The Phenomenon of Jewish Success

by Morton Gould

How is it that such a small percentage of the population has contributed so many accomplishments to the world?  Jews currently comprise far less than one percent of the world’s population (0.2 percent to be specific), and yet their achievements across the fields of medicine, science, entertainment, music, and other arenas are stunning.

Which raises the question:  Why have Jews been so successful, despite the persistent oppression that has dogged them through millennia?  The answer to their success  is complex, but, basically, Jews have succeeded through the ages because of their cultural and religious foundations.  During ancient and medieval times, the vast majority of the populations were illiterate.  However, Jewish culture and religion emphasized knowledge, learning, and social bonds--fundamentals that have fortified them through the ages despite the many episodes of hatred they have faced.

So much of what Jews have achieved has been sculpted by the way their persecutors chose to limit them.  Early on, Jews were not allowed to own land.  Stripped of any potential to pursue farming, Jews rarely became farmers. Although they were given permission to have jobs, they were only allowed jobs in a limited number of trades and professions, such as dealing in clothes and rags, lending money with interest, or practicing medicine or law. It should, therefore, not be a surprise to anyone that Jews worked in and developed expertise in those areas.

That being said, it would serve us well to contemplate what our world would lack were it not for the copious contributions by Jews.  Let’s start with medicine.

Achievements in Medicine

The act of healing is rooted in Jewish faith.  Religious commandments that emphasize the preservation of life and health go back thousands of years.  In fact, of the 613 Jewish commandments in Judaism, 213 of them are of a medical nature.  They emphasize concepts of healing—saving a life is paramount to Jews when not engaged in self defense.  Jesus, the great Jewish rabbi and healer, believed God heals, and he practiced what he believed.    By 1500 A.D., nearly half of the doctors in Europe were Jewish.  At least 10 popes had Jewish doctors, as did the sultan Saladin of Egypt, Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire, Catherine the Great, and—for a further touch of irony—Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, who expelled the Jews.

Some of the great medical discoveries and inventions by Jews include:

  • Eradication of polio with vaccines (Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin )
  • Cracking the genetic code, leading to unbridled promise for treating a wide variety of diseases now and in the future (Paul Berg)
  • Development of chemotherapy (Paul Ehrlich)
  • Medications for Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis (Moussa Youdim/Ruth Arnon/Michael Sela/Deborah Teitelbaum)
  • Discovery of vitamins (Casimir Funk)
  • Pharmaceutical use of penicillin (Waldemar Haffkine)
  • Vaccines for cholera, the bubonic plague, and hepatitis (Waldemar Haffkine/Irving Millman/Baruch Blumberg)
  • Cataract surgery (Charles Kelman)
  • Artificial heart valves, pacemakers, and defibrillators (Paul Zoll/Bernard Lown/Albert Starr)
  • Pioneering work in AIDS research (Michael Gottlieb)
  • Fiber optic endoscopy (Basil Hirschowitz)
  • The Heimlich Maneuver (Henry Heimlich)
  • Birth control pills (Gregory Pincus)
  • Alzheimer’s Disease (Alois Alzheimer)
  • Jewish contributions to public health include developing nursing organizations around the world; building hospitals, such as Mount Sinai;  Doctors Without Borders (Bernard Kouchner); and frontiers in mental health (Freud, Adler, Maslow, and Erickson to name a few).  Most recently, the scientific acumen of Drew Weissman created the mRNA genetic platform, which is the basis for the rapid development of modern vaccines that promptly respond to the ever-changing threat of coronaviruses.  It is also worth noting that Jews have headed up or been the Chief Medical Officer of major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer (Albert Bourla); Moderna (Dr. Tal Zaks); and Johnson and Johnson (Dr. Joanne Waldstreicher).

These are only some of the contributions in medicine that the world may not have benefited from had it not been for Jewish pioneers.

Achievements in Science, Technology and Inventions

Despite comprising less than one percent of the total population, Jews have somehow garnered 22 percent of all Nobel awards between 1901 and 2023.  Their achievements in science are far too numerous to list in their entirety.  Certainly Einstein’s and Bohr’s contributions are legendary, but here are other highlights of Jewish contributions to the world of science and innovation.

