Randy Rosenthal is co-founding editor of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. He studies religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School.
Before Gershom Scholem published “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” in 1941, Kabbalah had been either ignored or forgotten by 20th-century Jews. The orthodox and the secular alike were uncomfortable with Kabbalah’s gnostic mythology, embarrassed by its strange books teeming with demons, magic and sex. The less known about it the better. But Scholem thought differently. To him, Kabbalah was the vibrant lost soul of a religion that modernity had made stale.
For many, Scholem’s writings became Judaism. That is, his commentary on scripture has become incorporated into the canon of Jewish mysticism. In her review of “Major Trends,” Scholem’s friend turned adversary Hannah Arendt wrote that his work changed “the whole picture of Jewish history.” Harold Bloom considered Scholem “not less than a prophet,” declaring that for many contemporary Jewish intellectuals, “the Kabbalah of Gershom Scholem is now more normative than normative Judaism itself.” And yet many people haven’t heard of him. George Prochnik aims to change this with his book “Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem.”
Prochnik is the author of several books, most recently “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,” which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2014. In “Stranger in a Strange Land,” he again mixes biography and memoir, digging deep into Scholem’s life and work while telling the story of his own relationship with Judaism and Jerusalem, the adopted city of both author and subject.
It was Scholem’s books that persuaded Prochnik to fully convert to Judaism — his mother wasn’t Jewish — and move to Israel with his new wife when he was in his mid-20s. Prochnik had discovered Scholem through the essays of Walter Benjamin, and much of “Stranger in a Strange Land” deals with the intense friendship between Scholem and Benjamin. Both were born into affluent, secular Jewish German families in fin de siécle Berlin and participated in the city’s Jewish Youth Movement, where debates raged about socialism, anarchism, Zionism, cubism and the rejection of bourgeois assimilation.
Benjamin came to identify more and more as Marxist, yet Scholem steered away from politics and learned Hebrew so he could study ancient Jewish texts in their original language. At age 19 he wrote: “Torah is not a law, just as Judaism is not a religion. Torah is the transmission of God and divine things.” Soon after World War I, Scholem moved to Jerusalem and took up residence in what is now West Jerusalem’s orthodox neighborhood of Rehavia. There he changed his name from Gerhard to Gershom, the name Moses gave his first son after escaping from Egypt.
In Jerusalem, Scholem immersed himself in Jewish literature. He eventually collected so many volumes that Bloom later said he’d never seen anything like it — “shelves ran along the ceilings as well as the walls,” he recalled. As Scholem buried himself in Hebrew scholarship, fascism overwhelmed Europe and the Balfour Declaration created havoc in Palestine. As Jewish refugees flooded the Holy Land, Zionism mutated from a romantic ideal to a necessity of survival.
Living amid the brutal riots that broke out between Arabs and Jews in August 1929 and continued to erupt throughout the 1930s, Scholem, who by then was an esteemed professor at Hebrew University, refused to put his scholarly knowledge at the service of the Zionist political mission, even though he was an early and committed Zionist. For such ambivalence, he was attacked in the press. And just as his work straddled the line between philosophy and history, his books ultimately became popular after the war for being both scholarly and literary, his tone as playful as it is metaphysical. Besides Benjamin, his biggest influence was Kafka.
Scholem, who died in 1982, called Jewish mysticism the “Open Sesame of religion,” and Pronchnik, too, uses a colorful style. He writes that as teenagers, Benjamin and Scholem “traded radical magazines the way people now exchange playlists” and that the mystic’s journey is “a multiplayer quest game. Instead of Dungeons and Dragons, Palaces and Demons.” Kabbalah is pretty abstruse, and Prochnik deftly condenses Scholem’s Jewish mythology.
But it’s the way Prochnik weaves memoir through this intellectual biography that shows how thoroughly the author’s own life has twined with Scholem’s ideas. Just as a mystic ascends from one palace to the next in Kabbalah cosmology, Scholem’s life and work have led Prochnik from phase to phase of his own.
By George Prochnik. Other. 522 pp. $27.95