Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem

Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem

by George Prochnik


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Taking his lead from his subject, Gershom Scholem—the 20th century thinker who cracked open Jewish theology and history with a radical reading of Kabbalah—Prochnik combines biography and memoir to counter our contemporary political crisis with an original and urgent reimagining of the future of Israel.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Prochnik revisits the life and work of Gershom Scholem, whose once prominent reputation, as a Freud-like interpreter of the inner world of the Cosmos, has been in eclipse in the United States. He vividly conjures Scholem’s upbringing in Berlin, and compellingly brings to life Scholem’s transformative friendship with Walter Benjamin, the critic and philosopher. In doing so, he reveals how Scholem’s frustration with the bourgeois ideology of Germany during the First World War led him to discover Judaism, Kabbalah, and finally Zionism, as potent counter-forces to Europe’s suicidal nationalism.
Prochnik’s own years in the Holy Land in the 1990s brings him to question the stereotypical intellectual and theological constructs of Jerusalem, and to rediscover the city as a physical place, rife with the unruliness and fecundity of nature. Prochnik ultimately suggests that a new form of ecological pluralism must now inherit the historically energizing role once played by Kabbalah and Zionism in Jewish thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590517765
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 03/21/2017
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 759,827
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

George Prochnik’s most recent book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, received the National Jewish Book Award for Biography/Memoir in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize in the UK. Prochnik is also the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (2010), and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology (2006). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bookforum and the LA Review of Books, and is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine. 

Read an Excerpt

Stranger in a Strange Land

Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem

By George Prochnik

Other Press LLC

Copyright © 2016 George Prochnik
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59051-777-2


1915 RADICALIZED EVERYTHING. In one year, Gerhard Scholem sealed his passion for Zionism, discovered the Kabbalah, got thrown out of high school, met Walter Benjamin, and tried to kiss his first crush. For a time, he also thought he was the Messiah.

That winter, he spent whole days in his room in his parents' apartment at Neue Grünstrasse 26, opposite the garden of St. Peter's Parish, watching the snow fall in mad swirls. "Earth is a snowflake's destiny," he wrote in his journal. "For snow, fate is an unknown, inexplicable, and 'terrestrial' power." He could apply this principle to humans as well, he realized: "We also put up resistance when we plunge into an unexpected abyss, and we also melt. We are snowflakes with a bit more distinction."

Ideas were exploding inside him. He read like a maniac. For months on end he strove to acquire what he described as a total perspective on every variety of poetic longing. He wrote unremarkable verse and brought out an underground newspaper titled Blue- White Spectacles, whose purpose was to examine the world through the lenses of Zionism. And he felt bitter disappointment at almost everyone around him. Everything about his stuffy, small-minded family circle — exemplars of the Jewish middle class — nauseated him. The old men who glared disapprovingly at him as a nebbish were the stereotypical provincials who'd come to Berlin as pants salesmen and ended up wealthy manufacturers of bathtubs and sausage skins. Later, he wrote his friend Werner Kraft that the definition of the word "bourgeois" was simply "all things abominable." His father Arthur's canny management of their print shop didn't translate into a shred of wisdom about anything vital to the human spirit. What could you say about someone who spent his free time grandstanding in professional associations and immersing himself in minutiae of health insurance plans for the graphic arts trade? Yes, after war was declared, he'd had the shrewd realization that Germany's bureaucratic apparatus would swell beyond measure. He promptly established a Forms Division in the shop, which flourished. The family would probably sail through this revolting bloodbath — a "petty-bourgeois war ... draped with the mask of a holy war," Gerhard said — and come out on top.

But the man's only higher value was eager conformity to everything German. He was an extremely advanced assimilationist, no question. Arthur worked on Yom Kippur, and fasting was out of the question. The sole reason he might have gone to the Grosse Synagogue on the Jews' holiest day would have been to savor the moment when, upon stepping out midmorning with the other worshippers, he'd hear the cheeky headwaiter at the restaurant next door announce, "The gentlemen who are fasting will be served in the back room."

