In search of a Jewish self


George Prochnik’s “Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem” (New York: Other Press, 2016) is a difficult book to categorize: part biography, part autobiography, part intellectual history. For me, the book’s mixed genre is part of its considerable charm.

As the subtitle suggests, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is a biography of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), one of the most acclaimed Jewish scholars of the 20th century, who almost single-handedly pioneered the academic study of Jewish mysticism. His numerous works include “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” (Schocken, 1946), “On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism” (Schocken,1965), “The Messianic Idea in Judaism” (Schocken, 1971), and the monumental “Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah” (Princeton University Press, 1973).

While I have pondered many of Scholem’s writings, I knew almost nothing about his life until reading Prochnik, who portrays Scholem’s adult life and thought as a rebellion against his upbringing in a deeply assimilated Jewish neighborhood in Berlin. It would seem that Scholem despised his bourgeois parents. As he moved into his young adult years, he became a dedicated Zionist and considered Theodore Herzl one of his heroes. An overt sign of his mother’s insensitivity to Scholem’s anti-assimilationist world view was her choosing to place a portrait of Herzl among the wrapped gifts under the family’s Christmas tree.

Scholem’s response to his family’s extreme assimilation was to move to Palestine in 1923; for Scholem, Zionism was “the destruction of the reality of Exile.” 

In Palestine – Israel, after May 14, 1948 – he established himself as the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, based at Hebrew University, which officially opened on April 1, 1925. Politically, he became known as an outspoken critic of the more reactionary forms of Zionism; he joined Brit Shalom, a small group, founded in 1925, that was devoted to the pursuit of peaceful Jewish-Arab coexistence. 

Another of the many strands of Prochnik’s biography of Scholem concerns his friendship with the German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a mutually enriching relationship that began in  1915 and continued, with many ups and downs, until Benjamin’s suicide. While a number of writers have explored the intellectual complexities of their written and in-person exchanges, Prochnik adds telling detail to the ebb and flow of their emotional intimacy, their profound connection and their equally profound disillusionment with each other over time.

At times, Prochnik’s biography of Scholem morphs into his own autobiography. Early in the book, Prochnik confesses that he, who had converted to Judaism in his mid-20s, went to Jerusalem with his Jewish wife, Anne, “in search of a guide to religious anarchy.”  Prochnik was hoping that Scholem, who had defined himself as a “religious anarchist,” would be such a guide. While in Jerusalem during much of the ’90s, Pruchnik read widely and deeply of Scholem’s works.

During their years in Jerusalem, the Prochniks became the parents of four sons. Despite financial worries and Prochnik’s mounting frustration in pursuit of a doctorate at Hebrew University, the couple seemed to be taking on the identity of Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israeli citizens – true Jerusalemites, in particular. As Prochnik comments, “We sought to receive our Jewishness in Jerusalem in selective osmosis.”

Despite their plans, the Prochnik family returned to the United States as the decade drew to a close.  It turns out that George and Anne wanted different things from Jerusalem, different things from Judaism, and different things from each other.  They were soon divorced.

While I have been wrestling with the thought of Gershom Scholem for several decades, Prochnik’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”  has come to me as a revelation: He has demonstrated how the facts of Scholem’s life, especially his childhood in an assimilationist home, laid the foundation for his “religious anarchy” – his understanding of the mystical elements of Judaism as the resurgence of emotionally powerful myth within the heart of a rabbinical Judaism that had grown stale and rigid. One might well wonder how Scholem would have approached the major trends of Jewish mysticism had he grown up in a traditional Jewish home in Eastern Europe.                 

After Scholem’s death in 1982, his second wife, Fanya, is quoted as saying, “Everything that he did in his life in Israel derived from a search for himself.” Whether he ever found the self that he was seeking is a question that can never be answered.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.