My interest in the Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism—manifested itself early on, while I was still living in Germany, my native country. Perhaps it was because I was endowed with an affinity for this area from the “root of my soul,” as the Kabbalists would have put it, or perhaps it was my desire to understand the enigma of Jewish history that was involved—and the existence of the Jews over the millennia is an enigma, no matter what all the “explanations,” in such profuse supply, may have to say about it.
The great historian Heinrich Graetz, whose History of the Jews had entranced me as a young man, displayed the greatest aversion to everything connected with religious mysticism, as did almost all the founders of the school of German Jewish scholarship known as Wissenschaft des Judentums in the last century. Graetz calls the Zohar, the classic work of the Spanish Kabbalah, a book of lies, and employs a whole dictionary of invectives whenever he speaks of the Kabbalists. Yet it seemed improbable to me—I could not say why—that Kabbalists could have been such charlatans, buffoons, and masters of tomfoolery as he made them out to be. Something seemed to me to be hidden there, and it was this that attracted me. The lasting impression made on me by Martin Buber’s first two volumes on Hasidism—written in German and drenched in the romanticism and flowery metaphors of the Vienna School and the Jugendstil—must also have played a part in this attraction.
In any case, from 1915 on I timidly began reading literature about the Kabbalah, and later tried my hand at original texts of kabbalistic and hasidic literature. This was fraught with difficulties in Germany at that time, for though it was always possible to find Talmud scholars, there was no one to serve as a guide in this area. Once I tried to persuade my teacher, Dr. Bleichrode, to read one such text, a famous treatise on kabbalistic ethics from the 16th century, with a number of us. After a few hours he said, “Kinderlach, we have to give up. I don’t understand the quotations from the Zohar and can’t explain things to you properly.”
So I had to try and familiarize myself with these sources on my own. After all, though the Zohar was written in Aramaic, it was no more intricate than, say, the writings of Johann Georg Hamann, several volumes of which I had in my room. I bought myself an edition of the Zohar as well as the four volumes of Molitor’s work, The Philosophy of History, or On Tradition, which was actually about the Kabbalah and could still be obtained from the publisher for a song. It became clear to me that the Christological reinterpretations of this author, a pupil of Schelling and Baader, were completely wrongheaded, but that he did know more about the subject than the Jewish authorities of his day. I also read S. A. Horodezky’s writings, which at that time were almost the only works in modern Hebrew literature on the great holy men of Hasidism. I had found out that Horodezky was living in Berne, and went to see him. Though he was twenty-five years older than I was, he received me in a very friendly fashion, and immediately suggested that I translate several chapters from his Hebrew manuscript (he could not write German) which was to be a major study of this subject. While I was working on the translation, I realized there was something wrong with Horodezky’s writings, and that their author was a rather unperceptive enthusiast.
Between 1915 and 1918 I filled quite a few notebooks with excerpts, translations, and reflections on the Kabbalah, though they were still far from scholarly efforts or insights. But the fever had taken hold, and in the spring of 1919 I decided to shift the focus of my academic work from mathematics to Jewish studies and to begin a scholarly investigation of the Kabbalah, at least for a few years. I had no idea at the time that these few years would turn into a lifetime’s occupation. I also had many other projects in mind at the time, such as a book about the literature, the function, and the metaphysics of the elegy in Hebrew literature. I had already done a series of studies on that subject, and had published a translation in Buber’s magazine Der Jude (“The Jew”) of a moving medieval elegy about the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240.
My decision determined my choice of a university. Earlier, I had thought of completing my mathematical studies at Göttingen, the mathematicians’ mecca, but now the only choice was Munich, which had (and still has) Germany’s greatest collection of Hebrew manuscripts, including kabbalistic writings.
To be sure, the universities did not encourage Jewish studies in those days. Today, when there are hardly any Jews remaining in Germany, all the German universities are eager to establish chairs in Judaica. But in those days, when Germany had a lively Jewish population in great ferment, not a single university or provincial ministry would hear of Jewish studies. (What Heine wrote is quite true: if there were only one Jew in the world, everyone would come running to have a look at him, but now that there are too many, people try to look away.) Nonetheless, I wanted to try and unlock these mysterious texts, written in peculiar symbols, and make them comprehensible—to myself and to others.
In the summer of 1918, I thought of a subject which seemed to me both fruitful and philosophically relevant: the linguistic theory of the Kabbalah. This was an example of youthful exuberance, if not arrogance, for when I tackled the project in earnest, I soon came to realize that I did not know nearly enough and had better start more systematically, and, above all, more modestly. I did, in fact, write that study on the linguistic theory of the Kabbalah—which I abandoned in 1920—exactly fifty years later.
In September 1919 I returned to Germany from Switzerland. Thanks to extreme frugality I had been able to save a few hundred francs from the monthly allowance I received from my parents. To be sure, I overdid things somewhat—for weeks on end I ate nothing but fried eggs and potatoes at a cheap restaurant—and the price I paid for those excesses was a vitamin deficiency. My medical guardian angel, Dr. Meyer, took me aside at his niece’s wedding, told me he didn’t like my looks, and ordered me to come and see him the following morning. Afterward, he wrote my parents in Berlin saying I had to eat better, and from then on I received an additional fifty francs a month.
In the fall I took the money I had saved to my two second-hand book dealers in Berlin and bought kabbalistic writings, among them a French translation of the Zohar which had appeared in Paris between 1906 and 1912 in six thick volumes. It was the work of a mysterious individual who called himself Jean de Pauly, and it had been printed by France’s biggest paper manufacturer, Emile Lafuna-Giraud, on wonderful paper (with the Hebrew name of God as a watermark!) that had been made especially for this one work. The reason I tell this story is to indicate the state of Kabbalah scholarship at that time, for this universally praised chef-d’oeuvre, which was quoted everywhere and served as the basis for whole books, was actually a blatant fraud. Written by a half-educated swindler from Eastern Galicia, it was full of brazen fabrications which included, among other things, a separate 450-page volume of notes made up from beginning to end of fictitious quotations and citations of nonexistent books or nonexistent chapters in well-known kabbalistic classics. The work had simply never been checked, and when I said all this in Munich at the time, no one would believe me. How did I know, I was asked, that these books did not even exist? Such were my beginnings in the field of kabbalistic studies.
In Munich I managed to find a large room in an apartment at 98 Türkenstrasse (near the Victory Arch and directly opposite the Academy of Arts), and another one in the same apartment for my cousin Heinz Pflaum, who had just begun his studies in Romance languages and literatures. A third room in the place was already occupied by the artist “Tom” Freud (Sigmund’s niece), so the three of us made up a small Zionist colony. At the university, I took one last course in mathematics with the famous Alfred Pringsheim, but really concentrated on philosophy and Semitics, which I was considering as a second minor. Instead of my original dissertation on the “Linguistic Philosophy of the Kabbalah,” I now decided to undertake a more modest project: a translation and commentary on the Book of Bahir, which was the oldest extant kabbalistic text and extremely difficult.
I proposed this to Clemens Baümker, a distinguished historian of medieval philosophy at the university who was interested in medieval Jewish thought and had been very encouraging to me in my studies. Baümker agreed to accept the project as my dissertation, calling the kabbalistic field a terra incognita, but told me that in order to get the doctorate in philosophy, I would have to minor in psychology, a subject I heartily detested. He assured me he could arrange the matter with a colleague of his in the psychology department—one Herr Becher.
The problem was, I could not stand this colleague, who specialized in brain weights. My general dislike of the subject was only intensified by what I had seen of the phenomenological analysis of psychological problems which was very much in vogue at the time. After some years of sympathy for phenomenology, based on my admiration for Husserl’s Logical Investigations, I was on the verge of breaking with it in any case, but it was the lectures of Husserl’s disciple, Wilhelm Pfänder, which alienated me from this mode of thinking once and for all. At one of these lectures Pfänder accomplished the feat of making visible the existence of God (which I had never doubted) by phenomenological means. This was too much for me. Pfänder’s seminar, too, where a discussion went on in dead earnest, lasting many hours and with the assistance of some very penetrating minds, over the question of whether a fried fish was or was not a fish contributed further to driving me out of this circle.
