Smart Jews

The Jewish impact on American intellectual culture.

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Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.

Although by the 1920s no sensitive observer could have doubted the role of Jews in America's popular culture, a Jewish presence on the nation's intellectual scene failed to achieve decisive visibility until the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was, to be sure, supremely the 1930s influx of cultivated and erudite fugitives from Nazi Europe that projected the new and ultimately ineradicable image of Jews as intellectuals.

Yet, at a time of economic depression and widespread anti-Semitism, years often passed before employment could be secured for these newcomers, and surely before their erudition and insights could begin to register in the New World.

albert einsteinIn wartime, it is recalled, the scientists were first to make their mark. Indeed, the physicists among them would forever be identified with development of the atomic bomb. Several of these--Otto Stern, Victor Hess, and Felix Bloch--later would become Nobel laureates, joining the exalted company of refugees who brought their Nobel Prizes with them. Of nearly comparable influence was the new cadre of mathematicians from Poland and the German Reich....


In chemistry, the United States for years had relied heavily upon European scholarship. Even before they arrived as refugees, Peter Debye, Kasimir Fajans, James Franck, Walter Loewe, Otto Loewi, Otto Meyerhof, and Gustav Neuberg were respected names among American scientists. Franck and Meyerhof were Nobel laureates. Offered teaching posts not long after arriving, these men soon effected hardly less than a revolution in American academic chemistry.

Meyerhof, Neuberg, Konrad Bloch, Hendrik Dam, Fritz Lipmann, and David Nachmansohn were biochemists, molecular biologists, and neurolo­gists. Unlike their American counterparts, they were prepared to apply the interdisciplinary techniques of other physical sciences (Franck had won his Nobel Prize in physics). Accordingly, their work on the structures of proteins and amino acids, on metabolic pathways and genetics, almost immediately propelled the United States to world leadership in the chemistry of life.

Humanities & the Social Sciences

But there were other, nonscientific areas in which immigrant intellectuals also provided near-instant respectability to American scholarship. Art history, a venerated European specialization, first was transplanted to the American cultural landscape when Erwin Panofsky, former director of the Warburg Center for Art History at the University of Hamburg, resettled at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1935. He brought with him a characteristic European fascination with the links between art and wider civilization....

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.