Noam Zadoff begins his biography of Gershon Scholem, one of the 20th century’s greatest scholars and an equally perplexing intellectual, at the point where Scholem ends his own autobiography From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth—with his arrival in Jerusalem in 1923. Gershom Scholem: From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back (Brandeis University Press, 2018) situates Scholem’s thought in the context of his biography, by skillfully reading Scholem’s self-fashioning against the grain and together with materials held in his archive. With particular focus on his conflicted and shifting relationship to Germany and German thought and language, Zadoff contributes to the ever-growing scholarship about Scholem.
Zadoff moves beyond Scholem’s early ambivalence towards German culture as he sought a Jewish future in Israel during the inter-war years. Despite his early rejection of Jewish-German assimilation and his idiosyncratic Zionist dreams, we find that not only was his world-view framed in reference to Germany—of his youth, the Holocaust, and the after-war years—but this relationship becomes a barometer to understand his evolving thought.
The book is divided into three sections, the first of which focuses on Scholem’s early period in Jerusalem, his political activities there, relationship to the Hebrew Language, and to the Hebrew University. The next section is about Scholem’s response to the Holocaust and his pivotal role in collecting and reclaiming manuscripts and books that were looted from the Jewish communities of Europe. The last, and perhaps most revealing section, focuses on Scholem’s “return to Germany,” during the last part of his life, particularly his involvement in the Eranos seminars. Zadoff begins the book by asking how the images of Scholem in Israel and Germany could be of the same person, at home he was known as a fiery intellectual, demanding German teacher, and scholar of the kabbalah, while in Germany he was a literary personality and a nostalgic link to German culture of the pre-War years. At its conclusion, we are left with a well argued narrative that does not strip its subject of its complexity.
Noam Zadoff is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and of History, and the Director of Olamot Center at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Moses Lapin is a graduate student in the departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an avid lepidopterist.