Thus, on Baümker’s advice I changed my major to Semitics, where I received a very friendly reception from Fritz Hommel (in whose Arabic discussion group and seminar I was already enrolled), though Hommel had accepted a dissertation in the field of Judaica only once in his long career. Both Baümker and Hommel were already over sixty-five—the one a devout Catholic, the other an equally devout Protestant. Hommel was primarily an Assyriologist, but he was generous enough to exempt me from this particular area of Semitics and asked only that my major include Arabic and Ethiopian in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic with which I was already conversant.
One course I did not take in the Semitics department was “Readings in the Babylonian Talmud,” which was given by the Catholic Old Testament scholar, Göttesbeyer. Two other Jewish students and I (the rest were Catholic seminarians) went to the first session to have a look and the professor made a bad blunder right from the start. The Talmud has no punctuation, of course, so one of the difficulties in studying it is to determine whether one is dealing with the declarative or interrogative mode. The professor got it wrong, and one of us raised his hand to correct him: “Professor, that is not a statement but a question.” “How do you know?” “It says so in Rashi.” “Rabbinical sophistry!” the professor replied, and with that the discussion was closed. So we realized to our amusement that nothing was to be learned from that particular gentleman.
There was, however, one excellent Talmudist in Munich—Heinrich Ehrentreu—with whom we studied the tractate on marriage contracts for an hour a day. (It may sound strange, but this particular tractate is actually one of the most interesting and contains, so to speak, everything—which is why it is known as “the Little Talmud.”) Like many rabbis in Germany, Dr. Ehrentreu had come from Hungary. He was a first-rate scribe, looked just the way one imagines a talmudic sage, and was an even-tempered, peaceable man. In this, he was quite different from the younger generation of Orthodox Jews who were very combative. Many of them were just beginning to go off to study in the harshly anti-Zionist yeshivahs of Hungary and Lithuania, and they often returned home after a year or two very much changed. Ehrentreu knew I was not Orthodox but liked me nonetheless. One of his sons, however, home on vacation from the yeshivah at Galenta, refused to shake hands with me and asked his father how he could tolerate such a heretic in his Talmud course. “The light in the Torah will lead him to what is good,” said his father, quoting from the Talmud. Bleichrode and Ehrentreu were the two teachers of my youth whom I remember with the warmest gratitude.
That year, I read Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed in Hebrew. Luckily, I was studying Arabic syntax at the time, so I could cope more easily with the Arabic sentence structure, which is preserved literally in the Hebrew and often causes great hardship in understanding the text. Most of my time, however, I spent in the manuscript room of the Bavarian State Library where my table was strewn with Hebrew codices and printed works. At the next table sat an unusually slender man, perhaps ten years older than I, with the unmistakably sharp and intense features of a Jewish intellectual. His table was piled high with German manuscripts, and he generally took his seat, as I did, shortly after the reading room opened My neighbor turned out to be Eduard Berend, the outstanding Jean Paul scholar, who was working on his definitive edition of this, my favorite among German classical writers. When I confessed my love for Jean Paul, Berend asked me for information on his many rabbinical stories. (Jean Paul and Paul Scheerbart were the only German authors whose works I took along with me when I emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1923.)
In Munich I met Gustav Steinschneider, with whom I had been in the same platoon in the army in 1917. He was the grandson of Moritz Steinschneider, the greatest Hebrew bibliographer and manuscript expert of the last century, who at a ripe old age made no bones about the fact that the function of the Science of Judaism, as he saw it, was to provide a decent burial for Judaism, an important but declining phenomenon. Surely Steinschneider, a stupendous scholar and a man I greatly admired, was the first authority in this field who was admittedly an agnostic and possibly even an atheist! In those days I gave a lot of thought to this group of scholarly liquidators, and planned to write an article for my friend Walter Benjamin’s projected magazine, Angelus Novus, showing that the so-called Science of Judaism was really the suicide of Judaism. But the magazine never appeared.
Gustav came from a family that was rather similar to mine. His father was a monist, and one of the leading members of the Berlin Monistenbund, which at that time was probably the best-known organization of leftist atheists. His older brother became a Communist and his younger brother an ardent Zionist and one of the first German halutzim. Gustav himself, a very quiet and thoughtful man, vacillated between the two camps. Like his younger brother, Karl, he had a kind of natural nobility and great musical talent, but was utterly unworldly and incapable of doing anything “practical.” He spoke very slowly and with a melodious drawl, pronouncing even the word, Scheisse (“shit”)—which as everyone knows is the most frequent word in any soldier’s vocabulary—in an inimitable way, as though it were a German linguistic treasure, perhaps part of the cultic language of Stefan George and his circle.
Gustav inclined to hypochondria, and his thin, somewhat weary face betrayed unmistakable signs of the potential philosopher. In the four years before my emigration we were on the friendliest terms—perhaps it was the total opposition of our characters that attracted us to one another. Gustav spent the first year in Munich with my fiancée Escha Burckhardt and me, and we both tried—unsuccessfully, of course—to persuade him to enroll in some systematic course of studies. After 1933 it took all the “pull” I could muster—the intercession of my friend Zalman Rubashov with the mayor of Tel Aviv—to find Gustav (and other Ph.D.’s and artists in every imaginable field) a job as a street cleaner in Palestine. This nocturnal employment allowed him to philosophize by day or to play four-handed duets with my aunt. (As a street cleaner, incidentally, Gustav was highly respected and popular among his colleagues, this being one of the occupations which did not require a knowledge of Hebrew.)
After my cousin had left Munich for Heidelberg, Escha moved into his room on Türkenstrasse. At the end of the corridor lived, as I have mentioned, “Tom” Freud, one of the unforgettable figures of those years. In contrast to her older sister, Lilly, who was married to the actor Arnold Marie and was a great beauty, “Tom” was of an almost picturesque ugliness. As an illustrator (and occasional writer) of children’s books she bordered on genius, and had been engaged to do the drawings for a children’s book by the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon (who had taken up permanent residence in Palestine but was now temporarily living in Munich), in which every letter of the Hebrew alphabet was described and extolled in verse. “Tom,” who seemed to live only on cigarettes and whose room was usually filled with smoke, was an authentic bohemian who had myriad contacts with artists and writers of all sorts. It was in her room, for example, that I had a vehement discussion about Zionism with the writer Otto Flake, who was well-known at the time. Flake was a member of the liberal Left and an advocate of total assimilation for German Jewry, which he expected would produce great benefits for the Germans. I was certainly the wrong person to express such views to, and our conversation reflected it. Unless I am mistaken, from then on he no longer regarded the matter as quite so simple.
Agnon was about to marry Esther Marx, the beautiful daughter of one of the most aristocratic Orthodox Jewish families in Germany. She had two qualities I considered especially memorable in those days: she was as confirmed an atheist as she was an admirer and master of the Hebrew language—a rare combination among German Jews. Esther was spending the winter in Starnberg, and Agnon proudly showed me his postcards from her, which were written in flawless calligraphy and almost flawless Hebrew. At that time I translated a good number of Agnon’s shorter stories into German, some of them from manuscript, including a few perfect writings of his which later appeared in Der Jude. We frequently took walks together in the city, along the Isar River or in Munich’s famous English Gardens, and Agnon, a tireless conversationalist, held forth about his particular likes and dislikes among Hebrew writers—especially on the contemporary scene. (I probably did my share of talking too.) We also spoke a lot about German Jewry, each of us displaying his own form of critical detachment from it. In those days Agnon had befriended a number of German intellectuals, and he was always singing their praises to me. Having come from abroad, he seemed to have a deeper intuitive understanding of many Germans than I did.
On my way back from Switzerland I had visited Martin Buber at Heppenheim, and he greeted the news of my decision to address myself to the Kabbalah with great interest. When I told him I was going to Munich, he produced an eight-page booklet from among his papers containing the rules and regulations of a new organization that had just been founded in Munich—the “Johann Albert Widmanstetter Society for Kabbalah Research, Inc.” Along with the pamphlet—and this came as a real surprise—was his own membership card in the group dated November 5, 1918. The purpose of the Society, as stated in Paragraph 1 of its bylaws (I still have the prospectus which may be the only extant copy), was “to promote research in the Kabbalah and its literary documents, long neglected as a result of prejudice and external circumstances of a non-scientific nature.” Nor was that all: the chairman and vice-chairman of the proposed board of directors were none other than my two future thesis supervisors, Fritz Hommel and Clemens Bäumker, who had never breathed a word to me about the group.
