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New Reviews March 26, 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017 | Permalink

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When Gershom Scholem Discovered Zionism
By the time he was 20 years old, Gerhard Scholem had decided that Jewish history in Europe was finished. Biographer George Prochnik explores the “lofty, blurry agenda” of Scholem’s youthful Zionism.

Why I Wrote You Say to Brick
In writing a biography of Louis Kahn, Wendy Lesser seeks “to explain things in non-technical terms to other people like me, people who don't have a degree in architecture but still find its works and processes entrancing.”

When Gershom Scholem Discovered Kabballah
“There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted.”

How Jewish Was Louis Kahn?
No one in Louis Kahn's immigrant family knew whether his first name was supposed to be pronounced "Lewis" or "Louie". So everyone just called him Lou.

The Continuous Transformations of Judaism
Almost as soon as Gershom Scholem arrived in Palestine in 1923, his initial, largely utopian vision of what Zionism might accomplish began to darken.

Could Zionism Be Our Jewish Practice in the Modern Age?
“The problem of how to live a resonant, secular Jewish life, we thought, might be solved just by creating the life of our choice in the place where Judaism began. In retrospect, I’m stunned by the political ignorance with which we embarked on our new life in Jerusalem.”

The Biographer and the Architect
Why did he turn out to be Louis Kahn and the rest of us didn't?

For the Love of the Land
What if the deep mystical notion of Tikkun Olam today were taken as an injunction to literally “repair” or heal the earth—for the sake of the survival of the physical place?

For the Love of the Land

Friday, March 24, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism and claiming Zionism as Jewish spiritual practice. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

After leaving Jerusalem it was nearly ten years before I returned. Memories of the life I’d tried to build there were too raw and painful. But when I finally did make the journey, just to see friends, and take a few walks through my old haunts I had no real expectations. Perhaps because I had so harshly suppressed all thoughts of Jerusalem in the intervening years, the place struck me with a profound, sensual force when I returned. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the physical nature of the place was. This recognition was immediate, and didn’t at first change my thinking about the city. But for years afterward I went back and back, trying in effect to understand what it was that kept pulling me to return. I spoke with people in young progressive political movements and arts groups, Israeli and Palestinian. I visited libraries—at the Dome of the Rock as well as in West Jerusalem. I went to religious neighborhoods and services. All of it was interesting, but none of it got to the heart of my response to the place.

On each of these trips back to the land, it became my habit to take a walk in one of the parks or nature reserves around Jerusalem with an old friend who is both a naturalist and a person of the theater, a director, puppet maker, and clown. We would talk a little about the abiding problems in the country, but mostly about the land itself that we were walking through: the plants we saw, the animals, the deeper geology and visible landscape, the smells, the sounds. Gradually the recognition began to draw on me that this in fact more than anything else was what had made living in Jerusalem so powerful: the pressing imminence of an extraordinary natural world from which different religions and even historical movements had taken inspiration. Ironically, the inspiration taken from the nature of Jerusalem invariably ended up turning Jerusalem itself first into a kind of stage-set background, then into a theological or ideological abstraction. But what would it mean to take what had been background and switch that into the forefront of thinking about the city? What would it mean to take hints from Gershom Scholem’s own writing that the poetry of Walt Whitman (an unexpected, deep passion of Scholem’s), with his naturalistic pantheism, might hold clues both to a new lexicon of kabbalistic symbolism and a fresh political approach to the Land? What if the endless invocations of the Land by the mystics were taken out of the metaphorical realm and read as a guide to treating the physical place as a sacred charge? What if the deep mystical notion of tikkun olam today were taken as an injunction to literally “repair” or heal the earth—not for the sake of making the land yield a livelihood, but for the sake of the survival of the physical place?

For decades we’ve been hearing that the last moment for the two-state solution may have come and gone. At this point, it could be that this option has truly expired, and no state can survive any length of time in this place that does not fully enfranchise all its inhabitants. Perhaps the only hope at a moment when the effects of climate change have already begun playing out aggressively in the region—and the two peoples are already coexisting and sometimes even “co-resisting” in the land, if in a crazy, inequitable patchwork—is to re-frame the political debate so that the focus turns to the land as a common trust.

Scholem always maintained that Judaism has no fixed essence—that it consists of whatever Jews say it is. If Zionism was the next phase of Kabbalah, perhaps an ecological pluralism rising out of Jerusalem must became the next chapter of Zionism.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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The Biographer and the Architect

Friday, March 24, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about Louis Kahn’s Jewish identity why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Early on in my interviewing for the book that would become You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, I talked to a Philadelphia architect, David Slovic, who had been both a student and an employee of Kahn's. “Here’s what I want to know,” Slovic mused toward the end of our conversation. “We all went to the same schools. We all had the same training. Why did he turn out to be Louis Kahn and the rest of us didn't?"”

