Among the most powerful scenes in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt—the playwright’s portrait of two interwoven Jewish families in Vienna before, during, and after the Shoah—is a conversation that takes place in the year 1899 between a businessman named Hermann and his mathematician brother-in-law about Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. The mathematician is taken with Herzl’s vision and has seen how it has set afire the shtetl Jews farther to the East in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hermann is dismissive of the idea that the advanced culture he and his family enjoy could be replicated in any way in the Middle East.
“Do you want to do mathematics in the desert or in the city where Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven overlapped,” Hermann says, “and Brahms used to come to our house?” What’s more, he continues, Vienna—and by extension Western Europe—has been immeasurably enriched by the presence of its Jews. Without us, he says, the Hapsburg Empire would have been bereft of “banking, science, the law, the arts, literature, journalism.”
This dialogue instantly invokes in the theatergoers who have been spellbound by Stoppard’s heartbreaking work, first in London before the outbreak of the pandemic and now on Broadway, a sense of horrid foreboding. Here is the voice of assimilated European Jewry—indeed, Hermann is so assimilated that he is actually a convert to Catholicism, though solely for reasons of status and position—convinced that acceptance had at last arrived. We know it had not.
Stoppard, the master dramatist of our era, reveals over the course of three generations, including his own, the fate of these families. Characters he has brought fully to life, we learn, met their deaths in “Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz,” as we hear in the play’s final invocation. The world in which they had been so much at home had been ripped from under them, as it was for so many of my own family in Ukraine, and as it was for my wife’s cousin who was trapped in Berlin in 1938, writing letters to relatives in America who were powerless to get her a visa out—a situation Stoppard duplicates for his families. (She died in Terezin, the Nazi “model” concentration camp they used to fool the world.)
As horribly misplaced as the Stoppard family’s cultural confidence and perceived appreciation for Jewish contribution would prove to be, it was not only the highly cultured Jews of Germany and Austria-Hungary who believed it. The case for not only the safety but the superiority of Diaspora for the Jewish people was never better made than by the brilliant American economist Thorstein Veblen, widely viewed today as the pioneer of behavioral economics. In his 1919 essay “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe” in Political Science Quarterly, Veblen defended Diasporism from the vantage point of a philo-Semite—in ways that overlap perfectly with the views Stoppard explores through the character of Hermann and others in Leopoldstadt.
Veblen was arguably the first great American economic thinker. A Wisconsin-born son of Norwegian immigrants, he put names to human behaviors in ways that still resonate. His insight about “conspicuous consumption”—the tendency of the affluent to purchase and display consumer goods that reflect and reinforce their status—remains relevant, even as fur is replaced by Patagonia jackets and steak is replaced by vegan meat substitutes. He coined the term “conspicuous leisure,” as well—which anyone who has been bored by someone’s travel photos will instantly understand.
His ideas about Diaspora Jews are marked by a genuine and thought-provoking originality, based on obvious admiration for Jewish achievement (they “have contributed much more than an even share to the intellectual life of modern Europe”). The emancipated European Jew, he asserts, freed from the confines of the ghetto and the Pale, brings, by force of circumstances, a skepticism to his worldview. Once released from the bonds of tradition, the Jew within the Gentile world, per Veblen, experiences
a loss of that peace of mind that is the birthright of the safe and sane quietist. He becomes a disturber of the intellectual peace, but only at the cost of becoming an intellectual wayfaring man, a wanderer in the intellectual no-man’s-land, seeking another place to rest, farther along the road, somewhere over the horizon. They are neither a complaisant nor a contented lot, these aliens of the uneasy feet.
It appears to be only when the gifted Jew escapes from the cultural environment created and fed by the particular genius of his own people, only when he falls into the alien lines of gentile inquiry and becomes a naturalized, though hyphenate, citizen in the gentile republic of learning, that he comes into his own as a creative leader in the world’s intellectual enterprise.
Veblen wrote these words before the astounding flowering of immigrant Jews in America—an experience that, before World War II, had convinced no small number of Jewish leaders that it was the U.S. that was our Zion, just as Hermann in Stoppard’s play calls Vienna “our promised land.”
Leopoldstadt demonstrates, in more than one way, how Veblen’s new European Jew—liberated from his shackles to bring a new perspective to the Gentile world—would be driven from existence. Most of the Jews we see on stage are murdered at the hands of the Nazis. Stoppard’s own parents barely escaped in 1938 by using business connections to flee from their native Czechoslovakia to Singapore. Over time, after a lengthy life journey that took his widowed mother to India and into marriage with a British officer who adopted her boy, Stoppard himself became thoroughly Anglicized. The character in the play that most closely resembles the author is a young British writer who in 1955 tells his disbelieving remaining relatives that his Jewish ancestry has become little more than an “exotic” footnote in his life. And then he has a flash of memory: Kristallnacht, as a little boy.
