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

  • Review
By – February 8, 2017

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 (18971982) 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.

Discussion Questions