Buber filled me in on the background, explaining that the Widmanstetter Society owed its existence to one Robert Eisler, who was its “Secretary” and actually its only active member. The name meant nothing to me, stripling that I was, but Buber enlightened me. Eisler, the son of a Viennese millionaire, was an incredibly gifted man in his middle thirties, as agile as he was ambitious, with far-ranging scholarly interests as well as considerable dramatic ability. Buber said he had published a very interesting two-volume work with the intriguing title, Cosmic Cloak and Heavenly Canopy, which stamped him as an original if hypothesis-happy historian of religion, but which had been received by authorities in the field with great reservations. Eisler had also performed the unique feat of earning two doctorates from the same school at the University of Vienna—one as a very young man in economics, and another one years later in art history—since it had never occurred to anyone that the two Eislers could be one and the same person. He had had himself baptized for love of the daughter of a well-known Austrian painter, but despite the gesture, his various attempts to secure a teaching position had always been thwarted. The Gentiles were made uneasy by his markedly Jewish appearance, and the Jews by his apostasy.
The idea of founding a society for Kabbalah research had been Eisler’s idea, and Buber described how, through letters and personal visits, he had persuaded ten well-known scholars to lend their names to the society’s sponsoring committee (whose aims, after all, made a lot of sense). Eisler had visited Buber early in 1918 and shown him the testimonials he had received from all these professors (among them the son of Heinrich Graetz, the historian, who was a professor of physics in Munich). At the same time he had submitted an essay to Der Jude outlining the importance of kabbalistic research for the history of religion in general and the understanding of Judaism in particular.
Buber showed me the proofs of this essay (which are still in my possession), saying he had told Eisler that though he published essays by non-Jews in his magazine, he could not very well include contributions by Jewish converts, no matter what their motives for baptism might have been. Eisler had replied that he had long since decided to return to Judaism and was just about to take this step under the aegis of the Jewish Community Council in Munich. Buber had then agreed to have the article set in type, but said he could not publish it until Eisler notified him that his “reconversion” has been accomplished. Since then, Buber had heard nothing further from Eisler, except for the prospectus which had arrived, adorned by his own name. A year and a half having now gone by, Buber assumed that Eisler had reverted to his former status, and was therefore making me a present of the article which was not going to appear but might interest me. At any rate, he suggested that I look in on this Eisler, who was living at Feldafing on Lake Starnberg.
I took Buber’s advice, having first obtained a copy of Eisler’s book. This inspired me to add his name to the catalogue of the imaginary university Walter Benjamin and I had founded the year before in Switzerland, with a course called “Women’s Coats and Beach Cabanas in the Light of the History of Religion.” There followed one of the most bizarre encounters of my life when Eisler invited me to visit him in his little villa on Lake Starnberg which dated from his days as a millionaire’s son. (During the inflation, Eisler, like almost everyone else, had lost everything, except for that house, and lived by taking in “paying guests” from England.)
I was taken first to Eisler’s library, crammed to the ceiling with scholarly works about everything under the sun. A set of ten quarto volumes bound in green morocco and bearing the title Erotica et Curiosa caught my eye. Ever industrious, I pulled out one of the volumes to have a look, and it turned out to be a dummy, with cognac glasses and bottles of whiskey concealed behind it.
Eisler received me with open arms. After all, I was, so to speak, the angel sent from heaven to breathe kabbalistic life into his paper society. Since many of the Hebrew manuscripts in Munich, including the kabbalistic ones with which I was going to spend the next two years, derived originally from the collection of Johann Albert Widmanstetter (d. 1557)—from whom the Society had taken its name—what better person than I could have come his way? Eisler’s own research in this field, as he described it (particularly his “discovery” of the true author of the Book of Yetzirah, which the Kabbalists had appropriated as their basic text), was so frivolous that it drew from me only a skeptical shudder—the more so since I was now subjecting myself to serious philological discipline.
In general, Eisler’s eloquence, as fantastic as his education, was somehow not quite serious. I at any rate had never before come across such a compelling yet at the same time suspiciously glittering kind of erudition. He was, incidentally, quite without rancor at being challenged, a trait I found particularly endearing, especially since I was bound to detect the regrettable gaps in his Hebrew sooner or later. He once said to me, “I suppose you think I’m a nebbish philologist,” but he really did not seem to take offense at my judgment of him. His fanciful syntheses overcame all the hurdles of historical criticism, and the one thing that could truly not be said of him was that he was lacking in ideas, and ideas, moreover, in such diverse areas as the proto-Semitic inscriptions in the Sinai Peninsula, the Greek mysteries, the origin of the Gypsies, the history of money, the origins of Christianity, and many others which had one thing in common: they were all rich enough in unsolved problems to allow the widest possible scope to his particular genius for synthesizing.
Hearing him lecture, one could not help but be overwhelmed by his rhetorical gifts; reading his writings, one was left speechless by the sheer wealth of quotations and references—frequently to the most obscure and far-fetched sources imaginable. I have never again seen a comparable Rastelli1 of scholarship. Eisler’s opponents (and he did not have many defenders, though a few of them were quite influential) called him, with slightly veiled anti-Semitic innuendo, a speculator who had accidentally strayed onto the field-of scholarship. In short, Eisler was unique in his way. Unfortunately, no publisher who had ever brought out a book of his would have any further dealings with him, for in the course of reading proofs he would invariably rewrite the book and make it at least twice as long, so that every publication ended with a quarrel.
Through Eisler I first learned about the circle that was forming in Hamburg around Aby Warburg and his library of cultural history. This library had been the scene, in the early 20’s, of a celebrated lecture by Warburg which was greeted with great enthusiasm and took up no less than 400 pages (in small print) when it was eventually published. Eisler’s description of the new perspectives being explored by this group—which were to have far-reaching consequences—aroused my liveliest interest, just as my own studies aroused a corresponding interest in Hamburg from 1926 on. After two visits to the city in 1927 and 1932, I was in close scholarly contact with this circle and on friendly terms with a number of its members. (For the twenty-five years of its existence, the group had consisted almost exclusively of Jews whose Jewish commitment ranged from lukewarm to sub-zero. I used to define the three groups around, respectively, the Warburg library, Max Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research, and the metaphysical magicians around Oskar Goldberg as the three most remarkable “Jewish sects” that German Jewry had produced. Not all of them liked to hear this.)
In his dealings with me, Eisler was completely Jewish. His store of Jewish jokes and anecdotes was virtually inexhaustible, and he felt free when he was with me to pour out that Jewish heart which he kept carefully under wraps when dealing with non-Jews. 1 remained in touch with him until 1938, when, after some terrible weeks in a concentration camp, he managed to get to England. Then in 1946, out of the blue, I suddenly received a 250-page manuscript (“with cordial regards”) containing Eisler’s definitive solution of the Palestine question, for which he was seeking a publisher (he never found one).
Eisler had been pro-Zionist for years, and had written to me that he intended to leave his library to the University of Jerusalem. Now in 1946 he came up with a proposal that was truly original, and all the more so amid the anti-Zionist outbursts of the period (Ernest Bevin was in Whitehall at the time, and doing his best to liquidate Zionism): a committee consisting of three Anglican theologians and three strictly Orthodox rabbis to rule on the credentials of all Jews living in Palestine. Those who were not deemed kosher enough to be allowed to remain in the country as pious worshippers were to be given the choice of returning to their countries of origin or (if they wanted a Jewish state) of taking possession of the second district of Vienna (the Leopoldstadt) as well as the entire city of Frankfurt am Main; these territories were to be evacuated by the Germans and placed under international guarantees as a Jewish state. After all, the Germans—considering everything they had perpetrated—had now forfeited the right to complain if Frankfurt am Main, home of the most famous of all Jewish communities in Germany, were taken from them and declared a Jewish state. Eisler proposed further that the British fleet be utilized for transport purposes.