“That's what I'm hoping to answer in my book,” I said.

But when you write a biography of an artist—any artist—the effort to find the sources of their inspiration or the key to their work is only part of what you are doing. You are also trying to understand a human being as a fellow human, though in ways that are utterly different from what you might apply to the people around you. I know both more and less about “Lou” than I will ever know about my best friend, my husband, or my own child. I never met Kahn, but I would recognize his voice, his handwriting, perhaps even his style of sketching or his way of putting words together. I probably know more about his fears and dreams and desires than I know about my own; I certainly know more about his death (which was, in its own way, quite mysterious) than I will ever know of my own. And though some of the information I painstakingly gathered helped me to understand his buildings, a great deal of it was just interesting for what it told me about him as a person.

I think now of three key moments in the research process, moments that made me feel I was drawing especially close to the man behind the architect. One was a four-page letter written to Lou in 1945 by his younger brother, Oscar Kahn, when they were both in their early forties. (I learned about the letter from Nathaniel Kahn, who told me to look it up in the Architectural Archives at Penn.) I won’t reproduce the letter here—it appears in full in my book—but suffice to say it gives the clearest, most incisive analysis of Lou's personality I have yet come across.

The second item was a series of test results that came out of a study run at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s, a “creativity study” in which Kahn was one of the participating architects. No restrictions were ever put on this material, so the kindly people at the Institute for Personality and Social Research—the inheritor of this research—gave me Lou's Rorschach results, his Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, his Thematic Apperception Test, his psychological interview transcripts, and a whole host of other materials he never imagined would see the light of day. Some of it was uninterpretable garbage, but amid the rubbish were a number of deep and incisive revelations, including key observations about his childhood, his parents, and his relationship to his own work.

And then there was the dream Lou scribbled on the back of his BOAC boarding pass during one of his final visits to Bangladesh in January of 1973. His older daughter, Sue Ann Kahn, handed it to me with a bunch of family papers she had accumulated but not necessarily read. It was written in microscopic handwriting I had to decipher with the aid of a magnifying glass. Again, I can't really go into the dream and its meaning in this brief space, but what I remember is the uncanny sensation I had when first reading it—almost as if I were touching Kahn's mind with my hand.

Still, all the personal insights I’ve gained do not really explain why Louis Kahn became the great architect he did. There is always a gap between individual personality and artistic achievement, and with an architect the gap is even greater than usual, because so many factors beyond his own character (collaborators, clients, money, the site itself, various social and historical forces, the state of technological development, etc.) influence the outcome of his work. So I can't make a case that my biography will fully reveal, for David Slovic or anyone else, the true sources of Kahn’s architecture.

What I can say is that there was a moment in the process when I suddenly became aware of a felt connection between the individual man—that unusual person who carried on all those intense, unconventional love affairs—and the marvelous buildings he produced. When I visited the home of his younger daughter, Alexandra Tyng, she showed me a picture of Lou that hung on her wall, a photograph taken in 1936 of him shooting a bow and arrow at the Brookwood Labor College. As I looked at him standing there in his skimpy archery costume, with his well-muscled body and his confident stance, I thought, Yes: that is the feeling his architecture gives us, the sense that we are fully inhabiting our bodies. His buildings make us feel we are contained within a vast space, at once tenderly embraced and freed into a kind of elevated exaltation, as if the massive environment is lifting us up and making us larger even as it protectively acknowledges our merely human size.

Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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Recapitulating a Move Gershom Scholem Hypothesized Long Ago

Thursday, March 23, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I first traveled to Jerusalem almost by chance, knowing next to nothing about the place, and having no expectations for the trip. But the city got under my skin immediately. If I’d been asked why it affected us so strongly at the time, I think I would have stuttered out something about the intense compression of peoples, faiths and histories—combined with the dramatic built structures and landscapes. I’d come there casually; but there is nothing casual about Jerusalem. The city grabs your attention, and won’t gently release it. Jerusalem’s sheer physical presence—ancient and new, vibrant and ghost-ridden; shot through with dazzling vistas of shattered stones and twisting olive trees—is arresting.

After my wife and I returned to America, scenes from our visit kept coming back to us. We found that our former frustrations had been chafed raw by that experience of a world where everyone we met seemed consumed by ideas and arguments over ultimate questions of good, evil, life, death, and ultimate meaning. We began thinking about returning immediately and soon enrolled in a program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary that would enable us to study in Jerusalem for a year. By the time we actually got back to the city, my wife was pregnant and the experience of having a child in a place that values the idea of family before all else was powerful enough that we became enthralled by the possibility of remaining there. Jerusalem’s reputation is violent and spiritually hyperventilated, but after New York, day-to-day life there seemed almost tranquil, simpler, more pure, and physically beautiful.

