- Hardcover: 544 pages
- Publisher: Other Press (March 21, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1590517768
- ISBN-13: 978-1590517765
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #817,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem Hardcover – March 21, 2017
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Praise for Stranger in a Strange Land
*SHORTLISTED FOR WINGATE PRIZE (UK)*
“A hunt through the crevices of one life in search of clues that might unlock the mysteries—intellectual, religious, political and psychological—of another…Prochnik sought out Jewish tradition precisely because he understood it as a wellspring of energy—sparks he could use to power up a life disconnected from an deeper source of meaning…the last 20 pages beam with light—a radiant justification of the preceding darkness that comes close to, well, perfect.” —NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REIVEW
"Harold Bloom considered Scholem 'not less than a prophet,' declaring that for many contemporary Jewish intellectuals, 'the Kabbalah of Gershom Scholem is now more normative than normative Judaism itself.' And yet many people haven’t heard of him. George Prochnik aims to change this with his book 'Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem.' Prochnik is the author of several books, most recently ‘The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,’ which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2014. In ‘Stranger in a Strange Land,’ he again mixes biography and memoir, digging deep into Scholem’s life and work while telling the story of his own relationship with Judaism and Jerusalem, the adopted city of both author and subject….[using] a colorful style…But it’s the way Prochnik weaves memoir through this intellectual biography that shows how thoroughly the author’s own life has twined with Scholem’s ideas. Just as a mystic ascends from one palace to the next in Kabbalah cosmology, Scholem’s life and work have led Prochnik from phase to phase of his own.”—WASHINGTON POST
"Stranger in a Strange Land, by George Prochnik (Other). Gershom Scholem, the renowned historian and theologian, was instrumental in the formation of twentieth-century Zionism and played a crucial role in revitalizing Jewish mysticism. He was also a fractious man of “unrepentant multiplicity,” and once fancied himself the Messiah. Entwining memoir with biography, Prochnik skillfully chronicles Scholem’s intellectual and personal life, including his passionate friendship with Walter Benjamin; his 1923 emigration from Berlin to Jerusalem; and his ambivalent attitude toward the evolution of Zionism, which eventually, he believed, “triumphed itself to death.” Prochnik’s account of his own sojourn in Jerusalem illuminates the ongoing struggle to reconcile Zionist ideals with political realities and to envision possibilities for breaking “the spell of hopelessness” in a divided land." —NEW YORKER
“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
"...George Prochnik has produced a book of remarkable erudition and emotional depth that plays the life and thinking of Gershom Scholem against his own. This is at once a compelling intellectual biography of the formidable Scholem and a piercing personal memoir. The two threads together tell a story of Jews in Israel in a way too often overlooked: not in sweeping terms of faith and nations and history, but in the more intimate terms of what people do to make their way in the world, and what they tell each other and themselves as they do it." —LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
"In the wake of so much political turmoil, we’re hungry for books that diagnose our broken world: books that lay out a grand ethical program and claw back some hope for humanity...In Gershom Scholem, the historian who popularized the study of Kabbalistic and Messianic movements in Judaism, I’ve found a refreshing vision of revolutionary change and justice, stimulating the utopian imagination beyond the traditional touchstones of leftist thought...Stranger in a Strange Land, an excellent new biography of Scholem...If you’re interested in reading more about Scholem, Prochnik’s Stranger is the best place to start—it elegantly tracks Prochnik’s experiences in modern Jerusalem against Scholem’s life." —THE PARIS REVIEW
“Ardent, beautifully written book.” —GUARDIAN
"George Prochnik blends history, philosophy, and memoir with exemplary panache in this fascinating account of an intellectual and spiritual journey. But he never loses sight of the essential questions: How are we to live? And in what kind of world?"
—Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present
“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
“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
“…an intriguing…dual-track biography of the author and the Jewish writer, philosopher, and mystic Gershom Scholem. Like Scholem, Prochnik (The Impossible Exile, 2014) has repeatedly been engaged in an intellectual and spiritual quest, searching for a balance between the physical and the ethereal and touching on the nature of Jewish identity. Prochnik alternates between his own experiences living in Israel in the 1990s and Scholem’s life and intellectual evolution in the emerging Zionist state. Along with his deep emotional attachment to Israel, Prochnik was troubled by the dehumanizing aspects of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Scholem, born in Berlin, was a cultural rather than a political Zionist. He hoped for a binational state in Palestine, an idealistic aspiration frustrated by both Jewish and Arab nationalism…a stimulating examination of the struggles of both men to reconcile their idealism with reality.” —BOOKLIST
“On this spiritual journey, writer Prochnik...traces the intellectual and mystical arc of Gershom Scholem, the German-born Israeli philosopher who advanced theories of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism…complex and intricate…for readers drawn to Jewish mysticism and Jewish messianism and those interested in Prochnik’s peregrinations in the footsteps of Scholem, Sabbatai Zevi, and Theodore Herzl.” —LIBRARY JOURNAL
“…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
“Books by Jewish writers on Jewish topics usually carry a heavy personal subtext...what does it mean to be a Jew—for me to be a Jew?... The genius of George Prochnik, in his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, is that he surfaces this subtext and makes it his explicit subject. The result is an immersive, passionate work that is really two books spliced together. The first is a quasi-biography of Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of Jewish mysticism, whose life encompassed the greatest Jewish quandaries of the twentieth century. The second is a personal memoir, in which Prochnik describes his own experience of moving from America to Israel, where he lived and raised a family for more than a decade, and then moving back again. Sections of these two tales alternate, creating a meaningful counterpoint, for they are really variations on the same story. Prochnik loves Scholem—and this is clearly a book written out of love, not mere interest or duty—because he offers a role model for a soul in quest of an authentic way to be Jewish…Prochnik performs impressive feats of concise elucidation, taking the reader through Scholem’s life, times, and work in under 500 pages…This book is worthy of the rich, ambivalent, complex, and compelling stories it has to tell; more than a work of history, it is a document of the living spirit of Judaism.” –BARNES & NOBLE REVIEW
“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
“Prochnik’s book presents an uneasy political–mystical tour through Scholem’s writing and his own Jerusalem, now lost forever. What makes it a unique and brilliant contribution to current debates about Palestine is that in his reading of Scholem, Prochnik finds simultaneously both the echoes of the forces—messianic, national, and colonial—that keep tearing the region apart, and also the kernel of something precious to be salvaged. From the abyss of our despair, Prochnik manages to do what so few others can: imagine a future of living together.”
—Eyal Weizman, author of Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London
“George Prochnik is a great practitioner of the art of auto-nonfiction, the writing of intellectual history in which a past life is quickened again by the keen presence of the author. Yet Prochnik never obtrudes; rather, his beautiful sentences guide us, gently but surely, through both the often-complex thinking of his subjects and the often-traumatic events of their lives. As in his biography of the mercurial Stefan Zweig, alienation is foregrounded in this account of the scholarly Gershom Scholem (who inscribed it in his adopted name, Gershom, meaning “stranger in a strange land”). But loss is lightened here by the Scholemian conviction that the Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of biblical interpretation of which he was the world expert, offers not only a key to the broken past but also a call to its healing. If the Kabbalah appeared to Scholem as an allegory of Jewish exile, Zionism was his way to bring this wandering to an end. As a young man Prochnik was fired by similar hopes, and in what he describes elsewhere as a ‘shadow-arc’ of his subject, he too emigrated to Jerusalem—only, like Scholem, to be disillusioned by the state politics he encountered there. Yet even that loss is lightened somewhat, for Prochnik came to discover what Scholem had also learned: how we are then mandated to ‘live responsibly, inside history.’ That ethical invitation is heard in every sentence of this inspiring book.”
—Hal Foster, author of Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency
“Reading this utterly absorbing book, I felt like the stranger in the title, led by the hand through the complementary landscapes of two lives: Gershom Scholem’s and the author’s. Moving between them with deftness and artistry, Prochnik holds the reader’s attention at every turn. In the process, he casts new light on Kabbalah and develops a critique of Zionism that is as thought-provoking as any I have read.”
—Brian Klug, author of Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life
“Gershom Scholem…a scholar of Judaism has become an inspiration to those yearning to find a religious center in their lives…Enter George Prochnik, born in 1961, the author of “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World” (2014) and himself something of a specialist in exile.” —WALL STREET JOURNAL
About the Author
George Prochnik’s most recent book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, received the National Jewish Book Award for Biography/Memoir in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize in the UK. Prochnik is also the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (2010), and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology (2006). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bookforum and the LA Review of Books, and is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine.
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In one year, 1915, Scholem, seventeen going on eighteen, convinced himself that he was a Zionist, discovered the Kabbalah, got thrown out of high school, met Walter Benjamin (he was older than Scholem but still young, not yet the iconic critic of modernity he would later become) for the first time, and kissed his first girlfriend. He lived in Berlin then. Looking out his bedroom window at the snow falling one day, he wrote in his journal:
Earth is a snowflake’s destiny. For snow, fate is an unknown, inexplicable, and ‘terrestrial’ power. We also put up resistance when we plunge into an unexpected abyss, and we also melt. We are snowflakes with a bit more distinction.
