A Cho­sen Call­ing: Jews in Sci­ence in the Twen­ti­eth Century

Noah J. Efron

  • Review
By – November 3, 2014

In this short and schol­ar­ly col­lec­tion of essays, Efron con­fronts the ques­tion of why Jews have suc­ceed­ed dis­pro­por­tion­al­ly in sci­ence. At the out­set Efron rejects the idea that Jews have a claim on intel­lect over and above the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. Instead, he looks to the cul­tur­al and soci­etal forces that drew Jews into sci­ence as a means for not only improved social con­di­tions, but also for survival.

Efron opens with a poignant account of tour­ing the Cre­ation Muse­um in Peters­burg, Ken­tucky with a class of rab­binic stu­dents from near­by Cincin­nati. He writes, Although none of us could say pre­cise­ly why, the Cre­ation Museum’s assault on sci­ence was some­how an assault on Jews, and this despite the fact that [the] muse­um showed noth­ing but sin­cere and affec­tion­ate esteem for the Jews.” This inter­sec­tion of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence and non-Jew­ish per­cep­tion is the heart of Efron’s exploration.

A Cho­sen Call­ing looks at Jews in sci­ence in the three places where Jews have had the most impact on sci­ence: the U.S., the Sovi­et Union, and Israel. In these coun­tries, the struc­ture of mod­ern sci­ence, a mer­i­toc­ra­cy that depend­ed not on one’s back­ground but what one could con­tribute, pro­vid­ed the port­hole through which Jews could escape anti- Semi­tism. How­ev­er, the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties in each local­i­ty result­ed in dif­fer­ences in the roles Jews played in the sci­en­tif­ic and, by exten­sion, gen­er­al social structure.

Ephron is a well-versed and gen­er­ous writer. While this book is much more an aca­d­e­m­ic than a casu­al read it is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to our under­stand­ing of how sci­ence has shaped the Jews and how Jews have shaped science.

Relat­ed content:

Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a sci­ence writer liv­ing in Austin, Texas and the author of Spine­less: the Sci­ence of Jel­ly­fish and the Art of Grow­ing a Back­bone. Her book on the future of coral will be pub­lished in 2021.

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