Gershom Scholem’s Kabbalah had been inspiring, but we weren’t interested in trying to literally enact kabbalistic exercises. Normative synagogue life held no pull for us. Without even realizing that we were recapitulating a move Scholem had hypothesized long ago, we began to wonder whether the next phase in our own fascination with Judaism in general and Jewish mysticism in particular, might be Zionism. We told ourselves that by living in Jerusalem as Jews, even if technically secular—as writers pursuing our own imaginative visions—we might be fulfilling a more meaningful role in Judaism than we could attain through any degree of ritual observance elsewhere. The problem of how to live a resonant Jewish life outside the law might be solved just by creating the life of our choice in the place where Judaism began.

In retrospect, I’m stunned by the political ignorance with which we embarked on our new life in Jerusalem. Or, more accurately, I’m amazed that we assumed we could come to Israel with our existing set of liberal values and transfer them wholesale to the life we would build in this new world.

For all practical purposes we really hadn’t given any more thought to the Palestinians before arriving than Scholem had devoted to the Arabs. We felt that the Palestinians should have a state of their own and should share equally in any benefits accruing to other populations of the State. We deplored the thought of Palestinians being mistreated by the security forces and we understood that Palestinian society suffered from unjust economic disadvantages.

But these attitudes are so broad and vague that they can hardly be said to constitute a political position. It was a facile liberal perspective that accepted everything and demanded no sacrifices. Just as Scholem had no intention of equating the Zionist movement with the acquisition of political power, but became party to that evolution in purpose by virtue of being enmeshed in the historical circumstances that turned the project toward territorial sovereignty, we had no intention of supporting the more reactionary elements in the State but became implicated in their ascension by virtue of not doing more to fight against them. We effectively resigned ourselves to the Occupation by becoming so preoccupied with the exigencies of raising our own little family. Politically speaking, the Land was an abstraction to us no less than it had been to Scholem envisioning it from early twentieth century bourgeois Berlin. We were fine, theoretically, with whatever the negotiators decided about how the country got cut up to bring peace, knowing that our own home corner of West Jerusalem would never be surrendered. And meanwhile our home life, our nest in verdant, floral Rehavia in a modest but charming apartment overlooking a courtyard garden in which our growing children played idyllically with other children from the surrounding low buildings, was humanly rich and spiritually enlivening.

I went to graduate school in English and American literature at Hebrew University. Soon I was teaching there. The economics of our existence were always a struggle, but our life still continued to seem fulfilling so long as our Jerusalem world could be decontextualized from the larger dilemmas we were gradually becoming more conscious of.

However, the First Intifada began not long after we arrived. And as we came to understand something of what brought this popular revolt about, and the reasons why it had stirred the passions of so large a part of the Palestinian population, the contradictions between our ideals and the political reality of the land became increasingly jarring. The relationships between Palestinians and the Jews, the injustices and mutual antipathies—which had been far in the background of our thinking about what it meant to settle in Jerusalem—were pushed toward the foreground of consciousness.

Gershom Scholem had lived through the rise and fall of the idealistic Brit Shalom movement, with its dream of a binational solution to the governance of Palestine. Between 1923 and 1933, he witnessed the rise of the right wing Revisionist Movement that threatened to dominate the whole Zionist project and bore heavy responsibility for the bloody riots of 1929, along with the ensuing Jewish-Arab violence in the 1930s. As immigration from Russia surged, Scholem saw Zionism itself transforming into a nationalistic endeavor bent on taking control of all of Greater Israel.

Between 1988, when I came to Israel, and 1996, when our own plans to leave Israel were set in motion, we saw the Intifada, the rise and fall of the Oslo Peace Agreement, a huge new wave of Jewish emigration from Russia, and a surge in a new kind of religious nationalism that led to the settler protests and riots of the early 1990s—which culminated with the assassination of Rabin—and the election of the expediently demagogic, reactionary Bibi Netanyahu.

Our life in Israel began to take on a darker cast within a short time of arriving. There were many ups and downs over the ensuing years, and we felt a persistent enchantment with Jerusalem itself, but any hazy Zionist ideals we might once have harbored were destroyed by the double-blow of Rabin’s death and Netanyahu’s empowerment. We no longer knew what we were doing in Israel. And we could no longer even fantasize that we were contributing to anything positive in Jewish history by the mere fact of living in Jerusalem. If anything, the reverse was true.

