The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

The Eternal Exile

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

George Prochnik

New York, NY: Other Press, 2017.

Gershom Scholem: An Intellectual Biography

Amir Engel

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Nathan Goldman

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

The boy who would become Gershom Scholem—modernity’s foremost scholar of Jewish mysticism—was born not Gershom, but Gerhard. When he emigrated from Berlin to Palestine in 1923, at the age of twenty-five, he traded the German name his parents had chosen for a Hebrew name of more ancient origin, the one Moses and Zipporah gave their firstborn son. In Exodus, Moses explains that the name means “a sojourner there.” The King James translation of Moses’s explanation will be familiar to many. “He called his name Gershom,” it is written in Exodus 2:22, “for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

These words serve as the title of George Prochnik’s Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem. Not quite a biography, the book intertwines Scholem’s life with Prochnik’s own to become a chronicle of two men of the Jewish diaspora, separated by decades but both longing for some other kind of Jewish life. When Prochnik moved with his then-wife from New York City to Jerusalem at nearly the same age as Scholem, he brought along a copy of Scholem’s On Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. “With respect to my decision to relocate to Israel,” Prochnik writes,

Scholem’s work effectively substituted for the Bible—which I did not carry along.… I was one of those for whom Scholem loomed as a kind of prophet. I found in his work if not faith, yet something closer to revelation than anything I could discover in normative Judaism.

The register of Prochnik’s regard for Scholem is not unusual. The novelist Cynthia Ozick declared that Scholem “touched on the very ground of human imagination,” and critic Harold Bloom observed that for many Jewish intellectuals of the late twentieth century he was “far more than a historian, far more even than a theologian.” Scholem was regarded, Bloom said, as “not less than a prophet.”

This soaring acclaim is where Amir Engel begins his book. “Scholem,” Engel writes at the outset of Gershom Scholem: An Intellectual Biography, “is still an enigma today.… He never claimed to be anything more than a historian of Jewish mysticism, yet he clearly was. Why then did Scholem become so much more than a historian of the Kabbalah and an expert on obscure Jewish texts?” While Prochnik’s project only deepens his sense of wonder at Scholem as a spiritual guide, Engel ultimately portrays the Scholem beloved by Prochnik, Ozick, Bloom, and others as a romanticized “image” separate from the “demystified figure of Scholem.” Engel hopes to demythologize Scholem, while Prochnik is happy to mythologize him even further.

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Nathan Goldman is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism and an editor for Full Stop.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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