Both these paths—murder and assimilation, which can be seen in its most extreme form as a kind of cultural murder—undermine the allure of Veblen’s Diasporism. The essential problem is this: Jews in the Diaspora can never be truly safe, not only because the cloud of anti-Semitism still hovers over us but also because the magnetic lure of secularism and assimilation also threatens Jewry’s existence. The families in Leopoldstadt believe they can strike a balance that will allow them to retain their identity while contributing to a larger non-Jewish culture. That belief kills them. The question the audience at Leopoldstadt asks itself at the play’s end is what beliefs today’s Jews might hold that pose the same threat.
It is a testimony to Stoppard’s brilliance that there is undeniably something attractive about Hermann’s evocation of the possibilities of Diaspora Judaism. The romantic in me once preferred to believe it too, based on the incredible flowering of immigrant Jews and their children here in America. American anthems were the handiwork of immigrant Irving Berlin: “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade.” Berlin and others helped create a transcendent common culture in which Jews would be accepted because anyone could be a member. Then there’s Broadway—in which Bernstein and Sondheim turned Shakespeare into a drama of immigrant Puerto Ricans and Italians who, we infer, should put aside their differences. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein provided the vehicle in Showboat for Paul Robeson to sing about the Mississippi. New Yorkers Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein celebrated Oklahoma.
It was like a Diaspora social contract: Jews help to create a common, tolerant atmosphere in exchange for acceptance—and at the risk, if things fell apart, of being among the first to suffer. A modern theory of Chosen-ness.
It’s not working out that way in 2022 America, however. Our common culture is under attack by the forces of identity politics. The fact that Jewish organizations must call for public denunciations of anti-Semitism is not reassuring. There have been physical attacks on individual Jews on the streets and murders at synagogues. The Jew-hating rantings of Kanye West were followed by basketball player Kyrie Irving’s recommendations of anti-Semitic documentaries.
The Jew as skeptic/contributor assumes not only a reasonably tolerant culture but, crucially, an ongoing identification on the part of Jews with actual practiced Judaism and its virtues: the combination of ethics, learning, and skepticism embodied in the Torah and Talmud. It is here where the Veblen vision runs aground. The Pew Research Center’s 2020 survey of American Jews revealed that 27 percent of those of Jewish background today consider themselves to be “atheistic, agnostic, or nothing at all.” Among Jews under 30, 40 percent describe themselves this way. Six in 10 recent marriages involving Jews were with non-Jews. Non-Orthodox Jews are melting away into the broader society. Veblen’s vision of a special place for the Jew as both insider and outsider not only failed in Europe because it was overtaken by the desire to destroy; it has been overtaken in America by this country’s unprecedented welcome.
What’s more, Veblen’s skepticism about the value of Jewish in-gathering has been overtaken by actual events. He feared that the Zionist project would take on the character of insular Orthodoxy:
If the adventure is carried to that consummate outcome which seems to be aimed at, it should apparently be due to be crowned with a large national complacency and, possibly, a profound and self-sufficient content on the part of the Chosen People domiciled once more in the Chosen Land; and when and in so far as the Jewish people in this way turn inward on themselves, their prospective contribution to the world’s intellectual output should, in the light of the historical evidence, fairly be expected to take on the complexion of Talmudic lore, rather than that character of free-swung skeptical initiative which their renegades have habitually infused into the pursuit of the modern sciences abroad among the nations.
Wrong. It was Israeli innovation that brought drip irrigation to not only its own deserts but the world. If self-driving cars become reality, it will be the result of Israeli-born technology acquired by Intel. Nor have the arts in Israel been reduced to Talmudic interpretation, as the brilliant fiction of David Grossman (among many others) exemplifies. Israeli television has proven not only creative in itself but a source of creative energy throughout the world. And history has assured that what might be euphemistically described as the creative tension between Jews and non-Jews, born of ongoing military threat and Western anti-Zionism, has not abated in the Promised Land. Just the opposite.
As much as the contributions of Diaspora Jews should inspire pride and celebration, it has become clear that there has emerged no serious alternative other than Israel for those who would sustainably perpetuate specifically Jewish achievement and inquiry. Those of us in the Diaspora will not all move there—although Stoppard is here to remind us that Jews will always require a refuge from the forces of hatred that now seek Israel’s destruction. But we are called upon to support the Zionist project not only as a form of self-defense but also to continue providing the wider world with the fruits of Jewish labors. Leopoldstadt’s invocation of a potential Jewish state at the play’s beginning, and Israel’s existence at its end as the tiny remnant of the Merz and Jacobowicz families gathers in the once-grand apartment of assimilation in 1955, mark it as one of the most profoundly Zionist documents of our time.
It is a reflection of the durability and power of anti-Semitism that, even if the playwright had uncovered the facts of his own Jewish past in 1955 the way his young British character does, rather than in the 1980s, he would have risked a great deal by writing Leopoldstadt as a young man in the wake of his career-making success with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966. He likely would have become known as a Jewish, rather than a British, playwright—a dramatist making a special pleading due to the tragedy visited upon his own family. No, it was his established reputation as the greatest living English dramatist that has enabled this unlikely production—among other things, Leopoldstadt has a cast of 38, the largest any play on Broadway has seen in generations. Therein lies yet another lesson about the limits of Diasporism.
Photos by: Joan Marcus
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.