Christmas was observed as a national holiday, with roast goose, a decorated tree, lots of presents, and a recital of "Silent Night" by a piano-playing aunt who merely pretended to be catering to the gentile cook and servant girl. Arthur strictly forbade the use of any Jewish idiomatic expressions at home — a proscription Gerhard's irrepressible mother, Betty, flouted at every opportunity. "Hat sich die Kose bemeikelt!" she would say. So the goat shits on itself! (In other words, "What else is new?") His mother brought that phrase to Berlin straight from her ancestral roots in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

Betty was the flash of light in their home — sharp-witted and willowy, literary and beautiful. (Whereas his father was stocky and myopic, with a droopy mustache and a cannonball head.) Gerhard had inherited Betty's long countenance, sad eyes, and arched brows. Her letters were masterful. She could compose poems and plays for family events in a trice. And she read everything from Schiller to Stefan Zweig's quite impressive translations of Belgian poetry. Gerhard's tenderest memories were of the intimate hours he spent with her. After the noonday meal, she would stretch out on the elegant chaise longue in her bedroom and Gerhard would swaddle her in a voluminous camel blanket. He continued the ritual until his twentieth year, in 1917, when he left home for good. But he kept that blanket all his life. Once he'd wrapped his mother in, he would be permitted to pinch a bar or two of fine Swiss chocolate from a special drawer and then unburden himself of deep grievances beside her.

His father was a reactionary drudge and a hypocrite. When he lit his cigar on the Sabbath candle while intoning the mock blessing "Br'ei pri tobacco" — blessed is the fruit of tobacco — Gerhard wanted to howl. Arthur would rise from the dinner table once or twice a year and deliver a thundering speech about the holy wonder of the Jews' mission on earth: "We brought monotheism to the world! We introduced to humanity a purely rational morality!" ("Reason is a stupid man's longing," Gerhard wrote in his journal. "These people think that in the messianic age everything will be rational. God forbid!") And then — the pièce de résistance of his father's sermon — "Baptism is an unprincipled and servile act!" A line likely as not to be followed by some after-dinner tirade against Jewish backwardness.

Even as a child, he'd been aware that the bad faith of it all stank to high heaven. It was no wonder that he had grabbed every opportunity to escape the house. Once roller skates hit Berlin, Gerhard took off. Only about half the city was paved, but he skated every bit of it — streaking fearlessly between carriages, streetcars, and automobiles, not to mention the bicycles, which Joseph Roth described flying all directions through the streets of Berlin "like arrows shot from a bow." Every intersection was a pedestrian nightmare, Roth observed. "One man stopped, another sprinted, arms across his chest, cradling his life." Then came "the wailing hoot from a policeman's cornet" commanding a rapid march amid "a whole assembly of trams, cars crushing one another's rib cages, a flickering of colors, a noisy, parping, surging color, red and yellow and violet yells" beneath a sky wildly crosshatched with electric wires.

When he wasn't on roller skates, he'd played pickup games of marbles with other freewheeling boys in Märkischer Park, then wandered down to the banks of the Spree and watched the long-distance trains roll by, intoxicated by the names on the individual cars that spelled out exotic-sounding destinations — Hoek van Holland, Eydtkuhnen, and Oswiecim, the latter a border station that would become well known as Auschwitz. Or he'd dash off to explore the latest chalk graffiti on the fences of nearby storage lots: "Gustav ist doof!" (Gustav is a dufus!) He liked the rude vigor of the pure Berlin dialect he found there, just as he reveled in his mother's ungroomed Jewish idioms. The raw and primordial always enchanted him.