I sent back the manuscript with a slip on which I had written just one word: “Enough.” Nevertheless, my first two books, which were published in Germany in 1923 and 1927, did actually appear as volumes 1 and 2 in the series Sources and Studies in the History of Jewish Mysticism, edited for the Johann Albert Widmanstetter Society by Robert Eisler. These were the only signs of life ever shown by this fictitious society.
One day Eisler informed me that he had told the writer Gustav Meyrink about my kabbalistic studies and that Meyrink wanted to invite me to Starnberg to explain certain passages in his own writings to him. Naturally this seemed a bit strange to me. In those days Meyrink was a famous author who combined an extraordinary talent for anti-bourgeois satire (The German Philistine’s Magic Horn) with a no less distinctive talent for mystical sensationalism. The latter quality was reflected primarily in his short stories, some of them very impressive but not quite serious, whose literary quality has been surpassed in our time only by Jorge Luis Borges. At that point Meyrink had also published two widely read mystical novels, The Golem and The Green Face, both of which I myself had read with a good deal of head-shaking over their pseudo-Kabbalism.
Thus it was with a certain amount of curiosity that I went out to Starnberg one afternoon in 1921 to make the acquaintance of a man in whom deep-rooted mystical convictions and literary charlatanism were almost inextricably combined. He showed me a few passages in his novels which he claimed not to understand and asked me to explain them to him. For someone like myself who not only knew something about the Kabbalah but also knew of its distortions and misuse in the occult writings of the Madame Blavatsky circle, this was not very hard to do. But it also opened my eyes to how an author can score points with pseudo-mysticism. I will give only one example here. In one profoundly “mystical” chapter in The Golem the hero experiences a kabbalistic vision. A figure appears to him whose chest is covered with luminous hieroglyphs in some foreign script. The figure asks the hero whether he can read them. The chapter continues: “And when I . . . answered in the negative, he stretched the palms of his hands toward me and the inscription appeared on my chest in luminous letters which were at first in the Latin alphabet, chabrat sereh aur bocher, and gradually changed into letters that were unknown to me.” I explained to Meyrink that the inscription must simply be the mystical name of some sort of lodge retranslated into Hebrew—something like “Lodge of Aurora’s Seed,” though I could not say whether or not such a lodge had ever actually existed. Not until fifty years later did I find out that the inscription was nothing but a retranslation of the name of the so-called Frankfurt Jewish lodge of the Napoleonic era, famous in the history of Freemasonry, which had been known as the Aurora Lodge of the Rising Dawn. It had simply been transcribed incorrectly by some ignoramus in one of the books in Meyrink s library.
Later, when we were drinking coffee together, Meyrink—whose undistinguished appearance (he looked like the very model of a petty bourgeois) contrasted with the fantastic stories he wrote—told me about some of his own experiences. He claimed, for example, to have cured himself by magic of tuberculosis of the spinal-cord marrow, an invariably fatal disease. Suddenly, without preliminaries, Meyrink asked me: “Do you know where God lives?” It was hardly possible to answer such a question precisely—except perhaps by quoting Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk: Wherever one lets Him in—but Meyrink answered it himself. He gave me a penetrating look and said: “In the spinal cord.” This was new to me and marked my first acquaintance with the famous Yoga work, The Serpent Power, by Sir John Woodroffe, alias Richard Avalon, of which Meyrink probably owned the only copy in Germany at the time.
I visited Meyrink on one or two other occasions, and he never failed to astonish me. He had the idea, for instance, of publishing fictional biographies of great occultists and mystagogues and asked me whether I would be willing to write one about the most famous of all Kabbalists, Isaac Luria. He himself planned to write something of this nature about Eliphas Levi who, unlike Luria, an authentic mystic, certainly did belong in such a series. The number of writers, as we all know, who have hidden their good Jewish names behind pseudonyms is legion. But there is one rare, if not unique, case of an author who took the opposite path, namely Alphonse Louis Constant, who under the Hebrew pseudonym of Eliphas Levi published works of imaginative quackery as a grand kabbaliste, and by no means without success. Meyrink’s last book, The Angel from the Western Window, was based on the same idea, describing in a profoundly mystical novel the life of Dr. John Dee, a famous scholar and occultist of Elizabethan times.
In Munich I had a chance to see burgeoning Nazism at the university. The atmosphere in the city was unbearable, though this is often disregarded today or considerably played down. But there was no disregarding the giant, blood-red posters with their equally bloodthirsty slogans inviting the public to attend Hitler’s rallies: “Fellow Germans are welcome. Jews will not be admitted.” I was not much affected by all this, for I had long since made my decision to leave Germany, but it was frightening to observe the blindness of the Jews and their refusal to acknowledge what was going on. This attitude hurt my relations with Munich Jews who became extremely jumpy and angry when the subject was broached.
I finished my dissertation at the end of January 1923 and prepared for my oral examination. Hommel advised me not to open a book for the last two weeks before the exam, but instead to go for walks in the English Garden or do anything else I enjoyed doing, and forget about the exam altogether. This, he assured me, would be more valuable than any amount of cramming. A perceptive man! I followed his advice, and as it turned out did well enough in my orals to be offered Habilitation2 at the University of Munich with the prospect of a teaching appointment—provided that I present an appropriate piece of research. As I have already mentioned, research in the field I had chosen would have been a novelty at a German university. But though I did not seriously consider the offer, I was able to use it as a trump card in dealing with my father and his objections to my planned emigration to Eretz Yisrael.
As it happened, my father became gravely ill on the very next day, which was his birthday. A telegram called me to Berlin, and for a few days the doctors held out hardly any hope. Eventually he recovered, though very slowly, and from that time on had to take very good care of himself, so that my two elder brothers, who had gone into the printing business with him, took over most of the responsibilities. When my father was out of danger, I returned to Munich to ship my books and other things to Berlin.
From there I went to Frankfurt for a few days, hoping to see Franz Rosenzweig. I had been there for a short time the year before and we had met several times. I had first heard about Rosenzweig through Rudolf Hallo, a fellow student in Munich, who came from Kassel, like Rosenweig, and had been deeply influenced by him. From Hallo I learned much about Rosenzweig’s development and his turn to Judaism and it was he who early in 1920 introduced me to Rosenzweig’s recently published The Star of Redemption, undoubtedly one of the central creations of Jewish religious thought in this century. Rosenzweig had also heard about me from various sources, and the two of us began corresponding. (At that time Rosenzweig still had his health and was studying Talmud with the famous Rabbi Nobel in Frankfurt.)
Every encounter with Rosenzweig furnished evidence that he was a man of genius (I regard as altogether foolish the tendency, so popular today, to abolish this category), but also that he had marked dictatorial inclinations. The decisions we had made took us in entirely different directions. He sought to reform (or perhaps I should say revolutionize) German Jewry from within. I, on the other hand, no longer had any hopes for the amalgam known as German Jewry and expected a renewal of Jewry to come about only through its rebirth in Eretz Yisrael. Nonetheless, we were certainly interested in one another. Never before (or since) had I met a person of such intense Jewish commitment as Rosenzweig, who was midway in age between Buber and me. What I did not know was that he regarded me as a nihilist.
My second visit to Frankfurt, which involved a nightlong discussion about the very German Jewry that I rejected, was the occasion for a complete break between us. I would never have broached this delicate topic, which inflamed both of us so much, if I had known that Rosenzweig was by then already in the first stages of his fatal disease, lateral sclerosis. He had had an attack which had not yet been definitely diagnosed, but I had been told he was on the mend, except for a certain difficulty in speaking which still remained. In any case, there occurred that night one of the stormiest and most irreparable arguments of my youth.
Years later, Buber and Ernst Simon asked me to contribute to a portfolio of essays which was to be presented to Rosenzweig on his fortieth birthday, and I did so. By then, he was already paralyzed and unable to speak. When I was in Frankfurt in August 1927, Ernst Simon said to me: “Rosenzweig would be very pleased if you visited him.” I went, and gave an account of my work to this mortally ill man, who could move only one finger and communicated by pushing a specially constructed needle over an alphabet field which his wife spelled out into sentences. It was an unforgettable hour, one that cut me to the quick. Yet even during those years Rosenzweig produced some very impressive work, took part in the Bible translation project inaugurated by Buber, and carried on an overabundant correspondence.
