cover image Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem

Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem

George Prochnik. Other Press, $27.95 (528p) ISBN 978-1-59051-776-5

Prochnik (The Impossible Exile) effectively and movingly combines a nuanced biography of Gershom Scholem, who “singlehandedly created an academic discipline [Jewish Mysticism] out of an obscure theological tradition [study of the Kabbalah],” with a warts-and-all autobiography that recounts Prochnik’s search for meaning in his own life. The contrast between the physical and the spiritual is manifest from the opening section, as Prochnik engages even readers with no knowledge of his subject by recounting how he visited Scholem’s old house in Jerusalem to find it abandoned and derelict. He interweaves Scholem’s life story, starting with his boyhood in Berlin, with his own, alternating sections that illustrate how both he and his subject dealt with the contrast of the reality of the State of Israel with its idealistic aspirations. Scholem was prominent in the pre-state Brit Shalom movement, which advocated a binational Arab-Jewish state in Palestine; Prochnik, who lived in Israel with his wife in the 1990s, confronted the dehumanizing aspects of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the profound trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He also makes Scholem’s study of Jewish mystical texts, and of the 17th-century false messiah Sabbatai Sevi, interesting and accessible. This is a powerful must-read for anyone interested in how people of faith struggle to live in the real world. (Mar.)