By his early teens, Gerhard was taking flight from his surroundings inside Berlin's new movie theaters. These Flimmerkisten (flicker boxes) were often built to suggest palace temples, sometimes in the Moorish style. The Orient peeked through the hurly-burly of Berlin in the form of painted backgrounds at the carousel and in the Orientalist Art Nouveau that was inspiring the work of some avant-garde Jewish writers and artists. Entire sections of Berlin's Jewish Quarter — especially the more economically lackadaisical and lyrically pious streets — evoked the Orient. The Eastern European Jews who populated these places, with their shabby robes, curlicue sidelocks, and velvet caps, their melancholy, elevated gazes and aura of antique wisdom, were all the more beguiling to Gerhard and his peers because their parents found them repellant. Martin Buber's hugely popular anthologies of Hasidic tales stoked the cult appeal of Eastern Jews for the bourgeois offspring of assimilated families, serving as a gateway fantasy to the Levant.

Buber lectured frequently, with a charismatic radiance that mesmerized his listeners. In 1912, he gave a speech titled "The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism," which identified the contemporary Jew as an Oriental, along with the Indian and Chinese. Where the Occidental saw only the world's fixed, objective multiplicity, the Oriental was able to perceive limitless motion. To the Oriental, in Buber's vision, everything was processes and relationships, mutuality and community, action and decision, against the atomized, petrified Western man of the senses. And everything Buber attributed to the Oriental at large, he said, was especially true of the Jew. "We need only look at the decadent yet still wondrous Hasid of our days; to watch him as he prays to his God, shaken by his fervor, expressing with his whole body what his lips are saying — a sight both grotesque and sublime; to observe him at the close of the Sabbath as he partakes, with kingly gestures in concentrated dedication, of the sacred meal to which cling the mysteries of the world's redemption, and we will feel: here, stunted and distorted yet unmistakable, is Asiatic strength and Asiatic inwardness."

Buber's talk reads now as perplexing, bombastic, and racially outrageous, even when laudatory. But with this paean, along with other addresses on Judaism he delivered at the time, he stirred the passions of a generation. Buber held that Judaism, as a religious system in the Oriental spirit, activated inner experiences that transcended the fractional character of sensory data, thereby unifying the self, uniting the self with world, and — at the most elevated level — merging the self with the Absolute. This idea resonated, especially at a time when human experience in general and urban Jewish experience in particular appeared ever more disjunctive. Summing up the magnetism of Buber's ideas in his youth, Scholem wrote that he "diagnosed and combated the 'illness, distortion, and tyranny' of a disfigured Judaism in exile." Early on, Buber coined the phrase, "Not the forms but the forces." He never tired of repeating it, and this romantic, revolutionary disdain for Jewish Law, coupled with the vision of visceral faith he embodied, held electric charm for the young — partly through the challenge it posed to the authority of age.

Buber's project was not intended simply as a thought experiment. Rather, he averred that having gone through heaven and hell in the Occident, the Jew with his ineradicable drive to total unity — the now dormant but unbroken Jewish spiritual prowess — could be reawakened only in Palestine. Once that strength "comes into contact with the maternal soil it will once more become creative," Buber promised. It was as if, in the hippie era, all those Westerners who sought Indian gurus had been told by some formidable spiritual guide that not only were they going to encounter fonts of unimpeachable wisdom in the East, they were of the same blood tribe as those sages: They were returning home when they entered the ashram. Buber made his devotees feel the Other throbbing inside their own skin.

For Scholem, the allure of the Orient as the axis of what might be called magical authenticity — the antipode to his father's bourgeois Berlin — took hold early on. "You are Orientals and not Europeans," he wrote in his diary toward the end of 1914. "You are Jews and humans, not Germans and degenerates, and your God is named Ha-Shem [the Name] and not the belly." This faith soon crystallized into a battle cry. The future belonged to the Orient, and revolution would be his guiding principle. "Revolution everywhere!" Gerhard demanded some weeks later. Above all, "we want to revolutionize Judaism," he added. "We want to revolutionize Zionism and to preach anarchism and freedom from all authority." Whereas the old adage warned that if you bashed your head against a wall, your head would split, he and his spiritual compatriots believed it was imperative to smash against the wall — and the wall, not their skulls, would crack open. This was the credo of their Zionism. Through the spiritual dynamism of Martin Buber's personality Gerhard had come to understand "the deep streams of inner connection that bring us together with other creative peoples of the Orient. And where others have seen only death and decay, he has seen life and rebirth; where others saw graves, he has seen resurrection."

