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The Clown of Kabbalah

What was it about Scholem’s voice that allowed it to resonate so far beyond the confines of his esoteric sphere?

One afternoon in 1980, the American writer Cynthia Ozick called on Gershom Scholem, the magisterial scholar of Jewish mysticism and messianism, then 83, at his home on Abarbanel Street in Jerusalem. She revered her host as “an historian who remade the world… possibly the boldest mind-adventurer of our generation.” On entering his apartment, however, she encountered not an oracle but a clown. “The first thing you see is this painting,” Ozick recalled, “and it’s a picture of a clown. And the face of the clown is uncanny. It resembles Gershom Scholem. I was caught by it. And that was the first thing he said that astounded me: ‘I have it there because it represents me.’”

Three recent books shed light on what Scholem’s gnomic utterance could have meant. George Prochnik opens his hybrid biography-memoir, Stranger in a Strange Land, with his own pilgrimage, decades later, to the same house. He finds it untenanted and overgrown with shrubs. The sight prompts him to wonder, “Does Scholem’s intellectual legacy now lie similarly abandoned and subsumed?”

David Biale, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and Amir Engel, a lecturer in the German department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, begin their more sober biographies with the same question posed from the opposite angle: thirty-five years after his death, what is the secret to Scholem’s abiding influence far beyond his arcane field? How did he transform himself, as Biale puts it, into “that rare luminary in the scholarly firmament: a public intellectual who spoke with authority beyond his field of expertise”? How did this professor come to rivet the attention of poets as diverse as Paul Celan and Allen Ginsberg; novelists like Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco and S.Y. Agnon; and thinkers like Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade?

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