Publication Date: Mar 21, 2017
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A nonfiction bildungsroman of one of the twentieth century’s most important humanist thinkers, that also tells an intimate story of the author’s own youth, marriage, and spiritual quest in Jerusalem.
In Stranger in a Strange Land, George Prochnik revisits the life and work of Gershom Scholem, whose once prominent reputation, as a Freud-like interpreter of the inner world of the cosmos, has faded in the United States. He vividly recreates Scholem’s upbringing in Berlin and brings to life Scholem’s transformative friendship with Walter Benjamin, the critic and philosopher. In doing so, he reveals how Scholem’s frustration with the bourgeois ideology of Germany during the First World War led him to discover Judaism, Kabbalah, and finally Zionism, as potent counter-forces to Europe’s suicidal nationalism.
Prochnik’s self-imposed exile in the Holy Land in the 1990s brings him to question the intellectual and theological constructs of Jerusalem, and to rediscover the city as a physical place, rife with the unruliness and fecundity of nature. Prochnik ultimately suggests that a new form of ecological pluralism must now inherit the energizing role once played by Kabbalah and Zionism in Jewish thought.
Excerpt from Stranger in a Strange Land
While I walked through Rehavia, I wondered what Scholem would have made of all these changes in the city. The complexity of his thinking makes it hazardous to draw conclusions. He was repelled by what he called “traditional national Jewish theology,” but his life-work centered on the effort to revivify a vast corpus of religious ideas, partly to make Jews aware of their power to reimagine and seize control of their destiny. Whereas post-Enlightenment Jewish authorities had effectively buried mysticism, Scholem relished the notion that by bringing Kabbalah out of the murky, disreputable underground to which it had been consigned by mainstream guardians of the faith, he would be reintroducing an explosive element into a neutered spiritual and historical consciousness. Even if he danced the fence on the question of whether it was still possible to actually be a Kabbalist, Scholem felt that the jolt normative Judaism would receive by confronting its mystical substrate could only be salutary—potentially even salvational for the contemporary disassociated religious self. The parallels with Freud’s project are obvious, but Scholem was seeking to recover from the depths of institutionalized repression the demon-and-sex-rife netherworld of an entire culture. And he was doing so not to buttress reason by elevating awareness of what lay below the veneer of civilization, but to puncture that surface with a vitalizing shot of the irrational.
“A stimulating examination of the struggles of Gershom Scholem and Prochnik to reconcile their idealism with reality.” —Booklist
“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…This is a powerful must-read for anyone interested in how people of faith struggle to live in the real world.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“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… Prochnik vividly renders his own journey to define his relationship to Judaism… [a] candid testament of two men passionately trying to revive and reimagine Judaism.” —Kirkus
“…Prochnik is possessed of an agile, probing mind, and in his latest, he applies it to understanding the life of Gershom Sholem, intellectual mystic and friend to Walter Benjamin, devotee of the Kabbalah and devoted Zionist.” —Literary Hub
“What a wonderful book this is: gripping, illuminating, beautifully constructed, and full of the communicative energy that comes from things long in gestation but written with fire and speed. It does so many things so well—the portrait of Scholem himself, the account of his work, the study of friendship that comes about through the sustained presence of Walter Benjamin, the evocations of Jerusalem and New York, above all the paralleling of Prochnik’s own story with Scholem’s. The extraordinary affinities between author and subject give the book an emotional intensity that complements its erudition and lends power to its final, audacious, inspiring claim on the reader’s capacity for hope.” —James Lasdun, author of The Fall Guy
“In his previous book, George Prochnik gave us a moving portrait of Stefan Zweig, the Viennese Jew who wrote tenderly of the ‘world of yesterday’—the liberal Europe that collapsed with apocalyptic consequences in the 1930s—and killed himself in his Brazilian exile rather than die in its flames. In his powerful new book, Prochnik offers us a portrait of a Berlin Jew, fifteen years Zweig’s junior, who made a very different choice: to renounce the dream of a liberal Europe and remake himself, and his people, in Palestine. Gerhard Scholem, who would become the famous scholar of the Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, upheld a cultural version of Zionism, and spoke of the need for Arab–Jewish coexistence; yet over time he accommodated himself to the often brutal practices of the Jewish state, which turned Palestinians into strangers in their own land. In the late 1980s, as Palestinians in the Occupied Territories launched their first intifada, Prochnik, an American Jew from the suburbs, settled in Jerusalem with his family, inspired by Scholem’s vision of a renewed Jewish cultural vitality, only to discover that this vision lay in ruins, no match for the muscular, expansionist Zionism with which it had made a marriage of convenience. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Prochnik writes of Scholem’s dream—and of his own—with a rare and affecting combination of authority and vulnerability. This is a deeply felt work of critique and elegy, a probing examination of the subject of our time: the temptations, and the dangers, of belonging.” —Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books
Praise for The Impossible Exile:
“[A] superbly lyrical study…The Impossible Exile is not really–or not just–a biography of Zweig’s final years. It is a case study of dislocation, of people who had not only lost a home but who were no longer able to define the meaning of home…Mr. Prochnik gives a very rich sense of what so many exiles experienced during the war…[his] words could not be more resonant.” —André Aciman, The Wall Street Journal
“Poignant, insightful.” —The New Yorker
“[A]n intriguing…meditation on Zweig’s last years…an intellectual feast served as a series of canapes.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Subtle, prodigiously researched and enduringly human throughout, The Impossible Exile is a portrait of a man and of his endless flight.” —The Economist
“The Impossible Exile [is] a gripping, unusually subtle, poignant, and honest study. Prochnik attempts, on the basis of an uncompromising investigation, to clarify the motives that might have driven to suicide an author who still enjoyed a rare popularity.” —Anka Muhlstein, New York Review of Books