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As a child, Leopold Weiss received a thorough grounding in Hebrew religious lore. At his father’s insistence, he spent long hours poring over the sacred scriptures, and by the age of thirteen he could read and speak Hebrew with great fluency. He studied the Old Testament – the Mishna and Gemara – in its original form and became knowledgeable with the text and commentaries of the Talmud. He then immersed himself in the intricacies of Biblical exegesis, called Targum, just as if he had been destined for a rabbinical career.
The dream of his grandfather, an orthodox rabbi from a long line of orthodox rabbis, was to have one of his descendants join the rabbinical tradition. However, this dream would not be fulfilled in Leopold Weiss, for in spite of all his budding religious wisdom – or maybe because of it – he soon developed a supercilious feeling towards many of the premises of the Jewish faith. It seemed strange to him that God would be preoccupied with the destinies of one particular nation, the Hebrews, which tended to make God appear not as the creator and sustainer of all mankind, but rather as a tribal deity adjusting all creation to the requirements of a ‘chosen people’.
His disappointment with the Jewish faith did not lead him at that time to search for spiritual truths elsewhere. Under the influence of an agnostic environment, he drifted, like so many boys of his age, into a dispassionate rejection of all institutional religion. What he was looking forward to was not much different from the expectations of most other boys: action, adventure, excitement.
During this period in his life, World War One broke out. After the war came to an end, Leopold Weiss spent about two years studying, in a somewhat desultory fashion, the history of art and philosophy at the University of Vienna. However his heart was not in those studies. He felt a yearning to come into more intimate grips with life. He wanted to find by himself an approach to the spiritual order of things which he knew must exist but which he could not yet discern.
The opening decades of the twentieth century stood in the sign of a spiritual vacuum. All of Europe’s ethical valuations had become amorphous under the terrible impact of what had happened during World War One, and no new set of values was anywhere in sight. A feeling of brittleness and insecurity was in the air – a presentiment of social and intellectual upheavals that made one doubt whether there could ever again be any permanency in man’s thoughts and endeavors. Everything seemed to be flowing in a formless flood, and the spiritual restlessness of youth could nowhere find a foothold. In the absence of any reliable standards of morality, nobody could give the young people satisfactory answers to the many questions that perplexed them.
The conclusions of psychoanalysis, to which Leopold Weiss was introduced in those days of youthful perplexity, was at that time an intellectual revolution of the first magnitude. One felt in one’s bones that this flinging-open of new, hitherto barred doors of cognition was bound to affect deeply – and perhaps change entirely – man’s thinking about himself. The discovery of the role which unconscious urges play in the formation of the human personality opened avenues to a more penetrating self-understanding. Many were the evenings that Leopold spent in Vienna’s cafés listening to exciting discussions between some of the early pioneers of psychoanalysis, such as Alfred Adler, Hermann Steckl and Otto Gross.
Leopold was, however, disturbed by the intellectual arrogance of the new science which tried to reduce all mysteries of man’s self to a series of neurogenetic reactions.
His restlessness grew and made it increasingly difficult for him to pursue his university studies. At last he decided to give them up for good and to try his hand at journalism.
His first chance at success in this new field was with the news agency United Telegraph where he landed a job as a telephonist and soon thereafter became a reporter. Owing to his knowledge of languages, he quickly rose to the position of sub-editor in charge of the news service for the Scandinavian press. He was only twenty-two years old. Work at the United Telegraph seemed to open for him many avenues into the broader world. The Café des Wetens and the Romanisches Café – meeting places of the most outstanding writers, artists, journalists, actors, and producers of the day – represented something like an intellectual home to him. He stood on friendly and sometimes even familiar terms with many of them.
He was happy enough in his professional success, but deeply dissatisfied, not knowing what he was really after. He was like many young people of his generation, for while none of them was really unhappy, only a very few seemed to be consciously happy.