Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
The two major themes around which Scholem’s story revolve are the German question and the Jewish question. He lived in an age during which the two were closely linked; indeed, they would become even more closely and brutally linked in the two decades following the close of his book. Yet they are not really the same question.
The German question, as formulated at the time, dealt with the nature of the German Volk (people) and the nature of German patriotism. For Gerhard’s father, there was no question that he was a German citizen and that he should be totally loyal to the land of his birth. Gerhard’s two elder brothers presented variations on the same theme. The eldest, Reinhold, was so committed to Germany that he described himself as a “Deutsch-national”—a right-wing German nationalist— even after Adolf Hitler had come and gone. The second oldest, Erich, considered himself a liberal and a democrat. Like their mother, he was attracted to the literary and cultural manifestations of the German nation and desired an age in which politics would not be divisive. The third brother, Werner, who was only two years older than Gerhard, was a rebellious leftist. He toyed with Zionism but opted for Marxism, because he believed that it showed a broader approach to humanity. At one point Werner was a Reichstag (parliament) deputy for the German Communist Party. When the Nazis took over, he was arrested and was killed at Buchenwald. Gershom Scholem dedicated this book to him. Each of these three brothers, then, showed a different aspect of the question of what it meant to be a “good German.”
For Gerhard/Gershom, on the other hand, there was no German question. He saw himself as a Jew; as a nationalistic Jew, he saw himself as a foreigner in Germany. He was not driven to Eretz Yisrael by the whip of anti-Semitism. He was aware of anti-Semitism, but he says that he never suffered from it in a personal way. He was attracted to the new/old homeland by an ideal of a free, culturally independent, and ethnic Jewish state. The intellectual conflicts described in the book were with his fellow Jews, with Martin Buber, with Walter Benjamin, with Achad Haam, with Franz Rosenzweig, and with many others active in Zionist and non-Zionist organizations. The book is free of rancor toward these people; the controversies have cooled over the years, and many have been rendered insignificant by the intervening events. Yet between the lines of this book one can perceive the vibrancy of the disputes which must have lasted long into many nights: What was the nature of Zionism? must a good Jew speak Hebrew? did one have to obey Orthodox law and custom? was the heritage of the Cabala to be revered, rejected, or objectively studied? what was the “science of Judaism”? what did it really mean to be a Jew?
To some readers, the book might seem to reflect only a disappointing fragment of Scholem’s life because there are several aspects of his development which he does not address in substantial detail. He was able to avoid service in World War I, though he was of age and in adequate physical condition, but he never really describes how he did it. He had a delicate and very meaningful relationship with Walter Benjamin, but it remains unexplored here because, he explains, he described it in Walter Benjamin: Die Geschichte e. Freundschaft (1975; Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, 1981). The complex attractiveness of the Cabala is not developed in enough detail to make it completely credible to some readers; one would have to turn to several of Scholem’s other works, many of which are not available in English, to explore that topic fully. If this book had been twice as long, it no doubt would have seemed redundant to those familiar with the entire corpus of Scholem’s works; nevertheless, it would have been a better book for most readers because it would have answered questions which it barely raises in its present form.