"I'm often asked what it's like to be married to a genius."
So begins Rebecca Goldstein's mordantly witty academic novel, The Mind-Body Problem, published in 1983. The answer—as Goldstein's heroine Renee Feuer quickly discovers—is that it's not great. Not great to be the tag-along and emotionally neglected spouse of Noam Himmel, a.k.a. World-Class Mathematician. Not great for Renee to be held in raging contempt by Noam for her inability to keep pace with his genius. And really not great at all to discover—as Renee soon does—that "I was incapable of arousal with Noam. My flesh under his touch was dead, only stirred now and then by a ripple of revulsion."1
In Caucasia, Danzy Senna's slyly satiric 1998 novel of racial passing, the biracial and very light-skinned protagonist Birdie, and Sandy, her WASP mom, must invent new identities as they embark on a new life on the lam from the law. Blonde Sandy has little choice; she changes her name but remains a WASP. But Birdie has more options. Should her invented patrimony be Italian, Sicilian, Greek? Sandy hits on the answer; Birdie will now be "Jesse Goldman," daughter of "this incredibly brilliant" professor of classics, a "so-called genius named David Goldman."2
Or move back in time once more to 1945 and militant Zionist Ben Hecht's screenplay for Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock's suspense thriller.3 Here the Jewish genius is Dr. Alex Brulov, mentor to psychiatrist Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). Decked out with a goatee, horn-rimmed glasses, and a pipe, Alex would surely remind even the most casual viewer of Sigmund Freud—a fitting tribute in a film garishly steeped in Freudianisms. But it is really Alex's speech that makes Alex Jewish. "You have now the facts," Alex says, or "I know practically what is going on." "Do you think one of the biggest brains who is [End Page 2] in psychology is unable to make out two plus two comes out four?" Alex asks Constance, after he single-handedly subdues a potentially murderous John Brown (Gregory Peck) by slipping sleeping powder into his milk. This is one smart Jew who knows how to use his yiddishe kopf.
How did Jews get to be so smart? How have—and why have—Jewishness and superior intelligence been so imaginatively and widely linked? Or to put the question a different way, what have been the costs and consequences of this linkage?
Sander Gilman tells us—astutely—how a seemingly "positive" stereotype like "the myth of Jewish superior intelligence" has also been "used by anti-Semites from the 1890s on" to assail Jews for their over-representation in professions like law and medicine. And Gilman has also pointed out—again astutely—how the idea of an excess of intellect in the Jew has often been accompanied by the idea of "sickliness and [a] failure at love and sex."4 In a way, though with different intended emphases, Rebecca Goldstein could not have put it better herself.
Yet it isn't always the case that passion and Jewish brains cannot mix. Note for instance, the fractured portrait of Jewish genius in The Nutty Professor—the original 1963 version written and directed by Jerry Lewis. In this film, Lewis, a comedian who seldom advertised his Jewish heritage, stars as a mad chemistry professor (and profound klutz) named Julius Kelp, who invents a potion that permits him to transform into the suave and sophisticated—if terminally arrogant—Buddy Love.5
Is Julius Kelp meant to be a Jew? Certainly Kelp has the "marked" body of a Jew. Kelp possesses a grotesque collection of the physical abnormalities that antisemites have frequently ascribed to Jews: a slightly hunched back, a grating high-pitched voice, prominent buck-teeth, severe near-sightedness, and a stilted and clumsy gait. He is routinely feminized in the film—a nerd, a wimp, a schlemiel par excellence. Furthermore, Kelp's intelligence is represented as malignant and dangerous; his genius is pathological, asexual, and anti-sensual. And he covets (yet also ultimately wins) the body of the beautiful (and...