Upon my return to Berlin, I reported for my Staatsexamen in mathematics and also bought mathematical textbooks in Hebrew to familiarize myself with the terminology I would have to know as a teacher in Eretz Yisrael. My father, who had been impressed by my doctorate after all and who thought the offer of a Habilitation would cure me of my “youthful follies,” had my dissertation printed in his shop whenever a typesetter had a free hour or two. In those days, at the height of the inflation, this was no small matter—for a long time it had been impossible to have dissertations published, because no one was able to raise the money. At any rate, Das Buch Bahir (“The Book of Bahir”) was ready in a year and appeared in the Eisler series I mentioned earlier under the imprint of Drugulin, the house which was bringing out all the expressionist literature being published by Kurt Wolff in those days.
In the meantime, I continued my preparations in the field of Kabbalah. To deepen my knowledge of Hebrew literature I spent countless hours in the library of Moses Marx, Agnon’s brother-in-law, with whom I had become friends after my return from Switzerland. This curious individual was the co-owner of a textile firm on Spittelmarkt, but his heart belonged to Hebrew typography and bibliography, though he scarcely understood the contents of the books he tended so lovingly and had so wonderfully bound by Berlin’s most outstanding craftsmen. He was one of the many victims of the illusion—caused by the inflation—of being very rich, when in reality he had nothing left. A sensitive and vulnerable man, Marx combined intense Jewish feeling (he had embraced Zionism as soon as he abandoned Orthodoxy) with more than a trace of the typical Prussian personality. Later on I met a number of other people of this type, but Marx remained the most vivid example. We would often take the long ride together on top of the double-decker bus from the Spittelmarkt to Helmstedter Strasse at the Bayrischer Platz, where he lived. Several times I stayed at his house from seven at night to seven in the morning, browsing with fascination among the thousands of volumes in his library.
Among the books he owned was a complete set of Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Denudata, the most important Latin work on the Kabbalah, published between 1677 and 1684. To buy these volumes, which totalled 2,500 pages, was beyond my means, but one day Marx came to call at our house on Neue Grünstrasse to have a look at my kabbalistic collection in the making. “Well, and what are you two going to admire each other out of this time?” asked my mother, who had a gift for vivid expression. And in fact Marx did find an extremely rare little cabbalisticum which had appeared at Saloniki in 1546 and still had its wonderful original Turkish binding with leather tooling. I had bought it a short time before on my visit to Frankfurt for a hundred marks (then a half-dollar). “What do you want for it?” Marx asked me. “Kabbalistic books I can’t swap.” “Tell me anyway.” “Well, if you insist, I’ll make you an offer you certainly won’t accept. I’ll trade it for your Kabbalah Denudata.” Marx winced and said nothing. But the next time I came to see him he suddenly blurted out angrily: “Go ahead and take it. The Kabbalah Denudata can always be had for money, but your old book isn’t to be had for any amount.” So that is how I came to own those valuable volumes, though it really did take fifteen years before I was able to get hold of the little Saloniki book again at an auction in Amsterdam.
Between 1921 and 1923 I had many dealings, albeit indirect ones, with the group around Oskar Goldberg. The Kabbalah was highly regarded by this group—not so much for its religious and philosophical aspects as for its magical implications about which Goldberg (the only one in the circle who really knew Hebrew) had the most extravagant notions.
Short pieces by members of this group had begun appearing in print while I was still in Munich; and some of them, particularly by Erich Unger, Ernst Fraenkel, and Joachim Caspary, displayed a high degree of intelligence. In 1922, Unger published a metaphysical diatribe against Zionism with the pretty title, “The Stateless Founding of a Jewish People,” which was really quite something. It censured practical Zionism, which the author rejected, for being deficient in “metaphysics,” but what Unger meant was not so much metaphysics as magical power (not intended metaphorically) which, according to Goldberg’s doctrine, should be possessed by metaphysically charged “biological entities.” Instead of learning how to work magic, the Zionists—according to the author—were wasting their energies on the building of villages, settlements, and similar nonsense that could not promote that Jewish “magical faculty” which needed renewal. All this was somewhat obscured by the elegant language in which the lecture was couched, but intelligent readers could not help noticing that it was the salient point of this remarkable essay. Later on, in Goldberg’s own writings, the point was expressed rather more bluntly and with appropriate invective.
Strangely enough, Buber knew nothing about the activities of these new magico-metaphysicians, but when I told him about them on one of his visits to Munich, he was reminded of an incident in which both Unger and Goldberg had figured. During the war, it seems, around 1916 or 1917, a Mr. Unger had shown up in Heppenheim to discuss an urgent matter with him. He had explained to Buber how important it was to end the war, and pointed out that there was really only one way of doing it: to establish contact with the “higher powers” guiding humanity and to persuade them to act. These forces were the Mahatmas in distant Tibet, the famous sages of the “White Lodge” invented by Madame Blavatsky, and there was only one person who could make contact with them. It was therefore urgent to get this person out of Germany so he could travel to India via Switzerland.
Buber told me he had been greatly astonished and had asked Unger what his own function was in all this. To his even greater astonishment, Unger had replied that Buber should use his excellent connections to secure an exit permit for Dr. Goldberg. “Those people really seemed to believe I had some sort of connection with the Foreign Office,” Buber told me, “but I had to disillusion them on that score.” As proof of Goldberg’s uncanny abilities (Buber had never heard of him) Unger presented a pamphlet entitled “The Pentateuch, an Edifice of Numbers,” in which Goldberg “proved” through numerological calculations that the Torah must have been written by a superhuman intellect—let us say an Elohim. Years later I learned from Ernst David, who before his “defection” to the Zionists had belonged to the sect’s inner circle and financed Goldberg’s main work, The Reality of the Hebrews, that his mentor had long been one of Madame Blavatsky’s disciples.
During my sojourns in Berlin between 1919 and 1923 I also came in contact with a number of young scholars, somewhat older than I, who were doing research for an organization whose goal—never achieved—was the founding of an academy for the Science of Judaism. What was important about this project was that it did not entail the training of rabbis, and hence did not involve any commitment to a particular ideology or party within Judaism; rather, it was to be a pure research center at which believers, unbelievers, and atheists alike who cared about furthering the knowledge of Judaism could work peacefully side by side. Some were Zionists, some were not, but nearly all were highly gifted scholars whose names and achievements still live in Jewish studies—people like Fritz Yitzhak Baer, Hartwig David Baneth, Leo Strauss, Selma Stern, and Chanoch Albeck.
With Baer, in particular, one of the most outstanding—if not the outstanding—historian of my generation, I quickly established relations, as well as with Baneth, a first-rate Arabist. Baneth told me that Philip Bloch, the former rabbi of Posen and one of the last surviving pupils of Graetz, had moved to Berlin and donated his substantial library (which Baneth was then helping to catalogue) to the proposed academy. He suggested that I go to visit Bloch, who at eighty-one was still very spry and domiciled together with his library. Bloch, after all, had been the authority on the Kabbalah in the generation preceding mine, albeit an authority in Graetz’s own disapproving spirit, and he was the only Jewish scholar in Germany who had assembled a rich collection of kabbalistic works and manuscripts. Bloch received me very warmly—as a young colleague, so to speak—saying: “After all, we’re both meshugga.” He then showed me his kabbalistic collection, and in the course of admiring the manuscripts, I remarked, rather naively: “How nice, Herr Professor, that you’ve studied all this!” Whereupon the old gentleman replied: “What! Am I supposed to read this rubbish too!” It was one of the great moments of my life.
In those years the Zionists were a small but articulate minority in Germany. Of the Jewish population of 600,000, no fewer than 20,000 took part in the election of delegates to the German Zionist convention of 1920, a figure which—considering the voting age—indicated a marked increase in the movement’s influence since the pre-war years. The overwhelming majority of German Zionists were of middle-class orientation. My own sympathies, however, lay with the radical circles espousing the social ideals of the budding kibbutz movement. The anarchist element within certain groups in Palestine came very close to my own position of that time. I can still remember the responsive chord struck in me by an article I read in 1921, by a leading figure in these circles which defined the Zionist social ideal as “the free banding together of anarchistic associations.” (The author of this article later became one of the most influential would-be Stalinists, having molted in pure Marxist fashion.)