  • Google (Sergey Brin/Larry Page)
  • The internet (Paul Baran)
  • First TV (Boris Rosing)
  • Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg)
  • Birth control pills (Gregory Pincus)
  • Quantum mechanics (Max Born/Gustav Hertz)
  • Remote controls (Robert Adler)
  • USB flash drive (Dov Moran)
  • Counters for X-rays and gamma rays (Robert Hofstadter)
  • Bar codes and lasers (Norman Woodland/Bernard Silver/Theodore Maiman)
  • Mobile phones, pagers, and camera phones (Phillipe Kahn/Amos Joel Jr. /Martin Cooper)
  • Telegraph (Samuel Morse)
  • Frequency spread spectrum communications, which saved lives during wars and formed the basis for Wifi, GPS, and Bluetooth communications (Hedy Lamarr)
  • Stainless steel (Hans Goldschmid and others)
  • Sewing machine ( Isaac Singer)
  • Levi Jeans (Levi Strauss)
  • Walkie Talkies (Alfred Gross)
  • Ball point pen (Laslo Biro)
  • Word processing computers (Evelyn Berezin)
  • Nuclear power  (Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller)
  • First nuclear submarine (Hyman Rickover)
  • Drip irrigation system (Simca Blass in Israel)
  • The bra (Ida Rosenthal)
  • Not to mention aspirin (Arthur Eichengrun); the teddy bear (Morris and Rose Michton); Barbie (Ruth Handler); and Mr. Potato Head (George Lerner)

Jews in Entertainment

For centuries in Europe and America, Jews were shut out from most avenues to wealth.  As a result, European Jews seeking upward mobility turned to urban occupations like the trades, lending money with interest (a practice often forbidden to Christians), and the emerging profession of law. 

During its infancy, the entertainment business was considered indecent and not suitable for respectable Christians.  That left theatrical entertainment wide open as an opportunity for Jews.  But since elite theaters refused to employ Jews, they drifted to--and became dominant in--vaudeville. In time, Jews gradually moved from vaudeville to the fledgling movie industry.  It was a natural evolution.  Antisemitic oppressors again acted as unwitting sculptors to what Jews ultimately became. Another clear illustration of cause and effect. 

Because they were shut out from existing studios, Jews had to build their own movie studios. So, Jewish immigrants proceeded to build what quickly became the six major film companies of Hollywood: Fox, MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, and Loew’s.

The rise of Jewish movie moguls created opportunities for many Jewish entertainers and performers. The roll call of entertainers with Jewish heritage is extensive.  Here, in no particular order, is a short list:

Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas; Barbara Streisand; Paul Newman; Steven Spielberg; Danny Kaye; Al Jolson; Eddy Cantor; Sarah Bernhardt; Jerry Lewis; Sid Caesar; Jack Benny; Jerry Seinfeld; Milton Berle; Ed Asner; Natalie Portman; Gal Gadot; Walter Matthau; Mike Nichols; the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan); Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner; Billy Crystal; Zac Efron; Joel Gray; Lisa Kudrow; Joan Collins; Harvey Keitel; Debra Messing: Sean Penn; David Schwimmer; Sasha Baron Cohen; Jon Stewart; Edward G. Robinson; Goldie Hawn; Harrison Ford; Carrie Fisher; Hedy Lamarr; Tony Curtis; Alan Arkin; Henry Winkler; Lauren Bacall; William Shatner; Leonard Nimoy; Marcel Marceau (pantomime); Richard Dreyfuss; Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal; Jeff Goldblum; Paul (Peewee Herman) Reubens; Peter Lorre; Dustin Hoffman; Rachel Weisz; Woody Allen; Piper Laurie; Liev Schreiber; Mel Brooks; The Marx Brothers; The Three Stooges; Dinah Shore; Fanny Brice; Sophie Tucker; Yves Montand; George Burns and Gracie Allen.  The list goes on—not to mention converts like Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr., and Elizabeth Banks.