We wrenched our life up and out of Jerusalem, (now with three children), and returned to New York. But our family had been born in the spirit of those ideals that first brought us to Jerusalem. As it turned out when those ideals crashed and we turned away from them, our family crumbled as well. My wife and I divorced, and for many years it was as if our whole life in Jerusalem had been a dream.

George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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  • Continuous Transformations

    Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism and when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    For all their radicalism, the Kabbalists had avoided being consigned by more traditional rabbis to the status of heretics because they continued to accept the Revelation at Sinai and to observe the letter of the law. Just as Scholem’s own resistance on these points prevented his living as an Orthodox Jew, he felt that it was impossible for anyone to become a true kabbalist without faith in the irrefutable, Divine origins of Torah. In the absence of that authority, people had become “religious anarchists,” Scholem declared.

    However, because Scholem’s view of Judaism was dynamically metamorphic, he did not see the end of formal Kabbalah shutting off the energy that had enabled Jewish mysticism to play its crucial role in Jewish history. Instead, he suggested that this same catalytic power might now be channeled into new forms of Jewish self-expression. Kabbalah could be understood as a potent, mythological dramatization of the experience of Jewish exile. But Zionism sought to achieve the physical end of exile. In this sense, one might say that Zionism sought to accomplish on the ground what Kabbalah had tried to conceptualize on the cosmic plane. Thus Zionist action might be thought of as the next iteration of the Kabbalistic strain in Jewish history. If the career of the seventeenth-century false messiah (which Scholem saw as the last substantive interlude of formal Jewish mysticism) had helped catalyze Jewish emancipation in Europe, the Zionist pioneers would free the Jews from Europe. Once the Jews got to Jerusalem, the possibilities for Judaism as such to reveal new, as yet unimaginable, modes of creative expression would be actualized.

    Almost as soon as Scholem arrived in Palestine in 1923, his initial, largely utopian vision of what Zionism might accomplish began to darken. Over the next decade, as worsening conditions in Europe brought increasing Jewish immigration to the land, and reactionary forces under the leadership of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party gained power in the political arena—contributing also to the ideology of the Labor Party program—Scholem’s Zionist idealism underwent an almost total eclipse. To his horror, Scholem saw the same kind of jingoistic, bourgeois society forming around him in Jerusalem that he’d fled Germany to escape. In the midst of intensifying friction with the Arabs, Scholem helped form a group that worked to promote a binational solution in Palestine. But by 1932 this idealistic collective, too, had collapsed. Scholem’s original utopian Zionism became largely masked in his official identity as an internationally renowned humanist scholar, even while it continued to energize that project in a manner that echoed some of his thinking about what occurred to Kabbalah itself in mainstream Jewish history. He continued to elaborate on Kabbalah, on German-Jewish relations, and on the meaning of Israel relative to the Diaspora in ambitious books and essays for the remainder of his career. Striving to identify the integral, distinguishing character of Judaism he concentrated more and more on its boundless, protean quality. “Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence, since it has no essence,” he declared in one late essay. Moreover, he added, if Judaism couldn’t be defined in any dogmatic way, one could “not assume that it possesses any a priori qualities that are intrinsic to it or might emerge in it; indeed, as an enduring and evolving historic force, Judaism undergoes continuous transformations.” In the future, he concluded, it would be “necessary to rethink Judaism in broader terms, and in much broader terms than those of halakhic Judaism… How will a Judaism that evolves in a society of Jews work without taking refuge in traditional forms of ritual or of theology? I am not a prophet, but I welcome the struggle… because it will call forth the productive powers—whatever they are—of Jews.”

    For many years, both consciously and unconsciously, my own life followed a kind of shadow-arc of Scholem’s path into Kabbalah and Zionism. Coming of age in America in the 1970s and ‘80s, I balked at what I saw as the culture’s dominant consumerist materialism, which the bellicose nationalism and merciless free market capitalism of the Reagan years only aggravated. My father, who escaped Austria after the Anschluss, had largely abandoned his Judaism to assimilate to life in the United States, which had given him refuge. But my own experience of the American suburbs left me with a lingering sense of absence—historical and spiritual. After moving to New York City in my early twenties, I began attending synagogue, learning Hebrew and studying the canon of Jewish sacred literature in pursuit of a spiritual counterpoint to that materialist vacuum. This deepening exploration of traditional Judaism occurred in tandem with the first years of my marriage, when my wife and I were thinking about starting our own family and about the sacred responsibility of bringing children into this world. What would we tell our children about God, faith and the meaning of existence we wondered.

