Leopoldstadt is to Vienna as the East End is to London and the Lower East Side to New York, an entry point for Jewish migrants in flight from Russian pogroms and in search of a better life. Unlike first footfalls in other cities, however, Leopoldstadt is also a state of mind, a nagging sense of unbelonging that persists for generations, long after a family has found apparent security elsewhere. Popularly known as Matza Island, after the flatpack Passover bread which is not allowed to rise, Leopoldstadt was where Sigmund Freud, who grew up there, mapped the unconscious mind.
In Tom Stoppard’s self-mapping new play, most of the conversation takes place away from crowded tenements, in a high-ceilinged mansion on the Schwarzenbergplatz, some time after the Merz family made its fortune in textiles and, as Stoppard snipes, got ‘baptised and circumcised in the same week.’ But Stoppard will not let it go with a cheap quip like this, and nor can I.
What the play addresses, more cogently than any I can remember, is the question of whether Jews can ever surrender their identity to Christian civilisation. ‘A Jew can be a great composer,’ asserts Stoppard, ‘but he can’t not be a Jew.’
So true. In a Spectator podcast last week, Damian Thomson asked me why it was that baptized Jews like Heine, Disraeli and Mahler clung so resolutely to their self-recognition as Jews. Why was Disraeli so proud (and Queen Victoria so amused) when Bismarck referred to him as ‘the old Jew’? Was his baptism merely a matter of convenience? Not at all, I responded. It was an available gateway to opportunity in the 19th century, like sailing to America, but only a fool would consider dropping his passport in the ocean along the way.
Shrugging off Judaism and not embracing Christianity by conviction, Leopoldstadt Jews hailed culture as their Messiah, filling their evenings with Schubert quartets and sending their wives to be painted (and seduced) by Klimt, whose Secession building they financed. There was always a degree of self-humiliation in their admission to the temples of art.
When they discovered in 1938 that, as Stoppard puts it, ‘barbarism will not be eradicated by culture,’ the lucky few who reached the relative safety of London, sat in the Cosmo restaurant on Finchley Road, talking of ‘unser Goethe, unser Wagner’, as if a century of assumed assimilation had overcome a millennium of denigration, not least by Goethe and Wagner themselves.
They carried Leopoldstadt with them into exile. My friend Fred grew up above Vienna’s most famous kosher restaurant. Packed off to England on one of the last Kindertransport trains, he played a violin recital at Hull Town Hall at eight years old. After the War he learned that his family had been exterminated down to the last distant cousin and that the ‘liberated’ Austrians were refusing to return his property unless he paid an extortionate fine.
Left with nothing to draw on but his unconscious, Fred reconstructed from taste memory the entire menu of his family restaurant, adding pinches of paprika and sugar until the gefilte fish gave the right kick to the tongue and the lokshen pudding could sink a Danube steamer. This became his life’s mission. By retrieving the taste of Leopoldstadt, Fred defeated Hitler.
Leopoldstadt the play is Stoppard’s recognition of his own suppressed identity. Raised by an English stepfather and a Czech-Jewish mother who refused to look back, Stoppard has acknowledged in his 80s what the ex-chief rabbi Lord Sacks once defined as ‘the dignity of difference’ – the acceptance that being different as a Jew has a dignity all its own. For a maker of milestones in modern English theatre, this takes some focal adjustment on Stoppard’s part. The first act of Leopoldstadt is loaded with old clichés – ‘they know a bargain when they see one’ – and celebrity name-drops: Freud, Mahler, Herzl, Schnitzler. It’s not easy to be a late-onset Jew.
But I’m not here to review the play, which others have done already with all the accolade in the critical lexicon. My job is to offer a second opinion without which, as Stoppard knows, no Jew would ever accept a medical diagnosis. My conclusion is that Stoppard is right. Jews are different, they think differently and they remain different down to the nth generation, no matter how big their Christmas tree or how huge their donations to Palestinian causes.
There is a cultural unconscious to which Jews creatively respond. Gustav Mahler in an agonised scrawl on his final symphony addresses God, me to thou, as Jews do in synagogue. Arnold Schoenberg, on his last sheet of music paper, writes ‘Ich bin ein kleiner Judenbub – I’m a little Jewish kid.’ Sir Tom Stoppard gets it: we are as we are. Leopoldstadt endures.
Norman Lebrecht is the author of Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947