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’s essays, poet­ry, and fic­tion have appeared in numer­ous jour­nals. He has taught Eng­lish and Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem, is edi­tor-at-large for Cab­i­net mag­a­zine, and is the author of In Pur­suit of Silence: Lis­ten­ing for Mean­ing in a World of Noise and Put­nam Camp. He lives in New York City.