Cover image for A life in letters, 1914-1982
A life in letters, 1914-1982
Scholem, Gershom, 1897-1982.
Uniform Title:
Correspondence. English. Selections
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
vii, 547 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Added Author:
Format :


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BM755.S295 A4 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Perhaps the greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism in the twentieth century, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) once said of himself, "I have no biography, only a bibliography." Yet, in thousands of letters written over his lifetime, his biography does unfold, inscribing a life that epitomized the intellectual ferment and political drama of an era. This selection of the best and most representative letters--drawn from the 3000 page German edition--gives readers an intimate view of this remarkable man, from his troubled family life in Germany to his emergence as one of the leading lights of Israel during its founding and formative years.

In the letters, we witness the travails and vicissitudes of the Scholem family, a drama in which Gershom is banished by his father for his anti-kaiser Zionist sentiments; his antiwar, socialist brother is hounded and murdered; and his mother and remaining brothers are forced to emigrate. We see Scholem's friendships with some of the most intriguing intellectuals of the twentieth century--such as Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno--blossom and, on occasion, wither. And we learn firsthand about his Zionist commitment and his scholarly career, from his move to Palestine in the 1920s to his work as Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University. Over the course of seven decades that comprised the most significant events of the twentieth century, these letters reveal how Scholem's scholarship is informed by the experiences he so eloquently described.

Author Notes

Gershom Scholem's contribution to the understanding of Jewish mysticism is so dramatic that it warrants a separate introduction. As a young student of mathematics, he became a Zionist and his interest shifted to Jewish history. Scholem moved from Germany to become the librarian of the new University and National Library in Jerusalem in 1923 and served as a professor at Hebrew University from 1935 to 1965. Before him, Jewish historians during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scorned the ignored mystical dimension of Judaism as a relic of premodern superstition and ignorance. Scholem's erudition and deep insight gave Cabala a scholarly audience. His writings are often difficult to read, but they are indispensable for any thorough knowledge of the subject of Jewish mysticism. (Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

David, a research fellow at Hebrew University in Israel, has ably translated and edited a wide-ranging selection of letters from the life of this master scholar of Jewish mysticism. Most of the letters (only a fraction of those extant) appear here in English for the first time. David's selection illuminates a question that has always haunted readers of Scholem (1897-1982): How did the personality of this overly dignified and self-confident academic relate to the unbridled otherworldliness in the texts he analyzed with such seeming detachment? Several answers hover between the lines of the letters, among them that kabbalah, like Scholem's other lifelong commitment, Zionism, was a Jewish focus uncorrupted by assimilationist self-delusions. The play of answers only further heightens the enjoyment of these letters, whose topics and moods vary so entertainingly. We watch Scholem: feign mental imbalance to escape military service in Germany, worry his mother with his imperious requests from Palestine for books and specialty foods, argue politics and Judaism with the likes of Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Cynthia Ozick. Though an early assessment of Scholem given by two of his correspondents, that he was "somewhat immodest" and of "irritable tempest," never lose their relevance, a sweet, sad indulgence suspends those traits whenever he speaks of or to that incarnation of (in Scholem's words) "sterling purity," Walter Benjamin. One may imagine this man of contradictions smiling down at a reader's presumption that there is a real Scholem to discover at all, and laugh over the posthumous perdurance of his self-confessed "ability to deceive the world." (Mar. 26) Forecast: This will be a backlist staple for serious readers of intellectual history and Jewish studies. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Scholem was a giant in the scholarly study of Jewish mysticism, responsible for bringing the Kabbalah in particular to the attention of academia. However, the letters Skinner (Hebrew Univ.) presents here reveal more of Scholem as a person than as a scholar. Scholem saw the two as intimately connected and would likely argue that these documents do aid in understanding his work. The decision to focus on the personal has the benefit of unearthing several fascinating firsthand accounts of critical events in 20th-century Jewish and European history. Between Scholem and his correspondents we see Germany during World War I, Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, Germany during the rise of Hitler, and the creation and evolution of the state of Israel. These larger pictures are filtered through the daily lives of Scholem and his family and friends (many noted intellectuals in their own right). Skinner provides context through his introductions and footnotes, but this book is not intended for those without historical background in the periods covered. Recommended for academic libraries and essential for those with Judaica collections. Stephen Joseph, Butler Cty. Community Coll., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

I A Jewish Zarathustra, 1914-1918
II Unlocking the Gates, 1919-1932
III Redemption through Sin, 1933-1947
IV Master Magician Emeritus, 1948-1982
Notes Selected