    We spent a number of years exploring different synagogues and different branches of Judaism; but never found in ritual observance the kind of intense, spiritual engagement we longed for. Early on in this process, I discovered the work of Gershom Scholem, whose name I’d become familiar with through reading about Walter Benjamin. Scholem’s interpretation of Kabbalah supplied exactly the jolt of intellectual excitement and sense of imaginative fecundity that had been lacking from my experiences of formal Jewish practice. Kabbalah’s boldness as an audacious, sometimes sublime reading of Jewish sacred texts and history was inspiring to me as a writer, since Jewish mysticism made the magical power of language the active vehicle of God’s own creative principle.

    Exploring Scholem’s work and maintaining a loose involvement with a synagogue in Brooklyn, my wife Anne and I felt more and more inspired by Judaism. But we were no more able than Scholem had been to accept the absolute authority of the Revelation at Sinai. Orthodox practice still seemed foreign and stultifying.

    The question of how exactly we would take our Judaism to the next level began to haunt us. We wanted more from the religion in line with the dynamic principles Scholem elaborated from kabbalistic texts, but we knew we couldn’t actually become kabbalists, so where did that leave us?

    George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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    How Jewish Was Louis Kahn?

    Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    Louis Kahn’s Jewish parents, Beila-Rebeckah Mendelowitsch and Leib Schmulowsky, were married in 1900 in Livonia, the Russian-held province that before World War I encompassed Latvia and southern Estonia. Less than year later, in February of 1901, the future American architect was born there, either on a Baltic island or on the mainland nearby, under the name Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky. According to the rabbinical record, kept in both Russian and Hebrew—as all Jews had to be registered in that time and place—he was circumcised seven days after the birth. Upon his arrival five years later in Philadelphia, he was given a new name, Louis Isadore Kahn. While the new name retained the Jewish associations of his original Eastern European name, it made him sound classier and German-Jewish.

    It is not clear whether his first name was intended to be pronounced "Lewis" or "Louie"; from childhood onward he was known simply as Lou, and that was what everyone called him, including his colleagues, his employees, his relatives, and his lovers.

    Lou spent a total of one day in religious school (his mother snatched him out, apparently, after the teacher smacked him) and he was never bar mitzvahed. When he grew up, he married a Jewish girl, Esther Israeli, from a highly assimilated Philadelphia family. Their wedding was conducted by a rabbi, though Esther always insisted this was done solely for Kahn’s parents, since she would have preferred a secular wedding.

    Of Kahn’s three children, one was born to Esther and one each to two separate non-Jewish women with whom he carried on long-term love affairs: the architect Anne Tyng and the landscape architect Harriet Pattison, both of whom worked with him. (All three women knew about one another, as did all three children. The fact that Kahn had three families was a widely shared secret in the small-town Philadelphia of his time). An additional significant love affair—though one that did not result in a pregnancy—was with another architect who worked for him, Marie Kuo; she was not Jewish, either.

    Some of his male friends were Jewish (though many were not); his favorite client was Jonas Salk, who, like him, was the child of Eastern European Jews. Kahn had what many people think of as a Jewish sense of humor: self-deprecating, ironic, intimate. Despite the severe scarring of his hands and face that resulted from a childhood accident, he carried himself confidently, as if he were comfortable in his own skin, and people—especially women—found him attractive. Some of this self-confidence can perhaps be attributed to his mother (now renamed Bertha Kahn), who in typical Jewish-mother fashion lavished a great deal of attention on her brilliant oldest son. Like many immigrant mothers, she husbanded the family's limited resources, but what she could spend, she spent on Lou. In somewhat less typical fashion, Bertha left him alone to find his own way through the poverty-stricken world of Philadelphia's Northern Liberties district. In later life, Kahn credited her with having "absolute confidence" in him.

    Kahn worked on several synagogue commissions in the course of his life, but his two greatest synagogue designs, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and the Hurva in Jerusalem, were never built. Two of his most successful projects were a church (First Unitarian in Rochester) and a mosque (part of the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh). When he was hired to design the Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Battery Park, he labeled its central glass pillar a "chapel"; the memorial was voted down by a committee of fifty prominent Jews. When working on the Mikveh Israel commission, Kahn wrote "Kaddish" and "kiddush" in the margins of one of his plans to remind himself of the different Hebrew terms; again, the synagogue membership ultimately rejected his plans. He apparently viewed all religions as essentially one, and though he was frequently described as a person of great spiritual depth, he did not practice any religion himself. He joined the Rabindranath Tagore Society in Philadelphia before embarking on major work on the Indian subcontinent, and he studied Islamic architecture before building the government center in Bangladesh.

