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A Chosen Calling

, 168 pages
April 2014



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A Chosen Calling

Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century

Scholars have struggled for decades to explain why Jews have succeeded extravagantly in modern science. A variety of controversial theories—from such intellects as C. P. Snow, Norbert Wiener, and Nathaniel Weyl—have been promoted. Snow hypothesized an evolved genetic predisposition to scientific success. Wiener suggested that the breeding habits of Jews sustained hereditary qualities conducive for learning. Economist and eugenicist Weyl attributed Jewish intellectual eminence to "seventeen centuries of breeding for scholars."

Rejecting the idea that Jews have done well in science because of uniquely Jewish traits, Jewish brains, and Jewish habits of mind, historian of science Noah J. Efron approaches the Jewish affinity for science through the geographic and cultural circumstances of Jews who were compelled to settle in new worlds in the early twentieth century.

Seeking relief from religious persecution, millions of Jews resettled in the United States, Palestine, and the Soviet Union, with large concentrations of settlers in New York, Tel Aviv, and Moscow. Science played a large role in the lives and livelihoods of these immigrants: it was a universal force that transcended the arbitrary Old World orders that had long ensured the exclusion of all but a few Jews from the seats of power, wealth, and public esteem. Although the three destinations were far apart geographically, the links among the communities were enduring and spirited. This shared experience—of facing the future in new worlds, both physical and conceptual—provided a generation of Jews with opportunities unlike any their parents and grandparents had known.

The tumultuous recent century of Jewish history, which saw both a methodical campaign to blot out Europe's Jews and the inexorable absorption of Western Jews into the societies in which they now live, is illuminated by the place of honor science held in Jewish imaginations. Science was central to their dreams of creating new worlds—welcoming worlds—for a persecuted people.

This provocative work will appeal to historians of science as well as scholars of religion, Jewish studies, and Zionism.

Noah J. Efron teaches at Bar-Ilan University, where he was the founding chair of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. He served as president of the Israel Society for the History and Philosophy of Science and on the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion.

"Noah Efron's A Chosen Calling is a fresh and ambitious exploration of the enthusiasm with which Jews have celebrated science, and of the legendary distinction with which they have practiced science in three major domains... Efron shows that in all three cases, Jews brought to their novel circumstances a drive for full participation in a world where they had been denied that participation, and he shows, further, that the universalist ethos of science provided a uniquely powerful means of participating."

"An excellent book recommended for most libraries, especially those with strong holdings in science and Jewish history."

"A very interesting and enlightened take on why the Jewish people have excelled in the field of science during the 20th Century and still stand out today."

"By illuminating the importance of science and technology for disparate Jewish communities throughout the twentieth century, Noah Efron's A Chosen Calling: Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century raises a number of questions that are important for anyone engaged in the science and religion conversation to consider... Science and religion writers who put forward and critique various origins proposals could benefit from imitating Efron's humble, gracious, and fluid style, while scholars will appreciate the extensive endnotes and index."

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