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The Archive, the Students, and the Emotions of a German Israeli Intellectual

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 415-428 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0022

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When the Berlin-born Jewish adolescent Gerhard Arthur Scholem decided in 1917 to change his name to Gershom Shalom, his intention was to express two major changes in his life. First, by omitting his father’s name, which was given to him as a middle name, he turned his back on the German Jewish bourgeois culture that his father represented. Second, by changing his remaining names into Hebrew names, he turned his face toward the future: toward the revival of the Jewish people and its culture, first in Berlin and later in Palestine. The meaning of the biblical forename Gershom (from the root ger, “sojourner”) was surely known to Scholem. Moses and Tsiporah named their son Gershom to mark Moses’s status as a stranger in a foreign land (Ex 2.22). This name symbolized for Scholem his own journey toward what he now came to understand as home—Zion.

This mostly inner journey is described in detail in Scholem’s early German diaries, which are published in two volumes.1 In the English edition of the diaries, Anthony David Skinner compiled and translated parts of the German original, allowing the English reader a glance into the process of Gerhard’s transformation into Gershom. Skinner makes the diaries of young Scholem available to the English reader for the first time. This is an important contribution. Nonetheless, as Skinner himself states in his introduction (p. 7), this book is an abridgment of the two German volumes, which renders the reading sometimes confusing; very often this reader was compelled to return to the original in order to receive a more complete picture.

The reader of the diaries encounters a young and rather confused Jew, searching for a group to which he could belong among the many options that the German Jewish world offered around the time of the First World War. Questions of identity and the wish to belong to a social or political Jewish group of the time are a central motif throughout the book. “I am not a German Jew,” Gerhard states on October 15, 1917. “I don’t know if I ever was one, but now I speak with absolute certainty: I am not one” (Lamentations of Youth, p. 186). But with which group could young Gerhard identify, if not with German Jewry?

His first attempt at belonging, at the age of sixteen, was to Jewish Orthodoxy, but this romance lasted only the first five months of 1914. After experiencing difficulties observing Jewish law, he left the youth group of Agudat Israel. Summing up this shift in his diary, he wrote: “It wasn’t an easy decision and it caused quite a stir, but I’m now sailing full speed ahead in the direction of Martin Buber. I’ve also become a socialist” (p. 26).

Gerhard’s socialism cannot be separated from his relationship to his elder brother Werner, who was deeply involved in the movement.2 For a time, under the influence of Werner, Gerhard took part in the activities of the socialist party in Berlin. But the rivalry between Zionism and Socialism alienated him. Hearing from Werner about the anti-Semitic tendencies within the Socialist Party, he came to his own conclusion in December 1914: “This is definitive proof for the correctness of Zionist teachings” (p. 45). The most significant event in Gerhard’s life during these years was undoubtedly the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914. The war years occupy much of the diaries, and Gerhard records his pivotal decision that the only way left for him is to head down a radical path toward Zion (p. 123). But it was also during the war years that Scholem confronted his first disillusionment with Zionism. This feeling was closely linked to Martin Buber, one of the intellectuals who most influenced him.

For the Zionist youth, Buber was an admired authority, a father figure, as well as a spiritual and cultural beacon. Buber offered young Gerhard a Zionist ideology with which he could identify: the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha-am, combined with an anarchistic and individualistic attitude toward religion and religious authority. Another crucial element in Gerhard’s attraction to...

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