In any case, it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of those who went to Eretz Yisrael from Germany in the early 20’s were motivated by moral rather than political considerations. Emigration was a decision against a life that was perceived as a dishonest and frequently undignified game of hide-and-seek. It was a decision in favor of a new beginning which, whether motivated by religious or secular considerations, had more to do with social ethics than with politics, strange though that may seem today. In those days we did not know, of course, that Hitler was in the offing, but we did know that, in light of the task before us—the radical renewal of Judaism and Jewish society—Germany was a vacuum in which we would choke. This is what drove people like me and my friends to Altneuland.3
Before I took that step there were a few interludes. Under the auspices of the Jüdisches Volkshochschule in Berlin, I gave a course on the “History of Jewish Mysticism” in the winter of 1922 which was astonishingly well attended. It was my first attempt to present myself as a teacher in this field, and I can only shudder today when I think back on those extremely immature lectures. My students, however, included some unusual “seekers,” like one of Berlin’s best-known violin makers, who went on to become the abbott of a Buddhist monastery and propaganda center in Ceylon. (Thirty-five years later, he sent me a comprehensive series of Buddhist texts and analyses in English, assembled over a long period.)
The same year I became involved in a stormy polemic against the Jewish hiking club, Blau-Weiss, which led to my friendship with Ernst Simon. We met at the end of December 1922 and liked each other almost immediately. Simon came from an even more de-Judaized home than I, and the road he had taken was not unlike mine, although it had been determined by altogether different factors, specifically his experiences in the German army during the war. In those years Simon was not only wonderful looking but also incredibly witty, quick on his feet, and a brilliant speaker; he had written a brilliant dissertation on Ranke and Hegel. Without being really Orthodox, he had decided to live in accordance with Jewish law. He too told me about the circle that was then forming around the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt which had been founded by Franz Rosenzweig.
A great deal has been written about this Lehrhaus, whose leadership had been taken over, after Rosenzweig himself became incapacitated, by his disciple Rudolf Hallo. The true star of the enterprise was not, as one might expect, Martin Buber, no matter how crowded his courses were at first. Rather, it was Rosenzweig’s great new discovery, the chemist Eduard Strauss, whose like is less frequently to be found in Jewish circles than it is among Christian revival movements. Strauss’s lectures at his packed Bible sessions were the utterances of one newly awakened and moved by the spirit to speak. They can best be described, if one may be permitted the language of Christian sects, as “pneumatic” exegeses, and to this day I do not know whether any record was kept of them, for Strauss himself spoke quite spontaneously. His listeners sat as though spellbound in a magic circle. Anyone not susceptible to this kind of spellbinding simply stopped coming—which is what happened with me. With no previous Jewish background, and without any ties to Jewish tradition, Strauss was nevertheless a pure example of a Jewish pietist. Judaism as he saw it was a spiritual church, and it was precisely this aspect which I had not been able to stomach in his then widely read book against Zionism, and which drove me away from Strauss’s Judaism when it was served up to me personally.
My own courses were something like the exact opposite of his. With a limited group of students who already had some knowledge of Hebrew, I read important texts in the original, keeping to precise interpretation. These were mystical, apocalyptic, and narrative sources—the very kind most likely to inspire “pneumatic” exegeses. Every morning, for example, from eight to nine, before the doctor at whose place we were studying began his consultations, I read the Zohar’s explication of the Book of Ruth to a group of students which included such interesting men as Erich Fromm, Ernst Simon, and Nahum Glatzer. With a few other students I read the biblical Book of Daniel, the first apocalyptic text in Jewish literature, and a few stories by Agnon. (This gave a great deal of pleasure both to my pupils and to Agnon himself, for in those days he was not yet used to having his work read in schools.)
Besides the Jewish Lehrhaus there was another remarkable institution which created a stir among young academicians in those days. This was the “torapeutic” sanatorium, as the wags called it, located in Heidelberg where the strictly Orthodox psychoanalyst Frieda Reichmann (a cousin of Moses Marx and Esther Agnon) was attempting to combine Torah and Freudian therapy. Some of my best students and acquaintances from Zionist youth groups, such as Ernst Simon, Fromm, and Leo Löwenthal, were being treated at this sanatorium on an outpatient basis. All of them, with the exception of one, had their Orthodox Judaism analyzed away. When I next saw Erich Fromm, Frieda Reichmann’s most famous analysand and my Zohar pupil, in Berlin about four years later, he had become an enthusiastic Trotskyite and pitied me for what he called my petty-bourgeois provincialism.
At this time Agnon was living outside Frankfurt at Homburg vor der Höhe, a place that attracted him not only for its scenic beauty but also, as he liked to claim, because of the old Hebrew books which had been published there over 200 years earlier. In fact, Homburg was one of the great centers of Hebrew literature. Thanks to the inflation, living in Germany was extremely cheap for people who were paid in foreign currency, so that many of the most important Jewish writers, poets, and thinkers had congregated there. There was Chaim Nachman Bialik, for example, indisputably the brightest star of Hebrew poetry and a true genius of conversation, as well as Ahad Ha’am and Nathan Birnbaum, around whom there gathered some of the outstanding minds of Russian Jewry. Such an illustrious group could hardly have been found outside of Russia or—later—of Israel.
Agnon often came in to Frankfurt, where the main second-hand Hebrew book dealers were located, and just as often I would go out to Homburg on the Number 24 streetcar which travels the same route to this day. Agnon introduced me to all these people, and Bialik accorded me a very friendly reception. A German Jew who could speak Hebrew and read kabbalistic books—Bialik had never encountered anything like it, and he maintained his friendly interest in me up until his death. Agnon frequently took me along on his walks with Bialik, and their conversations were memorable (the members of this circle spoke Hebrew almost exclusively). Agnon, who always pronounced my name in the Galician manner, used to say: “Schulem, don’t forget to write down what you hear in your notebook.” Well, I had open ears but no notebook, and didn’t write anything down.
After I had put my Berlin affairs in order, I arranged a joint passage from Trieste with a very knowledgeable, somewhat younger member of the Frankfurt circle. This was the now famous medieval scholar Fritz (Shlomo Dov) Goitein, the scion of a distinguished Moravian-Hungarian family of rabbis with whom I had stayed on my earlier visits to Frankfurt and with whom I got along very well. He had had an excellent Jewish education—his father had been a rural rabbi in a Lower Franconian district—and had just taken his doctorate under the direction of Joseph Horovitz, a first-rate Arabist. Goitein was a rare blend of the artistic—even the poetic—and the scholarly. A born schoolmaster, he was immediately recognized as such by the director of the Haifa secondary school, one of the most highly regarded pedagogical institutions in the country, when the latter came to Germany in 1922 to recruit qualified teachers for his school. He gave Goitein a firm contract for the fall of 1923, by which time he would have received his doctorate, and also interviewed me for a possible teaching position in mathematics. But he and I, as the expression goes, were just not on the same wavelength.
In those days, it was by no means a simple matter to secure an immigration visa to Palestine. The British mandatory government, which operated very timidly, gave the Zionist Organization a fixed annual number of “certificates,” whose recipients then got a visa from the British consul. Since these certificates, understandably enough, were given almost exclusively to halutzim who were going to work in the agricultural settlements, to avoid cutting down on the number of such immigrants as far as possible, quite a few people procured fictitious (or, in Goitein’s case, genuine) offers of employment. On the basis of these offers, they would then receive visas as specialists outside the quota. (There were also capitalist visas for persons with sufficient money who were interested in investment possibilities, but people like us did not fall into that category.)
Thus, the philosopher Hugo Bergmann, then the director of the Jewish National Library of Jerusalem (which was to serve as the library of the planned, though as yet nonexistent, Hebrew University), gave me a fictitious appointment as head of the library’s Hebrew section. This had been arranged by my fiancée Escha, who had gone over as the equally fictitious fiancée of Abba Khoushi, later the mayor of Haifa. Escha and I had decided to get married in Eretz Yisrael.
