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.
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.