A Scholar's Beginnings (Extract)

21scholem (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract of an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The newly translated diaries of the young Gershom Scholem offer a fascinating glimpse into his early intellectual and personal development in Berlin For those seeking a portrait of Berlin during the First World War, the youthful diaries of Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism - newly published in English as "Lamentations of Youth" - may prove confounding. His musings, recorded from ages 15 to 22, show a near neglect of the superficial world for its own sake. Scholem instead probes for symbols and obscure meaning, taking readers on detours that will leave many at a loss. Consider a snowfall in January 1915. As the 17-year-old Scholem sees it, "Snow swirls down in front of my window in minutely small flakes. The smaller snowflakes put up resistance: they don't want to sink down, though they must... For snow, fate is an unknown, inexplicable, and 'terrestrial' power. I can apply this to humans. Snowflakes don't believe in eternal life. Nor is there any reason - besides megalomania, which is hardly a strong argument - why we should think differently. Yes, we're no better than snowflakes. We also put up resistance when we plunge into an unexpected abyss, and we also melt..." The diaries have been translated and edited down extensively from the unabridged German edition (published in 2002) by historian Anthony David Skinner. Considering Scholem's restless mind, the selections flow together smoothly, with end notes giving background on scores of writers and thinkers, many of them all but forgotten today. By omitting hundreds of pages of likely arcane musings, Skinner spares non-scholarly readers headaches - even though the full content would have provided a useful record of Scholem's intellectual development. Throughout the diaries, Scholem focuses on the books he reads and acquaintances he meets with singular intensity. But the entries reflect more than just the maneuverings of a precocious mind; they also give insight into a formidable personality. Scholem comes across as relentlessly principled, judgmental, with only a strained sense of humor, and alternately self-exalting and self-critical. The overall portrait is not entirely sympathetic. Scholem's intimate friend Walter Benjamin - who was engaged in his doctoral studies when Scholem, then still in gymnasium (high school), met him at a lecture in Berlin - once mocked his "outrageous wholesomeness." At times Scholem's tendency toward self-rebuke rises to a frightening pitch: "I am such a liar that I may have to make believe I live a heroic life because I'm too dishonest to kill myself. Suicide requires completeness," he writes in a September 1917 entry. This threat of suicide, invariably tied to feelings of intellectual dishonesty, recurs throughout the volume, and may exemplify not only the writer's personal volatility but also the mood among certain idealistic peers. Benjamin's close companion, the poet Fritz Heinle, committed suicide along with his girlfriend, presumably in protest against the Great War. Scholem, too, vehemently opposed the war. Yet Scholem's seriousness does not preclude him from experiencing the usual turmoil and thrills of youth. He writes after his first kiss: "I love Meta [Jahr] dearly, and yet I find myself in the same abyss as before. I kissed her and cuddled with her. Was I allowed to do this? She has blossomed like a flower in springtime." He later describes his feverish and unrequited attraction, nearing worship, to his friend Erich Brauer's older sister: "...I walked for an hour with Grete all the way to her hotel. I can't do a thing about it: Grete's stillness and greatness wield total power over me." Elsewhere, particularly in his earlier entries, Scholem's overblown prose reminds us that he is still young. "Oh, what a superior kind of rebellion Werther communicates!" he proclaims after reading Goethe. The diarist's less-fraught remarks, sometimes unintentionally amusing, offer a glimpse into the historical period. "Because of the victory at Kutno (with 28,000 prisoners taken!)," he records on November 17, 1914, "there was no school today, only a celebration." He later expresses indifference to the bombast accompanying Kaiser Wilhelm's birthday celebration. "[It] doesn't cheer or move me in the slightest," he writes. "[He] can't do much more than repeat tired phrases and bore people with his eternal god, who he always has by his side." If Scholem's diaries offer only a limited picture of daily life in the Germany of his adolescence, they do give a vibrant sense of the debates and decisions faced by young Jews of the era. That era included a legacy of Jewish conversions to Christianity. In his book covering two centuries of Jewish life in Germany, "The Pity of It All," Amos Elon writes that by the 1850s, "only four of [philosopher] Moses Mendelssohn's 56 descendants were still Jews." Around the time of World War I, about one in five young Jewish men in Germany were converting to Christianity, mainly to attain professional and academic advancement. Jason Warshof is a writer living in Massachusetts. Extract of an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.