Hugo Bergmann had met both of us in Berne in March of 1919, and we had been mutually impressed with one another. I had not particularly liked his essays in Der Jude or his writings in the Buber spirit, but I was surprised to find him totally devoid of sentimentality, open to all intellectual and social matters, and inclining to a view of Zionism that was closely akin to my own. When I wrote him early in 1923 about my intention of coming over, he sent me a very encouraging response, and Escha did the rest.
In Berlin I informed my father that I planned to emigrate at the beginning of September and that this move would dispose of the chimera of my academic future in Germany. All my father said was: “My son, I assume you realize that you cannot expect any financial support for your undertaking from me.” I replied that I fully realized this, and we did not discuss the subject further. But he did send over the shipping clerk from our print shop to help me pack my library, which already consisted of 2,000 volumes and was shipped by freighter via Hamburg. For reasons never quite clear to me, I had to send customs a typewritten list of my books, and I still have a copy of it.
In mid-September 1923 Goitein and I met in Trieste. At that time there were no boats sailing directly to Palestine. The Lloyd Triestino line sent ships only as far as Alexandria, and from there, those who did not want to take the railroad via El Arish and Gaza (built by the British during the war), took a small coastal steamer. This boat called at the various Levantine ports, including Jaffa, where Escha was waiting for me at the harbor.
I arrived in Jerusalem on September 30 and was promptly faced with a far-reaching decision, for within a short time I was offered two positions. The mathematician of the teachers’ college, a Dr. Chermoni, had just received a scholarship for advanced study abroad and an immediate replacement was needed. Dr. Lurie, the head of the Hebrew school system in the Jerusalem Zionist Executive, wanted to know whether I had really studied mathematics, could present a diploma or its equivalent, and would be able to teach mathematics in Hebrew. I could answer yes to all these questions in good conscience, and Dr. Lurie offered me the job, provided I could start in a week. “You would be entitled to a salary of fifteen pounds a month,” he told me, “but of course we cannot pay you, because, as you know, the Zionist Executive has no money.” Instead of wages, I, like all other teachers and officials during that period, would receive a credit voucher for a consumer cooperative where I could get all the food I needed. In those days salaries were paid seven months late and it never occurred to anyone to go on strike. Everyone knew that the Zionists had no money, and if they did, they needed it for purposes of settlement. I promised to think it over.
At the same time Hugo Bergmann, who had certified the earlier, fictitious job for me, now offered me a real one as librarian of the Hebrew section of the National Library. “You’re just what we need,” he told me. “You know everything about Hebrew books, you’re a disciplined person, and you’re knowledgeable in Jewish matters. I can offer you ten pounds a month, which of course won’t be paid . . .” (and so on, as above). Bergmann told me I could start right away. The working hours were from seven-thirty in the morning to two in the afternoon, which would leave me time for my kabbalistic studies. “I’ll write the Zionist Executive and tell them to put you on the payroll,” he concluded. “The Executive never answers mail, so everything will be all right.”
I weighed the two proposals; teacher of mathematics or librarian for Hebrew literature? Escha and I wanted to get married, and she was earning six pounds a month—a livable salary at the time. As a teacher I would have papers to grade in the afternoon, and who could say whether the students might not laugh at my Berlin-accented Hebrew? (The Russian accent was the predominant one in Jerusalem during those years.) In the library, on the other hand, I would be dealing with books all day, and I was interested in almost everything about them; then, too, I would have my afternoons and evenings free for my own work. So in the end I chose the position that paid less, which meant the end of my mathematics, though I kept my mathematical books on my shelves for a few more years.
Bergmann did write that letter to the Zionist Executive, and—wonder of wonders!—a reply actually came three days later. “Please dismiss Dr. Scholem immediately,” it said. “Are you not aware of the fact that the Zionist Executive has no money to pay an additional librarian?” Bergmann showed me the letter. “Nu?” said I. “We’ll write another letter,” said he. “And in the meantime?” “In the meantime, we’ll pay you out of the schnorring fund.” The schnorring fund was a supply of cash that had been left behind as a good-will token by tourists from England, America, South Africa, and other countries with hard currency after Bergmann had described to them the plight of the National Library which had no budget for the acquisition of books. Thanks to this fund, I was one of the few people who received their salary in cash.
There were other signs and wonders in the Zionist Executive as well, though in the London headquarters rather than Jerusalem. Five months later a letter came from Chaim Weizmann’s secretary for university affairs, Leo Kohn, with the good news that the Executive had decided to acquire the famous library of the even more famous Islamist, Professor Ignaz Goldziher of Budapest, for a future Arabic Institute at the university. They would therefore need a librarian trained as an Arabist, and wanted Bergmann to recommend one. Bergmann showed me the letter and I instantly recommended my friend Baneth from Berlin who met all the requirements. Bergmann wrote to London, and Baneth was enthusiastically approved—moreover, at a salary of 25 pounds a month. Bergmann was jubilant: “Now we’ve got them! In Jerusalem they can’t spare ten pounds for you, and the Londoners ask whether twenty-five pounds would be enough for Baneth! I’ll give them a piece of my mind and demand parity: fifteen pounds a month for each.” Thus did I come to be legalized.
In 1924 I began publishing in Hebrew, and I also edited the first three volumes of a quarterly on Hebrew bibliography which was published by the library. Since then I have written a large share of my work in that language, which was not always easy for me in the early years. Although I had had intensive instruction in Hebrew, I still had a long way to go before achieving that conversance with Hebrew thought patterns and the imagery of the Hebrew sources which makes effective expression possible. I would say that the number of German Jews of my generation who traveled this road with some success has remained below ten. But I was fortunate.
The time of my arrival in Eretz Yisrael—the beginning of the 20’s—was a high point in the Zionist movement. A segment of youth I can only characterize as glowing in its expectation of the great things that lay ahead had come to Eretz Yisrael to exert enormous efforts at founding a Jewish society that would have a productive life of its own. Despite the shadows visibly gathering on the horizon, those were important and wonderful years. People lived in a rather narrow circle, for there were not yet very many Jews in the country—when I came, for example, there were fewer than 100,000. Yet one felt a kind of great surge emanating from these young people who had made the Zionist cause their own.
What these young people possessed quite naturally—and it should never be forgotten that Zionism was essentially a youth movement—was historical consciousness, something destructively lacking in the youth movements that came into being fifty years later, for whom indeed it even became a kind of dirty idea. There was, to be sure, a dialectic concealed in this historical consciousness of the Zionists—a consciousness which I shared with all my heart and all my soul—a dialectic of continuity and revolt. But it would not have occurred to any of us to deny the history of our people once we had recognized or rediscovered it. Whatever we might have been striving for now, it was in our bones. With our return to our own history we, or at least most of us, wanted to transform it, but we did not want to deny it. Without this religion, this “tie to the past,” the enterprise was (and is) hopeless and doomed to failure from the start.
In the years ahead, other problems would come to light: were we a sect or a vanguard? Would the Jews take possession of their own history or would they not? What form should their existence take in this historical environment which they had reentered? Could their life here be established on firm foundations without the Arabs? With the Arabs? In conflict with the Arabs? On questions like these, opinions began to diverge when I came to Eretz Yisrael, but on the central question, there was no dispute.
My friends went to the new kibbutzim to put into practice the socialist way of life and socialist methods of production. Other people remained in the cities as teachers, officials, merchants, and in some cases real-estate speculators—an almost surefire business venture and the inveterate subject of strife between the land reformers and the capitalists in the country. Among all these sectors, there was vital communication and also enormous hospitality. Everyone was always dropping in on everyone else, and wherever you went, you found a place to sleep—it was years before I got used to the idea of staying in a hotel occasionally. There was a time, quite literally, when hardly a house was ever locked in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. When you went out, you left the door open and it never occurred to anyone that there might be a burglary. And in fact, there never was any stealing, but when we got home we were likely to find someone asleep in our bed—the friend of a friend who had been given our address and wanted to spend the night.
