In a new book, Norman Lebrecht of the Daily Telegraph wonders if Jews' outsider status - and Talmud tradition - enabled them to think differently
Arriving in London in July 1833, Felix Mendelssohn headed straight to the House of Commons.
Hailed as the most gifted composer since Mozart and the most Lutheran since Bach, Mendelssohn was gripped by what the press were calling the "Jew Bill", a heated political debate over whether Jewish citizens of the United Kingdom should be granted equal rights.
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"Early today," Mendelssohn wrote home to his mother in a long-suppressed letter, "the Jews were emancipated. This makes me proud... it is better for us in England."
His report is peppered with Hebrew and Yiddish words for enemies and anti-Semites.
It is a coded communication between an outwardly assimilated artist and his artfully buried Jewish identity.
Reading it set me off on a search for the roots of a conundrum that had troubled me for half my adult life.
Why were so many of the men and women who transformed the arts between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries Jewish?
Jews made up less than 0.002 per cent of the world's population, but comprised around half of the most influential writers, musicians and film-makers of this period, not to mention scientists (Einstein and Freud) and revolutionary thinkers (Marx and Wittgenstein).
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Gustav Mahler is the most thought-provoking composer of the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg the bedrock of post-tonal modernism, Franz Kafka the chronicler of anxiety and Marcel Proust the most effective archaeologist of memory outside of Freud.
It was also Jews who founded two of the major record empires - Columbia and RCA - and Jewish artists, like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, who paved the way for modern pop music by fusing the minor keys of synagogue tunes with the African-American blues of the Deep South.
Gershwin, who wrote the first opera about African-Americans, called his mode of composition "freygish" - a Yiddish word for asking a Talmudic question.
The aria Summertime that opens Porgy and Bess is an inversion of a Sabbath-morning synagogue trope.
As a lifelong Talmud scholar myself, I had a theory.
Might the disputational style of the Talmud, a collection of Rabbinic argumentation that has been at the heart of Jewish life for 1500 years, have produced an iconoclasm specific to Jews?
Could this mode of thinking, magnified by centuries of ghetto separation, have led Jews to ask different kinds of questions?
Sam Goldwyn, one of the makers of Hollywood, was a fount of contradictory aphorisms that are Talmudic in their mischievous profundity - "any man who goes to a psychiatrist needs to have his head examined".
Casablanca, Hollywood's most enduring movie, has no connection with a real-world Moroccan city of shishas and kebabs.
It is a surreal reimagining of a Budapest Jewish café by Michael Curtiz, a Budapest Jewish director.
The question of language is critical.
The poet Heinrich Heine, Mendelssohn's contemporary, liberated German from Goethe's formal corsets, allowing poetry to flow like latter-day rap songs.
Anyone with 50 words of German can read Heine with pleasure because Heine speaks German as a second language; his first was Hebrew/Yiddish.
It was Heine who taught Karl Marx to convert abstruse Hegelian philosophy into incendiary slogans.
Marcel Proust turned French narrative from linear to discursive, adding a particular timbre that some consider Jewish.
"Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure", the simple yet untranslatable opening of his magnum opus, conveys at once a boyhood memory of being put early to bed and an inconsolable yearning for lost time, lost temples.
It is no coincidence that the Dubliner James Joyce, inspired by a Trieste Jewish teacher, Italo Svevo, made Leopold Bloom a Jew, because an outsider is free to use English more fluidly and with less inhibition than a Sunday-school Irishman.
Ulysses, said Joyce in a rare explanation, "is the epic of two races (Israel-Ireland)".
A British Museum curator, Emanuel Deutsch, so overwhelms George Eliot with his knowledge of near-eastern cultures that she writes the story of Daniel Deronda, itself the chief inspiration in Hebrew and Yiddish translation for modern political Zionism.
Mahler fills his symphonies with Jewish irony.
Leonard Bernstein, in his first symphony, cites from his bar mitzvah reading with what can only be described as sheer chutzpah.
These are just some of the ways that Jews subverted the spoken and lyrical arts (visual art is less affected, possibly due to the Mosaic taboo on graven images).
The impact was not always obvious or impelled by one mind.
In Paris, thanks to the critics' disapproval, the non-Jewish composer Georges Bizet suffered a first-night flop of historic dimensions with Carmen in March 1875.
Carmen became the most bankable opera of all time in part, I discovered, because its heroine is not a gypsy but an uncontrollable Jewish woman based on Bizet's volatile wife, Geneviève Halévy, who eventually becomes a role model for Proust.
The actress Sarah Bernhardt, daughter of a Jewish prostitute, made herself by fastidious calculation the most famous person since Napoleon.
When the Germans besieged the city in 1870, Bernhardt commandeered a theatre and ran it as a military hospital.
No sooner was normal service restored than she bedded the doyen Victor Hugo and resexualised Alexandre Dumas's Lady of the Camellias, terrifying audiences with the frankness and humanity of her character.
Her Judaism was at the root of her celebrity.
In an era of virulent anti-Semitism in France, Bernhardt sought fame to protect herself from prejudice.
Newspapers were told that she slept in a coffin and kept wild animals in her rooms.
Her lovers included a prominent banker and a robber baron at the same time.
DH Lawrence said: "She represents the primeval passions of woman... I could love her to madness."
Bernhardt redefined fame. She created a cult of celebrity to protect herself as a single woman and a Jew.
During the Dreyfus Affair, when a Jewish army officer was falsely convicted as a German spy, she told Le Figaro: "I am a daughter of the great Jewish race."
Told that she did not look Jewish, she retorted: "What does Jewish look like?"
More than anyone, she changed how the world viewed Jews, and created a template for every female icon since - Marilyn Monroe, Evita, Madonna, Princess Diana - "so famous you can't touch me".
If Jewish genius was released by opening the ghettos, anxiety was its constant engine.
Every person in my history is haunted by fear of the next persecution, forced to think twice as fast.
Felix Mendelssohn, whose wedding march has joined countless Anglican couples, died at 38 of a stroke brought on by workaholic anxiety, an inescapable Jewishness that gives him no rest.
Genius and Anxiety by Norman Lebrecht is published this week.