A convert to Judaism was deeply influenced by a prolific Jewish intellectual.
Melding biography and memoir, National Jewish Book Award winner Prochnik (The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, 2014, etc.) examines the life and work of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), philological archaeologist of the mystical roots of Judaism. For Prochnik, Scholem “loomed as a kind of prophet,” offering “something closer to revelation than anything I could discover in normative Judaism.” Indeed, normative Judaism—to which Prochnik converted in his 20s—failed him just as it had failed Scholem. Growing up in a bourgeois, assimilated German family, Scholem became a Zionist at the age of 11, vowing to go to Palestine, and by his teens, he became obsessed with cabala, a network of “widely diversified and often contradictory” texts. At the age of 17, he met Walter Benjamin, beginning an intense, sometimes-difficult friendship based on common passions. Prochnik traces the evolution of Scholem’s parsing of “the underlying cosmological principles” of cabala, “its metaphysics.” Although Prochnik faithfully and respectfully offers a detailed examination of these metaphysical works, they remain abstract and paradoxical; many who knew Scholem concluded that he “was just a maze of contradictions.” Readers are likely to agree. In contrast, Prochnik vividly renders his own journey to define his relationship to Judaism, which took him and his wife to Jerusalem in search of a spiritual home. They were following Scholem’s path to find “some more galvanizing external form of Judaism” than what they found in America, something “higher and purer.” As they settled into Israeli culture, however, they found increasing consumerism, turbulent politics, violence that included the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and the election of right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, and strife and oppression among Palestinians that they struggled to fully understand. Frustrated, unable to make a living, the family decided to return to the U.S., where the marriage finally unraveled and where Prochnik’s commitment to both Zionism and Judaism floundered.
An uneven but candid testament of two men passionately trying to revive and reimagine Judaism.