“… we plunge into an unexpected abyss, and we also melt.” The notion of the abyss, our inability to know what it contained or would do to us –these would be dominating themes, an idee force, for the rest of his long, productive life.
Later, still young, he wrote: “Reason is a stupid man’s longing.” He wasn’t against the use of reason. Indeed, throughout his life he employed the tools of logical analysis and close reading in his own work. But, for Scholem, reason ended before meaning arrived –it was the soul’s, emotion’s, meaning that counted, not cold bare logic. To achieve meaning, we have to make a leap.
Scholem saw himself as a Jew through and through, and lived and worked in Israel for most of his adult life (1923-1982). But he thought that Judaism had taken a wrong step. My apologies: what follows is less elegantly explained than it deserves to be. Scholem argued that Moses’s separation of God from Nature and Man ignored an earlier, richer view of the relationship of man and God, in which God never separated from us at all and resided in nature rather that solely outside it. Scholem’s used the analogy of the writer: God was the master writer, who created Man and nature using letters, which remained encoded in our nature, waiting only for us to crack the code and reunite with the Maker. The result would be reason and logic underpinned by raw feeling, and a uniting of God, nature and man, opening up the possibility of all sorts of good things.
The Kabbalah was the key to this enlightenment. As diverse as the scattered texts of individual Kabbalists are, Prochnik captures the common message thusly: “if a Kabbalist turned the skin of creation into glass, he would see streaming letters and words beneath every surface –alphabets ribboning inside every limb of the body; Hebrew characters scrolling under the exteriors of stones, stalks, and leaves.” There is much detail in the book: the history of the Kabbalah from the early Middle Ages on through the tangled history of the seventeenth-century false Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi; discussion of Scholem’s complicated relationship to his adopted state of Israel (he never really adopted it, just lived there, but did in certain respects champion it); many other topics. Some of the descriptive and explanatory passages are just right, cutting through the obscurity and vagueness of many of the Kabbalist writings.
Around this tale, in alternating sections, Prochnik traces his own growth and maturing. He grows up in New York City. Is troubled by the materialism of his relatives. Meets a woman who is equally repelled what she sees around her. There must be more to a religious life than this. They marry, reform their own observing life. Eventually, they move to Jerusalem to live a wholly Jewish life. Prochnik, much less his wife, can’t abandon himself to what he sees as the mindless rule following of the orthodox. They have a child but their life together begins to fall apart. They find it harder and harder to make ends meet. They move back to New York but are increasingly out of sync. They divorce. And Prochnik is left trying to make sense out of his somewhat disordered life. Through it all, Scholem’s essays on the Kabbalah are an influence on the author. (Prochnik’s great-grandfather, the American psychoanalyst James Jackson Putnam, had tried to convince Freud that in the course of their therapies, patients needed to find a higher sense of purpose. In one of his essays, he had quoted the Bible: “The people who do not have visions shall perish from the face of the earth.” One way to approach this book, which has many excellences, is to see it as a circular exposition of non-linear truths about living in a complicated world. Thus Prochnik helps explain Scholem, and Scholem Prochnik, and the Biblical inscription that the author’s ancestor used in an essay on psychoanalytic theory illuminates both.
(A side comment: the photographs used in this text are almost magical and add to both the meaning and tone of the book.)
The author, George Prochnik and his wife became so involved in Judaism that they converted to Judaism and went to Aalyiah (Jews who immigrate to Israel). They lived in Jerusalem, Israel with their growing family but they faced plenty of obstacles about living in Jerusalem in the 1980s and 1990s until they decided to return home. To them, Jerusalem was their home spiritually and physically but not entirely easy. Leaving was a hardship for them after so many years of living there.
This book covers plenty of thought about Zionism, Judaism, Kabbalah, and Middle Eastern politics especially about the Palestinian situation. The author writes about the suicide bombings, the growing disparity between Israelis and Palestinians, and actual life in Israel. The author felt somewhat guilt for being a Jewish American while his Palestinian students faced checkpoints and body searches as a routine part of life. The author's wife also faced persecution for being caught immodest by her Orthodox Jewish students outside of school. His wife, Anne, who wasn't born Jewish but gladly converted and immersed herself into the culture, religion and Israeli life like her husband.
I have to say that Gershom Scholem was a fascinating Jewish philosopher about Zionism and Judaism in the twentieth century where Israel began as a idea for the Zionists and a refuge for European Jews escaping from Anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe. The book is an overwhelming read and is well worth the time and effort in better understanding Scholem and life in Israel past and present.