    As an adult, Kahn never celebrated Jewish holidays, but he and Esther donated small sums, intermittently, to various Jewish causes; they also donated $1,000 to the Unitarians in 1961, when he was working on the church. His extended family, included Esther's sisters and cousins, celebrated Christmas every year at Kahn’s house.

    When he died suddenly in 1974, a rabbi he had never met was hired to conduct his funeral service—a decision made without his own involvement. Since his parents had both been buried by rabbis, people assumed he would have wanted that, too.

    Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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  • When Gershom Scholem Discovered Kabbalah

    Tuesday, March 21, 2017 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    Not long after embracing the embryonic Zionist movement, Gershom Scholem discovered the Zohar, often considered the core text of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah proved to be a kind of revelation for Scholem—one that grew in intensity as he went deeper in his exploration of mystical writings. This revelation was twofold.

    First, in Scholem’s estimation, unlike the arbiters of mainstream Judaism, the authors of the great works of Kabbalah had undertaken a profound, creative engagement with the historical tragedies of Jewish history in exile. Kabbalah, from his perspective, was, indeed, nothing less thana kind of mythological key to understanding human misery in general, and the Jewish expulsion from Jerusalem and then Spain in particular. By creating a powerful symbolic language that resonated with the struggles of ordinary men and women, the Kabbalists gave meaning and purpose to the anguish of historical trauma.

    To make sense of the human predicament, Kabbalah had dramatically expanded the concept of evil, projecting it beyond the human failing of sin into the very structure of the cosmos. Aspects of God Himself took on the character of evil when they were thrown out of balance by events in the primordial universe that predated the creation of humanity. Not only did Kabbalah provide a kind of visionary explanation for why the exile had occurred and why Jewish suffering persisted, the Kabbalah intertwined the roles of God and man so that humanity was assigned a dynamic role in rectifying what had gone awry in reality. Through prayer, ritual and a home life conducted with the profound ethical attention enjoined by Torah, man could now help God “fix” creation. The term popularized in Kabbalah, tikkun olam, meaning repairing or healing the world, became shorthand for the cosmic mission humankind was charged with.

    Second, along with its strictly intellectual contributions, Scholem saw mysticism as a stage in the evolution of Jewish self-consciousness that made political action in the here and now appear possible. From Scholem’s perspective, mainstream Judaism and nineteenth century historiography alike were essentially quiescent projects, concerned with the conservation of the people’s age-old spiritual legacy. Whatever revolutionary principles might be enshrined in the idea of the Messiah’s advent, for all practical purposes the Messiah’s arrival was permanently on hold.

    For several hundred years after the birth of those schools of mystical thought in early medieval France that Scholem designated as the first centers of Kabbalah proper, the Kabbalists, no less than their non-mystical brethren, lived quiet lives of study, prayer and writing. Their radicalism was a thought experiment, not an action. While they might have declared that their prayers were part of a titanic battle to wrest the sparks of holiness away from the realm of evil and so trigger the start of a larger cosmic revolution that would also end the Jews’ exile, an outsider observing the kabbalists in their famous sixteenth century center of Safed would have found little discernible difference between their behavior and that of other Orthodox Jews.

    But in the mid-seventeenth century, a mystical false messiah by the name of Sabbatai Sevi arose in the Ottoman Empire and became a seismic phenomenon, galvanizing Jewish congregations across the Levant and huge swaths of Europe. Entire Jewish communities in far-flung towns and villages began the process of uprooting themselves to follow Sevi and help actualize the prophecy he delivered of restoring Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land and ushering in the era of salvation.

    Scholem argued that the ideas of liberation fueling Sabbatai Sevi’s movement, combined with the communal effort to wrest physical control of Jewish fate by becoming active participants in the messianic revolution, planted the seeds for the Jews’ entry into modernity. Although Sabbatai Sevi’s movement unraveled with his conversion to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman Sultan, it succeeded in propelling the dream of the Jews gaining agency over their own destiny from the theoretical plane into the concrete realm of history. Scholem saw the legacy of Sabbatai Sevi embodied in certain figures from Jewish backgrounds who played important roles in the French Revolution—a number of whom were literal descendants of the Sabbateans—as well as in the rise of the Reform movement, which had likewise been partly conceived by influential figures in Sevi’s theological lineage.

    Ultimately, Scholem felt that in Kabbalah he’d identified a neglected, explosive element in Jewish theology that could inspire new kinds of real-world ambitions for the Jewish people. As he wrote in one essay, “There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted.”

    Jewish history retold in the light of Kabbalah could potentially empower Jews to act on their Judaism as a living principle.

