German-born Gerhard (Gershom) Scholem (1897–1982), the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, delved into the historical analysis of kabbalistic literature from late antiquity to the twentieth century. His writings traverse Jewish historiography, Zionism, the phenomenology of mystical religion, and the spiritual and political condition of contemporary Judaism and Jewish civilization. Scholem famously recounted rejecting his parents’ assimilationist liberalism in favor of Zionism and immigrating to Palestine in 1923, where he became a central figure in the German Jewish immigrant community that dominated the nation’s intellectual landscape in Mandatory Palestine. Despite Scholem’s public renunciation of Germany for Israel, Zadoff explores how the life and work of Scholem reflect ambivalence toward Zionism and his German origins.
A Young German Jewish Man Arrives in Palestine
On the morning of September 20, 1923, Yom Kippur, a coastal steamer slowly approached the port of Jaffa in Palestine. The ship, “which bore freight and a few passengers and anchored in various ports between Alexandria and Istan- bul,” was arriving from Egypt one day late, after being unexpectedly delayed in Port Said.2 Among the few passengers on deck were two young men who had been born in Germany, each of whom was to become, in his respective field, a pathfinder in the history of twentieth-century Jewish studies. One of them, the Orientalist Shlomo Dov Goitein, remained on the anchored ship and sailed on to Haifa, the next port. The other, Gershom Scholem—whose fiancée, Escha Burchhardt, had come to greet him—disembarked and arrived, for the first time in his twenty-six years, at his desired destination, in Zion. After spending ten days in Tel Aviv and Ein-Ganim, near Petach-Tikvah, where he spent the Sukkot holiday with friends from his Zionist youth movement in Berlin who had come to Palestine a short time before him, Scholem reached Jerusalem, where he lived until his death. Professionally speaking, Scholem’s absorption into Palestine was easy and rapid. In his first week in Jerusalem he had two job offers. The first was to serve as a mathematics teacher in the teachers’ college in Jerusalem, and the second was to become a librarian in the Hebrew Department of the National and University Library. The library’s director, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, was to become a close friend of Scholem. The two had already met in Bern, and Scholem lived in Bergmann’s house immediately after his arrival in Jerusalem. After some hesitation, Scholem chose the librarian’s job, though the salary was lower. In the library he could deal solely with topics that interested him, whereas he had some trepidation about being a teacher: “As a teacher I would have to correct papers in the afternoon as well, and who could say whether my pupils would not laugh at my Berlin-accent Hebrew?” he wrote in his memoirs.3 Scholem worked in the
National Library for about four years, until he received a full-time appointment as a lecturer in Kabbalah at the new Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
From a personal point of view as well it appears that Scholem’s highly suc- cessful adaption to life in the Land of Israel took only a short time. On Decem- ber 5, his birthday, he married his fiancée, Escha Burchhardt, on the roof of the Mizrachi teachers’ seminary in the center of town. Rabbi Simcha Assaf—who later became a professor of Talmud, the rector of the Hebrew University, and a member of the Israeli Supreme Court—officiated at the wedding. (Gershom and Escha’s marriage lasted twelve years. In 1936 they divorced, and Gershom mar- ried Fania Freud, his student—a marriage that lasted for the rest of his life.) In December 1924 Gershom and Escha lived in a rented apartment on Ethio- pia Street, at the edge of the Meah Shearim neighborhood. At that time Meah Shearim was full of old Hebrew books, including works of Kabbalah, for which there was almost no demand, and they were sold very cheaply. Thus, Scholem, an enthusiastic book collector, was able to explore that “dialectical Paradise,” as he called it, and enlarge his library without interference, at least until other book collectors arrived and expressed interest in esoteric Hebrew literature.
In other ways as well, Scholem adjusted without significant difficulty. His body became used to the local climate without succumbing to any of the many diseases that ordinarily afflicted immigrants,5 and in his memoirs he described
his arrival in Palestine as entering a new social network that lasted for many years. He made friends with immigrants of longer standing, most of whom had come from Eastern Europe, and renewed old friendships, mainly with members of the Zionist youth movement in Germany who were working in agricultural settlements.