While biographers are often drawn to subjects who have dealt with challenges similar to their own, George Prochnik’s approach is to make his personal connections part of the narrative itself. Writing the life of Stefan Zweig in The Impossible Exile, he wove his own father’s Viennese story into his account of Zweig’s life. Now, in Stranger in a Strange Land, Prochnik explores the life of Kabbalist scholar Gershom Scholem (1897−1982) through the lens of his own struggles to embrace Judaism and make a life in Jerusalem.
Scholem’s story takes off in 1915 when, as an eighteen-year-old, he discovered Zionism, Kabbalah, and Walter Benjamin, his three enduring life passions. His Berlin family was quite secular, so Scholem arranged his own Jewish education, which quickly veered into mysticism. Friend Benjamin was intrigued but not convinced; the two struggled endlessly. Ultimately, Benjamin was drawn to the secular materialism of Marxism and Scholem, in 1923, left for Palestine, where he became one of Israel’s great philosophers.
Instead of a straightforward recounting of Scholem’s marriages, jobs, lecture circuits, acolytes, and writings, Prochnik’s approach is to seize on the issues that resonate for him personally: the intrigue of Kabbalah, the difficulties of moving to Israel and starting a new life, the Palestinian conflicts and the possibilities for peace. Perhaps Prochnik felt that by examining Scholem’s approaches to Kabbalah, to Zionism, to yeshuv politics, he might gain some insights into his own life?
This approach raises several challenges. Most would agree that Kabbalah is arcane and mysterious and perhaps unknowable…so how might a biographer of a (scholarly) Kabbalist deal with his subject’s difficult subject matter? Prochnik tries from time to time to elaborate on Kabbalist beliefs, but more often he resorts to quotations from Scholem that only seem to underscore the uselessness of even asking. If it were a topic other than Kabbalah, a paraphrase might have followed a quotation, explaining the meaning to the uninitiated. But with this material, it’s as if it’s almost sacrilegious to explain anything. Or maybe Prochnik, too, is sometimes at a loss. As he concludes after one particularly opaque set of remarks, “Suddenly, we may find ourselves fumbling for the light switch.”
Prochnik’s treatment of the Scholem-Benjamin friendship is also problematic. When they were young men in their teens and twenties, Benjamin was dominant and worldly; Scholem was naïve, trying hard for his hero’s attention and approval. As Prochnik delves into all the tortured detail, Benjamin seems to take over the whole first part of what is, after all, an account of Scholem’s life. Readers may feel a kind of relief when eventually Scholem goes to Palestine and Benjamin does not join him.
Finally, there are issues with the sixty or so images inserted in the text. Many are delightful — although one is simply erroneous — but with their identifying captions relegated to a list at the end of the book, they become more of garnish than an integral part of the story. Prochnik is most successful, perhaps, in tying the legacy of Scholem — his belief that Zion can be endlessly reconceived, that Judaism is a living, flexible tradition — to the project of imagining better outcomes for peace in Israel today.
If, in the end, Scholem was “paradox upon paradox…a maze of contradictions…” what can we gain from reading this dense account of his life and times, which the publisher terms a “nonfiction bildungsroman”? Perhaps a little more about Kabbalah, messianism, or Zionism than we knew before we started. Or perhaps something inadvertent and incidental which we will come to know more fully in the days, or the worlds, to come.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.