Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.