    George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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    Why I Wrote 'You Say to Brick'

    Monday, March 20, 2017 | Permalink

    Wendy Lesser is the author of You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    As usual with my books, there is a long story and a short story. The long story begins many decades ago, when I was in high school and a family friend, an architect, made me think that architecture was a great career. Gradually this morphed into an interest in city planning, and by the end of high school I was working for a city planner's office in San Francisco.

    In college my focus shifted to literature, but I was still sufficiently interested in the earlier topic to write my undergraduate thesis on a turn-of-the-century Scottish city planner named Patrick Geddes. Like Louis Kahn, the subject of my biography You Say to Brick, Geddes was a visionary, a man way ahead of his time, who spoke in his own peculiar language about things that mattered deeply.

    Fast forward to 2003, when Nathaniel Kahn's wonderful movie, My Architect, came out. Though by this time I had seen and admired the two art galleries Kahn designed at Yale, I hadn't really focused on the architect himself until I saw Nathaniel's film about his father. It is a terrific documentary, deservedly nominated for an Academy Award. I loved it for what it did with the essay-film form, but I also found myself attracted to the subject himself. Kahn's personal life was fascinating—he had three different children with three different women, even as he remained married to the mother of the oldest—and so were the glimpses of his architecture the film offered. I saw the movie twice in the year it came out (no easy thing to do, in those pre-streaming years), but still it never occurred to me that I might someday write about Louis Kahn myself.

    Now for the short story. I was casting about for a new book idea, and in November of 2012, on a casual Sunday walk, I happened to visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York. The minute I set foot on the monument—designed by Kahn in 1973, but left unfinished when he died in 1974 and not completed until 2012, nearly four decades later—I realized I had a new subject. The structure spoke directly to me about openness and containment, about freedom and restraint, with the kind of expressive but non-verbal communication one can find in arts like architecture, painting, music, and dance. I had known from Nathaniel's movie that his father led an unusual life—excellent material for a biography—but what really got me interested in writing the book was my fortuitous encounter with one of Kahn's masterworks.

    As my research wore on, I discovered so many interesting new facts about Kahn's life that at times I joked, "Maybe I should ignore the architecture and just write about the life." And I did, in the end, manage to fit most of those intriguing discoveries into the book. Through it all, my admiration for the architecture continued to grow. I visited all the sites of his masterpieces—from the Salk Institute in La Jolla to the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka—and the more of Kahn's work I saw, the more I loved it—and the happier I was to write about it.

    A skeptic might interrupt me at this point to question: what does a literary person know about architecture? How did you ever have the chutzpah to write about a technical field like that?

    Well, I do have a lot of chutzpah. Previous books of mine have been about a lawyer handling a death-penalty case, a theater director's methods, and a composer's life—and I probably know less about law, drama, and music than I do about architecture. (That's true of all of us, I would guess, since we all live in and surrounded by architecture, using it every day.) But my real justification for venturing onto this ground is to try to explain things in non-technical terms to other people like me, people who don't have a degree in architecture but still find its works and processes entrancing. So, for instance, when I met with Kahn's concrete consultant, Fred Langford, or his engineer, Nick Gianopulos, to find out how they contributed to the collaborative enterprise, I would say, "Wait, Fred, tell me that about that form construction again, but in language I can understand," or, "Hold on, Nick, what do you mean by 'parallel canted joists'?" In each case, I would be rendering into English—my language, our language—the technical secrets that lay behind Kahn's magnificent works.

    Oh, and the weird title? It comes from a story Kahn often used to tell: "You say to brick, What do you want, brick? And brick says: I like an arch. And you say: But I could put in a concrete lintel and it would be much cheaper. What do you think of that, brick? And brick says: I like an arch." That sense of resistance to outside advice, of remaining true to one's essence in the face of all obstacles, was what I found not only in the materials Louis Kahn lovingly used, but in the man himself.

    Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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    Gershom Scholem's Youthful Zionism

    Monday, March 20, 2017 | Permalink

    George Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, a 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner. With the release of his new biography Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    Before the Armistice—before his own 21st birthday—Gershom Scholem had decided that Jewish history in Europe was finished. At least in so far as Jews aspired to any vibrant, purposeful existence as Jews (outside of Orthodox ghettos), the Jewish people were done in the Diaspora. Partly this was due to antisemitism, which Scholem didn’t see as physically dangerous, but which meant that Jews would always, ultimately, be held in contempt by the European community, excluded from the ranks of fellowship, and denied integral value.

