Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137
Gershom Scholem’s title, From Berlin to Jerusalem, describes both a geographical and a spiritual journey. In October, 1897, a boy named Gerhard Scholem was born in Berlin. The name Gerhard signified something distinctly Germanic; the name Scholem signified something distinctly Jewish. In 1925, a talented and maturing scholar accepted a position at the newly founded Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This twenty-eight-year-old man was named Gershom Scholem. He had received his Ph.D. from the University of Munich, and he would continue to write in German from time to time until his death in 1982. He was self-consciously a Jew, however, and no longer a German. This book is his personal recollection of that journey.
Young Gerhard was reared in a family of assimilated middle-class German Jews. Around him as a child hung the family portraits of those who, over four generations, had made the cultural trek from the world of Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking ethnic Jews to the sophisticated, liberal, and very Germanized Berlin Jewish community of the Kaiser’s reich. Few of these people had converted to Christianity, but otherwise they had consciously put their Jewish ways behind them and had worked to become part of the mainstream of German culture. German patriotism was considered the highest virtue. Zionism was rejected as something foreign.
Gershom Scholem is best known for his works on Jewish mysticism and the Cabala. From his published dissertation, Das Buch Bahir (1923; the book of Bahir), through a long list of essays, translations, and commentaries on Jewish thought in Hebrew and in German, Scholem established an enviable reputation for his ability to create a vital scholarship in this esoteric field. Yet this book of memoirs is neither mystical nor esoteric. It is a straightforward narrative account of what he remembers about the first quarter century of his life. It is divided into ten chapters presented in strictly chronological order and often divided by a change of locale. The first five tell of Berlin, both within his family and beyond it after the break with his parents occurred. The later chapters tell of his journeys to Jena in 1917, Berne in 1918, and Munich in 1919. After returning to Berlin in 1922, he finally left Germany for Jerusalem, arriving in 1923.
The contrasts and contradictions of the Scholem household are made vivid by the anecdotes the author recalls. Gershom Scholem’s grandfather was a printer, born in Berlin in 1833. He had had a strictly Jewish education, but when given the opportunity he began to develop an affinity for German culture. When he was finally allowed to receive full Prussian citizenship, he registered his name as Scholem Scholem— using the only name he had ever had. The Prussian official refused to accept this redundancy and assigned to him the first name “Solm,” a Germanized form. During the 1850’s, however he became an enthusiastic Wagnerian and called himself “Siegfried Scholem” for the rest of his life. His gravestone in Berlin bore the name “Scholem Scholem” in Hebrew and “Siegfried Scholem” in German. This duality of name, the author recalls, epitomized the cultural heritage of his family.
By the turn of the century, when Gerhard was young, it was standard practice for the family to celebrate Christmas as a kind of a German folk holiday, even playing “Silent Night” on the family’s piano, though the only Christians in the household were the cook and a servant. When he was fourteen years old his parents presented to him, from beneath the family Christmas tree, a framed picture of Theodor Herzl, his mother saying, “We selected this picture for you because you are so interested in Zionism.” Thereafter, he absented himself from his parents’ household at Christmastime, going to the home of an uncle who celebrated Hanukkah instead.
In such an environment, the Bar Mitzvah lost most of its religious and ethnic meaning. His father even arbitrarily shifted the timing from the thirteenth to the fourteenth year. Young Gerhard, however, began his first steps toward becoming Gershom when he took very seriously the study of Hebrew. Most boys in his milieu learned only enough of the sacred language to memorize the required liturgy, he recalls. Yet he became enamored of the language and began to study it with tutors on his own time. In part his attraction to Hebrew reflected his ability and talent for language. It was also a way to set himself apart from his assimilated family and establish his identity as a person proud to be a Jew. Eventually, his dedication to Hebrew led him into conflict with other proud young German Jews, because he demanded that they give the learning of Hebrew priority over other aspects of Jewish life. On the other hand, as one of the few young Berliners who really knew Hebrew well, he gained a reputation as a person of great skill and intelligence and was sought after as a tutor.
During World War I, he protested vigorously against the war, arguing that as a Zionist and as a Jew he should not have to fight for Germany. Most German Jews, including his father and his two oldest brothers, were loyal to the fatherland. When Gerhard came to the defense of his other brother, Werner, who also opposed the war, Gerhard was ejected from the family home and had to begin to support himself. Thus, his career as a scholar of Judaism began.
He studied both mathematics and philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Jena, and Munich while continuing to pursue Jewish studies on his own. He was never attracted to the rabbinate, as one might have expected, because the attraction of Judaism for him was spiritual and ethnic, not religious in an orthodox sense. He loved books and carefully collected both new and old volumes whenever his meager resources allowed.
Thus, he was eventually led to the study of the medieval Jewish mystical writings known as the Cabala. At that time, no one took this body of literature seriously. Rabbis pursued theological and biblical studies. Secular scholars pursued the “science of Judaism” in an abstract and sometimes antiquarian way. The Cabala, with its mystic signs and symbols, was rejected as a worthless remnant of a dark age. Fortunately, Scholem found two language professors at Munich, one a Catholic and one a Protestant, who were willing to let him write his doctoral dissertation on an aspect of the Cabala as a literary and philosophical document, and his father permitted him to publish the work at the family printing firm. Scholem’s career as a scholar was on its way.
Yet from his midteens onward, he firmly believed that as a Jew he had no future in Germany. His home would be in Eretz Yisrael, as he consistently calls Palestine in his book. Thus, he prepared himself for legal emigration as a mathematics teacher and arranged transportation to Jerusalem in 1925.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51
Biale, David. Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, 1979.
Momigliano, Arnaldo. “The Master of Mysticism,” in The New York Review of Books. XXVII (December 18, 1980), pp. 37-39.
Riemer, Jack. Review in America. CXLIII (November 1, 1980), p. 274.
Scholem, Gershom. Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, 1981.
Sherman, A. J. Review in Library Journal. CV (September 1, 1980), p. 1728.