Escha and I were married in November 1923 and moved into two rooms in an Arab house whose walls, believe it or not, were almost four feet thick—consisting of two stone partitions separated by a space filled with bricks and the like. This served as excellent insulation, keeping the house cool in the summer and relatively warm in winter. There was no running water, no electricity, and no telephone, and so we received no bills for such services. The water came from a big cistern. In times of drought we filled it with a hundred donkey-loads of water bought from an Arab. Our house was located on the Abyssinian Road which still looked exactly as it had during the Turkish period. It started at Mea She’arim and, winding around the Abyssinian church, ended at the Street of the Prophets, a wide thoroughfare which was even paved in some places and lined with hospitals, various Christian institutions, and foreign consulates. Only beyond this street did the new Jewish district begin, though our sandy path, which was settled almost entirely by citizens already prominent, or destined to be so, was already something like a Zionist center. (The real-estate agent was a Jew who had been baptized by the Christian mission.)
Our house lay directly beyond the wall, still intact, which separated the utlra-Orthodox Mea She’arim (“One Hundred Gates”) district from the quarters of the not-so-pious. (Originally there had been only four—not a hundred—gates facing in all four directions; the district had been built in 1871 like a fortress in the middle of the rocky desert one kilometer outside the Old City of Jerusalem.) Outside the walls of this Orthodox paradise we lived, one might say, in almost allegorical fashion. The National Library was at that time just two minutes up the street, and two minutes down the street was a cluster of second-hand bookstores whose owners, thank God, knew little about the treasures they guarded, having acquired them for next to nothing from the widows of deceased immigrants. (True, they could read, but Hebrew bibliography was unknown to them.) If my place of work was up the street, down the street was my playground.
In the years following World War I Jerusalem was saturated with old Hebrew books the way a sponge is saturated with water. Jerusalem had always been the destination of Jews from all parts of the world: they came there—most of them with their books—to pray, to study, and to die. There had been a terrible famine during the war years in which a great many people had died, but their books remained, and great masses of them lay around in the Jewish district of the Old City and in the Mea She’arim quarter.
Many books were being bought, but there was hardly any market for kabbalistic ones. To be sure, there were still the last Kabbalists in Jerusalem, gathered around the venerable center of mystic tradition and meditative prayer that had existed in the Old City for almost two centuries, but they acknowledged only one approach to Kabbalah as truly authentic, and they had no use for kabbalistic literature which did not conform to this approach, let alone for hasidic literature, which was a kind of popular Kabbalah. Thus, I was one of the few buyers on this market, and if I had had enough money I might have cornered it entirely before other collectors began to offer competition. At any rate, my growing passion for collecting was developing powerfully, limited only by my meager purse. What a great day it was for me when one of the noblest rabbis of Mea She’arim, a man who disdained all fanaticism, sold his marvelous library to provide his daughter with a decent dowry!
When I came from Germany in 1923, I brought with me 600 volumes in the field; since then I have accumulated a total of more than 7,000, and once, in my youthful folly, I even had a negative catalogue printed up, listing the books I didn’t own. (The title of this catalogue was a biblical quotation which in the original means “Go in peace” [Judges 18:6] but could also be understood to mean “Come to Scholem.” In Hebrew a title with a dual meaning has always been prized.) Of course I did pay a certain price for my insistence on negotiating with the book dealers only in Hebrew, for if I had spoken Yiddish with them as my most successful competitors did (including Agnon), I would have been able to acquire the books much more cheaply. I was paying for what might be called my Hebraistic fanaticism.
Though the institution I worked in was called the National and University Library, the university itself was not yet in evidence, except for one building which was under construction, the Institute of Biochemistry, for which Chaim Weizmann, himself a biochemist, had raised the funds. A committee consisting of a few Jerusalem notables carried on fruitless discussions about the coming university and its professorships, but no one else in the country believed that the project, which had been decided upon in 1913, and for which a symbolic cornerstone had been laid in 1918, would come to fruition in the foreseeable future. Nor was there any lack of skeptics and opponents. After all, there was already a sizable Jewish academic proletariat in the country in those days—was the number of unemployed Jewish intellectuals to be augmented still further by opening an institution that would issue diplomas? Many people shuddered at the prospect. Furthermore, as I have already said, the Zionists had no money, though the idea of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem was useful for propaganda purposes. Suddenly, however, events took an unexpectedly favorable turn.
In the fall of 1922 Judah Magnes settled in Jerusalem with his family. Magnes was one of the outstanding figures of Jewish public life in the United States, who at forty-five already had an extremely varied and dramatic career behind him. This extraordinary individual, whom I would come to know for twenty-five years, was a complex and very charming personality who combined the elements of an American radical, a Zionist of the Ahad Ha’am type, and a defector from Reform to Conservative Judaism with the unmistakable elements of a popular leader.
Though at first Magnes had probably planned to work in the socialist labor movement within Zionism, he soon began taking an interest in the projected university, and it was evidently he who interested the wealthy banker Felix Warburg and his wife, both of whom respected him greatly, in the idea of a Hebrew University when they visited Jewish Palestine in April 1924. At that time, Warburg was one of the most influential Jews in America, and was concerned with Jewish interests without being a Zionist. When he left the country he gave Magnes a sealed envelope containing—though Magnes did not know it yet—a substantial check for the establishment of a Jewish Institute at the university. Others followed suit, and the dream began to assume concrete form. Late in 1924 the Institute was opened, and in April 1925 the Hebrew University itself was inaugurated with great ceremony, and Magnes was named its Chancellor.
Lord Balfour, the author of the Balfour Declaration, as well as the greats of the Zionist movement from Weizmann and Rabbi Kook to Bialik and Ahad Ha’am, sat on the tribune of the amphitheater which had been carved out of the rock of Mount Scopus only a short time before. I was among the thousands who excitedly followed this ceremony, and I can still picture Lord Balfour, old and magnificent-looking, standing against the setting sun, delivering his eulogy of the Jewish people, its achievements in the past, and its hopes for the future.
In the meantime, a specially appointed committee of Jewish scholars began a search for the right people to grace an institute for research into all aspects of Judaism and its history. There was no thought of diplomas yet, God forbid. Rather, the search was under way for scholars who would devote themselves wholeheartedly to these studies for their own sake and not for the training of teachers, let alone rabbis. Since the most eminent scholars of the older generation, though highly sympathetic, were not willing to come to Jerusalem for more than a semester or a year, younger men were afforded an unprecedented chance to help build the new institute.
As the Jewish world was being scoured, Magnes’s attention lit on me as well. Kabbalah? A very peculiar subject! But wonderfully suited to this particular institute, which was more of an academy than anything else. Though it would never occur to anyone to choose it as a branch of study, the Kabbalah fitted beautifully into the general scheme as a pure object of research and an area in which, according to the general consensus, much remained to be done. And to think that the very same young man who had really delved into this field on his own was already living in Jerusalem and would not have to be paid to relocate! But how could his scholarly qualifications be ascertained? I did, of course, have three advocates on the committee: Bialik, Martin Buber, and Aron Freimann, but Bialik was, after all, a poet; Buber’s name at that time was not exactly considered the best of recommendations, though he could not very well be disregarded; and Freimann, though an important bibliographer, was neither a philosopher nor a historian of religion.
Magnes then wrote to two universally recognized authorities—not in Kabbalah, since there were none, but in Jewish philosophy and Jewish studies generally. One was Julius Guttmann, the head of the Academy Institute in Berlin, who recommended me warmly on the strength of my philosophical education and previous work. The other was Immanual Löw in Szegedin, at that time one of the “grand old men” of the Science of Judaism. Low was a scholar with an encyclopedic education, but his specialty was the field of botany in rabbinic literature, and he was enthusiastic about all studies combining Judaism and the exact sciences. To this day he is widely known as the author of the five-volume work, The Flora of the Jews; I think I am the only one who ever laughed at this strange title. Low wrote that I should definitely be appointed. He had read my book and found two excellent pages in it on the hermaphroditism of the palm tree in kabbalistic literature. He added that the man who had written them could be relied upon.
1 The legendary Italian juggler, Enrico Rastelli (1896-1931).—Ed.
2 A post-doctoral research project required in order to secure a teaching appointment at a university.—Ed.
3 The reference is to Theodor Herzl's Altneuland (1902), a utopian novel in which the author delineates the creation by the Jews of a model society in the Holy Land.—Ed.