Jewish accomplishment in the modern era: no easy answer

For his 22nd documentary film, producer and writer/director John Curtin focused on an issue that few like to discuss in public but that has always been close to his heart.

Why the Jews? consists of a series of interviews with some of the most articulate and accomplished men and women in a wide variety of intellectual and professional pursuits. He asks them the same question: What is the source of Jewish accomplishment in most sectors of human creativity in the modern era?

“Just think about it,” Curtin said in an interview, “as of last year, 22.5% of the Nobel Prizes were awarded went to Jews. With a population of 14 million in a world of 7 billion, I calculated under normal circumstances Jews should have won two Nobel prizes: They won 197: you’re talking about 100 times over-representation! That’s astonishing and inexplicable.”

In the film’s first minutes, he frames the responses around the Jews’ relative freedom from persecution, especially in the postHolocaust and post Soviet eras, or as he puts it, it’s about “a persecuted people who finally got a chance.”

“The numbers are not just extraordinary, they are bizarre, and they make no sense,” the film narration says, citing statistics that the film indicate Jews make up 21 per cent of Ivy League students in the U.S., 23% of Oscar winning film directors, and 40% of the world’s undisputed chess champions. He makes the point visually with stock shots of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Stanley Kubrick, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Garry Kasparov, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Marc Chagall, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan, Natalie Portman, Itzhak Perlman, and Mark Zuckerberg.

The British popular historian, Paul Johnson notes that, though Jews form only 0.2 per cent of the world’s population, “some of the great innovative intelligences have been Jews, people who have changed the world and the way the world looks at things.”

The film is replete with perceptive comments, with emeritus Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz making the key point that there is no simple answer to the central question. Architect Daniel Libeskind talks about “much more ambitious horizons, let’s call it the horizon of eternity” that motivates some Jews. British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says Judaism “is a protest against the world that is in the name of the world that ought to be.”

Dershowitz makes the point that Jewish accomplishment is “the other side of the coin of why so many people historically have hated the Jews.” Shimon Peres says Jews wanted to repair a broken world and for some that meant turning to Communism, where there would be “no classes, no religions, no privileges.”

Others turned to Zionism, concluding that “we cannot change the world, what we can Jewish accomplishment in the modern era: no easy answer change is ourselves, because we are strangers in other places, we can’t have a land, we don’t have a state, we don’t have an army … the claim was that the Jews had more history than geography.”

Saying he does not want to control another people, the Palestinians, Peres makes the analogy between love and peace, saying they are similar, and adding, “if you want peace, close a little bit your eyes…” Why did Curtin tackle the subject?

“It was triggered by working in Berlin and noticing that Germans, far from having contempt for the Jews, admired them hugely because they had achieved so much in scientific, social, and cultural areas. That was the seed of the idea, 30 years ago.

“I wanted to do something more challenging, something big, and ideas don’t get much bigger than that – Why are the Jews so accomplished?” “You could argue that is one of the great elephants in the room of Western culture.

Most people have noticed it, but who wants to talk about it?

Jews talk about it, among themselves, but they wouldn’t engage in a larger discussion with others, perhaps in fear of provoking anti-Semitism. Curtin has roots in the issue. His father, Walter, was a third-generation assimilated Viennese Jew, and “the only Jewish thing he would do was attend midnight mass at Saint Stephen’s cathedral! They were trying to be German, trying not to create waves.”

“Before he created Zionism, Theodore Herzl initially suggested all Austrian and German Jews should be baptized, to avoid persecution.

“My father was the quintessential European Jew. The fact that he didn’t go to synagogue really had nothing to do with it. I do feel somewhat Jewish myself, just because of that. (Curtin was brought up Roman Catholic.)

“He was practically the last Jew out of Vienna. He left on March 31, 1939. He first got a visa to Shanghai. His mother, Frieda Spiegel, stayed to take care of her mother, but she perished in Chelmno (killing site in Poland) in 1942, where the Jews there were driven to the forest and gassed in trucks.

Israel doesn’t play a major role in the doc, but there is a shot of the separation wall and a revealing interview on the country’s burgeoning start-up culture in the tech field. Reflecting on Israel’s many accomplishments, Curtin says, “In a way, it’s bizarre. Israel has become the Jew among nations, in the same way as Jews are hated, part of it is because of Israel’s success. If Israel had been a completely failed state no one would pay any attention to it.”

He attributes some of Jewish accomplishment to the emphasis on literacy that began around 70 CE with the rabbinic ordinance that all Jewish males had to be literate.

“Those who found the bar had been set too high moved to other easier religions.” Dershowitz makes the point that Jewish women also were expected to be literate from around that time. While asking the question, the movie offers no definitive answer, but rather a myriad of possible answers.

Why the Jews will be shown June 19 at the Kandy Gallery, 5629 Ferrier, at 7 pm, to benefit The Foundation for Genocide Education, which lobbies to teach genocide education in elementary and high schools. Tickets, including cocktails: $100. or 514-947-7658. View the film online till May 31 at

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