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A Chosen Calling

Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century

Noah J. Efron

Publication Year: 2014

Scholars have struggled for decades to explain why Jews have succeeded extravagantly in modern science. A variety of controversial theories—from such intellects as C. P. Snow, Norbert Wiener, and Nathaniel Weyl—have been promoted. Snow hypothesized an evolved genetic predisposition to scientific success. Wiener suggested that the breeding habits of Jews sustained hereditary qualities conducive for learning. Economist and eugenicist Weyl attributed Jewish intellectual eminence to "seventeen centuries of breeding for scholars." Rejecting the idea that Jews have done well in science because of uniquely Jewish traits, Jewish brains, and Jewish habits of mind, historian of science Noah J. Efron approaches the Jewish affinity for science through the geographic and cultural circumstances of Jews who were compelled to settle in new worlds in the early twentieth century. Seeking relief from religious persecution, millions of Jews resettled in the United States, Palestine, and the Soviet Union, with large concentrations of settlers in New York, Tel Aviv, and Moscow. Science played a large role in the lives and livelihoods of these immigrants: it was a universal force that transcended the arbitrary Old World orders that had long ensured the exclusion of all but a few Jews from the seats of power, wealth, and public esteem. Although the three destinations were far apart geographically, the links among the communities were enduring and spirited. This shared experience—of facing the future in new worlds, both physical and conceptual—provided a generation of Jews with opportunities unlike any their parents and grandparents had known. The tumultuous recent century of Jewish history, which saw both a methodical campaign to blot out Europe's Jews and the inexorable absorption of Western Jews into the societies in which they now live, is illuminated by the place of honor science held in Jewish imaginations. Science was central to their dreams of creating new worlds—welcoming worlds—for a persecuted people. This provocative work will appeal to historians of science as well as scholars of religion, Jewish studies, and Zionism.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

Preface. A Vanload of Rabbis in the Culture Wars of Kentucky

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pp. ix-xviii

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Introduction: “Ridiculously Disproportionate”?

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pp. 1-11

In 1919, when he turned his attention to the achievements of Jews in modern science, the great economist and social theorist Thorstein Veblen was sixty-two years old, weary, and despondent. Twenty years had passed since he had published the book that made him famous, his notorious attack on America’s well-heeled...

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1. “Holding High the Torch of Civilization”: American Jews and Twentieth-Century Science

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pp. 12-38

In the summer of 1925, America was riveted and riven by the trial of John Thomas Scopes, a Dayton, Tennessee, high school teacher accused of teaching evolution in violation of state statute. Although many saw the trial as a skirmish between science and religion, less than two months after a guilty verdict was handed down the leading rabbis of New York City joined forces to condemn Scopes’ conviction.1 There was drama in the unanimity...

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2. “Second Only to Communism”: Making Soviet Jews and Soviet Science

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pp. 39-63

In 1926, Moisei Gran, a Moscow physician and professor of medicine, together with other Jewish doctors of reputation, published the first number of a new scholarly journal they called Problems of the Biology and Pathology of Jews. The journal was a product of the Society for the Study of Social Biology and Psycho-Physics of the Jews, which had convened four years earlier.1 Gran’s own article in the inaugural edition recounted...

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3. “Making a Land of Experiments”: Science and Technology in Zionist Imagination and Enterprise

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pp. 64-93

In the swelter of August 1960, 120 notables representing forty countries, mostly emerging nations in Africa and Asia, gathered at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, to attend the International Conference on the Role of Science in the Advancement of New States.1 Abba Eban had conceived the event two years earlier in Washington, D.C., while he was Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Since then, Eban had been appointed...

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Conclusion: When All Worlds Were New Worlds

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pp. 94-104

As historian Yuri Slezkine wrote, Jews at the start of the twentieth century had three great “destinations”—the metropolises of America, the great cities of the Soviet Union, and the arid rough of Palestine—each representing “alternative ways of being modern.” Even before Nazis had destroyed most of Europe’s Jews, these three destinations had become capitals of Jewish life. Well before mid-century, most Jews called one or the other of them home.1...


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pp. 105-142


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pp. 143-149

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413822
E-ISBN-10: 1421413825
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413815
Print-ISBN-10: 1421413817

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context
Series Editor Byline: Ronald L. Numbers, Consulting Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 878117049
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Chosen Calling

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Subject Headings

  • Science -- Social aspects.
  • Judaism and science.
  • Jews -- United States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Jews -- Russia -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Jews -- Palestine -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Jewish scientists -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Jewish scientists -- Social aspects -- Russia -- History -- 20th century.
  • Jewish scientists -- Social aspects -- Israel -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
  • Russia -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
  • Palestine -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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