Successful Jewish movie directors include names such as Billy Wilder; Stanley Kubrick; Otto Preminger; Judd Apatow; Barry Levinson; Oliver Stone; Sydney Pollack; Peter Bogdanovich; Jerry Zucker; Harold Ramis; and Norman Lear, to mention a few.

Jews in Music

African-American music rose from deep within the heart and soul of the Black culture.  But it was Jewish entrepreneurship that recognized its importance and gave it voice for a national presence.  Jewish music studios promoted rhythm and blues to wider audiences, facilitating a genre that fulfilled the success it so richly deserved.  Songwriter and publishing executive Arnold Shaw wrote that during the 1940s in the United States, there was little opportunity for Jews in mass communications, but the music business was "...wide open for Jews and Blacks, so Jews played a key role in developing and promoting the sounds of Black music.”  Jewish entrepreneurs started scores of independent record companies between 1940 and 1960, and many of them focused on Black popular music and promoted Black talent. 

Besides the catalyst that Jews provided for African-American music, Jewish musicians have had a deep and broad impact on a large swath of American culture.  Consider the following artists:

George and Ira Gershwin; Irving Berlin; Rogers and Hammerstein; Rogers and Hart; Leonard Bernstein; Lerner and Loewe; Vladimir Horowitz; Aaron Copland; Arthur Rubenstein; Yehudi Menuhin; Jerome Kern; Stephen Sondheim; Leonard Cohen; Itzhak Perlman; Simon and Garfunkel; Joan Baez; Carole King; Billy Joel; Neil Diamond; Bette Midler; Benny Goodman; Buddy Rich; Lenny Kravitz; Julio Iglesias; Bob Dillon; Sammy Cahn; Pink; Paula Abdul; The Andrews Sisters; Mel Torme; Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme; Jack Black; Helen Reddy; Mandy Patinkin; Michael Bolton; Herb Alpert; Neil Sedaka; Harry Connick Jr.; Victor Borge;  Barry Manilow;  Joseph Pulitzer for achievements in musical composition (as well as journalism and literature); and, of course, many others.

 Final Words

It has been a long and difficult journey for Jews as they faced oppression and lies in many parts of the world.  But, through hard work, they achieved professional heights in careers and specific industries that remained open to them after being excluded from so many trades and professions.  Many would deny the Jews their success, claiming they control the industries they helped build.  This enduring claim leads to the questions:  What should they have done?  Bend to the exclusionary practices foisted upon them and pursue only mediocrity?  That is not the Jewish way.  Education, hard work, and commitment are the Jewish way.  As stated in the beginning, Jewish accomplishments far exceed their very small proportion of the population.  The world is in a far better place because of Jewish contributions in medicine, science, entertainment, music, and social justice.

The journey continues.

Resources:

Jewish Achievement Throughout History  https://www.genesisprize.org/jewish-achievement

How Jews Have Made An Impact in The Modern World  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/12/books/review/genius-and-anxiety-norman-lebrecht.html

How to Explain High Jewish Achievements https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886907003674

Antisemitism in Medieval European  https://www.britannica.com/topic/anti-Semitism/Anti-Semitism-in-medieval-Europe

Prevention: Torah Perspectives on Preserving Health  https://www.jewishveg.org/schwartz/health.html

Jews in The Medical and Life Sciences  https://www.jinfo.org/Biomedical_Research.html

Essential Items Invented by Jews https://forward.com/opinion/547927/jewish-inventions-inventors/

Antisemitism: How the Origins of History’s Oldest Hatred Still Hold Sway Today https://theconversation.com/antisemitism-how-the-origins-of-historys-oldest-hatred-still-hold-sway-today-87878

There Are Lots of Jews in Hollywood https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/jews-in-hollywood-kanye-west-dave-chappelle-rabbi-explains-1234645366/

The Great Jews And Their Inventors https://mnews.world/en/news/the-great-jews-and-their-inventions

10 Inventions by Jewish People That Changed The World https://www.christianlearning.com/jewish-inventions/ 


Morton Gould graduated with majors in journalism, biology education, and hospital administration. He worked for World Book, Encyclopedia Britannica, at house newspapers at hospitals, and as a hospital consultant. A former Chicagoan, he has been a New Mexico resident since 2006.


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