of 1 percent of the world’s population. This is still well below the era of King David, when Jews were 2 percent of the world’s population, but it is substantially more than today’s two-tenths of 1 percent.

This historical record sets the stage for Mr. Pease's exploration into the cause of the genesis of disproportional Jewish achievement. The “secret” will be more fully explained next month.


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