GERSHOM SCHOLEM: A Life in Letters, 1914–1982

Gershom Gerhard Scholem, Author, Anthony David Skinner, Editor, Anthony David Skinner, Translator . Harvard Univ. $35 (560p) ISBN 978-0-674-00642-3

David, a research fellow at Hebrew University in Israel, has ably translated and edited a wide-ranging selection of letters from the life of this master scholar of Jewish mysticism. Most of the letters (only a fraction of those extant) appear here in English for the first time. David's selection illuminates a question that has always haunted readers of Scholem (1897–1982): How did the personality of this overly dignified and self-confident academic relate to the unbridled otherworldliness in the texts he analyzed with such seeming detachment? Several answers hover between the lines of the letters, among them that kabbalah, like Scholem's other lifelong commitment, Zionism, was a Jewish focus uncorrupted by assimilationist self-delusions. The play of answers only further heightens the enjoyment of these letters, whose topics and moods vary so entertainingly. We watch Scholem: feign mental imbalance to escape military service in Germany, worry his mother with his imperious requests from Palestine for books and specialty foods, argue politics and Judaism with the likes of Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Cynthia Ozick. Though an early assessment of Scholem given by two of his correspondents, that he was "somewhat immodest" and of "irritable tempest," never lose their relevance, a sweet, sad indulgence suspends those traits whenever he speaks of or to that incarnation of (in Scholem's words) "sterling purity," Walter Benjamin. One may imagine this man of contradictions smiling down at a reader's presumption that there is a real Scholem to discover at all, and laugh over the posthumous perdurance of his self-confessed "ability to deceive the world." (Mar. 26)

Forecast:This will be a backlist staple for serious readers of intellectual history and Jewish studies.

Reviewed on: 01/28/2002
Release date: 04/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
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