    More enraging to him than German treatment of Jews, however, was the way the Jews themselves had responded to their classification as undesirable aliens. Instead of seeking justice for themselves, they’d sought to erase their distinctive identity. As he would later write, the Jews “struggled for emancipation—and this is the tragedy that moves us so much today—not for the sake of their rights as a people, but for the sake of assimilating themselves to the peoples among whom they lived.” Indeed, in their effort to assimilate, the Jews had made themselves into caricatures of the very demographics that repudiated them. They had thrown away their birthright as children of the Prophets to become respectable burghers in a cruel, crude, materialistic society bent on destroying human individuality as such.

    In revolt against everything around him, beginning with his own family home, the adolescent Scholem became an arch-pacifist and a socialist-anarchist. Then he discovered Zionism.

    Zionism as a concept was still in formation when Scholem first joined a branch of its youth movement in Berlin. If not quite a tabula rasa, the cause was yet porous and elastic enough that he could project onto it the values and ideals that most stirred his spirit. Scholem’s youthful Zionism was not a state-building project, but an effort to renew and radicalize Judaism as such. He saw Zionism as opposed in its essence both to the slaughter of the war and the shopkeeper mentality that had so degraded German Jews. In his eyes, it was a humanistic endeavor aimed at returning the Jews’ spiritual life to history by reestablishing their ethical world-mission as “a kingdom of priests.”

    Scholem himself longed to emigrate to Palestine not to form a state on the Continental model, then, but to leave that whole failed world of nation building behind and reinvigorate the people through a new kind of social experiment in the Levant. He never got very far in articulating what exactly this Zionist settlement should look like. But he strongly opposed private ownership of land in Palestine, while advocating for a loosely socialist economic system that supported the larger objective of high cultural and scientific achievement. Scholem appeared to impute a kind of magical power to the mere fact of Jewish society being reconstituted on the soil of the original homeland—away from Europe. The land itself would work wonders on the Jews’ spirits because of its historical resonance. Present-day Palestine, and Jerusalem in particular, afforded prospects as open and undefined as early Zionism itself.

    In pursuing his lofty, if blurry, agenda, Scholem had no intention of usurping either political sovereignty or property from the Arabs already living in the land. But the very notion of a nonpossessive, cultural Zionism also reflected the way the land existed in Scholem’s imagination far more vividly as an idea than as a rocky tract of the real world. To the extent that he thought about the Arabs at all, Scholem assumed that since both the Jews and the Arabs were Oriental peoples, eventually they would become partners in the enterprise of turning Palestine into a crucible for the creation a new humanist society, uncontaminated by Europe’s soul-crushing materialism. He subscribed to the position articulated by his close friend and intellectual muse Walter Benjamin, who’d once written that the Great War revealed how the European powers found the purpose of all technology in turning a profit and mastering nature. As a result, technology had betrayed humanity and turned Mother Earth into a bloodbath. In his Zionist euphoria, Scholem changed his name from Gerhard to Gershom. Gershom means, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the name that Moses gives to his son after his first flight from Egypt for, Moses says, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Germany was Scholem’s Egypt.

    Gershom Scholem’s rejection of German culture and embrace of his Jewish identity was accompanied by a rigorous effort to educate himself in the canon of Jewish sacred literature. While still in his first youth, he acquired fluency in Hebrew and devoted himself to the study of Talmud and Scriptures, through both solitary studies and the tutelage of Orthodox rabbis. For a brief time, he flirted with becoming Orthodox himself. But Scholem could not believe in the literal transmission of the Torah at Sinai, and so felt unbound by the authority of the Law. Moreover, he viewed the orthodox community as static, whereas he himself sought to be part of a dynamic, historical dialectic. But what alternative to strict ritual observance was there for someone seeking spiritual authenticity within Judaism?

    George Prochnik is the editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine and the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem.

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    New Reviews March 17, 2017

    Friday, March 17, 2017 | Permalink

    Featured Content

    Writing What You Know—And What You Don’t
    Joseph Helmreich's debut novel explores quantum mechanics (he was a C+ physics student), Catholicism (he's an observant Jew), and coastal Spain—though his European excursions are largely limited to Polish concentration camps.

    How to Tell Good Christian Ladies the Bible Is Weird
    In rereading stories from Tanakh, novelist Jacob Bacharach was struck by how much these tales have been flattened to satisfy modern storytelling—and by the "extraordinary strangeness" of the original texts.

    The Poet of Thompson Street
    Science fiction novelist Joseph Helmreich recalls running into Samuel Menashe, the first-ever recipient of the Poetry Foundation's "Neglected Masters Award," while working as a film intern in New York City.

    Lessons from Bereshit for Contemporary Novelists
    "It is not at all the neat narrative we remember from Hebrew School,” Jacob Bacharach observes, but for a writer of contemporary fiction, it’s a fascinating template on which to overlay a more modern story."