Reading Scholem's words about the opposing visions of death and resurrection, I find my thoughts shadowed by two memories connected with my own would-be immigration to Jerusalem. One involves the closest thing to a mystical experience I've ever had. Just before moving to Israel, I traveled to Boston to see friends, and while there I became seized by conviction that I needed to visit the graves of my paternal, Viennese grandparents, which I had not done since childhood. I knew, in some way that went beyond what I could then articulate, that it was for my grandparents and their own aborted line of European history that I was now preparing to transplant myself to Jerusalem. I drove there in a hard downpour, late in the day, despite my father's warnings that I would never be able to find their burial place. Upon arriving, I stepped out of the car into the vast, poorly signposted cemetery, and right before me, on the grass between the stones stood a large fox, the color of fire. The fox began to move across the dark path and underbrush. I followed it. Faster and faster. We moved between the graves, through what seemed an endless sea of granite and marble; then suddenly the animal switched course and disappeared into bushes beyond the trail, and I was alone. I found myself standing directly before three black stones — the graves of my grandfather, Jonas; my grandmother, Edith; and my father's brother, George, for whom I am named.

This happened, just so. And it seemed inconceivable to me then not to understand the experience as a kind of biblical sign, affirming the rightness of the enormous move I was about to make in my life.

The other memory is of an occasion almost exactly nine months before this visit to my grandparents' graves, on the first trip I ever made to Israel. After having obsessively read Scholem's works, I flew to Jerusalem with my wife, Anne — partly on a whim, partly to see the place at the center of so many mystical yearnings. Our first attempt to enter the walled Old City was repulsed. In our rental car, we kept trying to find a gate, but the roads all seemed to veer away at the last moment. Suddenly, we were shooting down into a valley, then up a narrow, steep, dusty street lined by low, blunt cement houses into what I now realize was part of Silwan, in East Jerusalem. The next thing we knew, we were bouncing across a field on a faint track, pocked with stones and holes. Ahead of us was a crowd of people. Even from a distance, the motionless assembly suggested a solemn occasion. As we drew nearer, we realized that we were barreling into a funeral ceremony. But there was nowhere to turn around. Dogs were chasing our wheels by now. I pressed the brake to reduce the dust. Barking ricocheted from all directions. People were twisting our way. We waved stupidly. Children were coming around the car, followed by a couple of young men. The entire group of mourners now seemed to be staring at us. I stopped. We sat a moment, smiling out at the onlookers. Then I threw the car into reverse, carefully backing away. It seemed an eternity before we came to the end of that field.

I still hear the dogs. I still see those eyes. And looking now at these two recollections, it seems to me that — rather than tying the experience of being led by the fox to my grandparents' graves with the specter of their European exile — I might instead have linked it with the scene in which I could not find the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem and ended up at a Palestinian funeral. If I was so given to discerning mystical signs, perhaps it was these more proximate moments that should have been placed in conjunction. What would the message have been then?

Of course, the world may be layered at every turning with esoteric signals, but we're the ones who draw the connecting lines, and these can go any direction, forward and backward in time, west to east, or the reverse. Where do we break off the lines and where do we elect to extend them? An enchanted animal leads us to some profound communion with the dead. Missing our way, we are led by ignorance into the funeral of a person from a people as unknown to us as the dead must remain. How can we weigh the respective measures of truth and responsibility trembling at the margins of these encounters?


Excerpted from Stranger in a Strange Land by George Prochnik. Copyright © 2016 George Prochnik. Excerpted by permission of Other Press LLC.
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