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.