MAY 21, 2017
IN THE 1990s, George and Anne Prochnik moved from the United States to Jerusalem to explore the possibilities of a Judaism they had discovered as a couple and that seemed to offer shape and beauty for their young marriage. They were drawn to Israel by a quiet, almost aesthetic attraction to Jewish traditions, and neither seems to have had much of a sense of what they would do once they got there. George arrived inspired by the writings of Gershom Scholem, the towering kabbalah scholar who had immigrated to Jerusalem from Berlin 70 years before and who, unlike George, was called to Zion by a hot kind of passion. As a youth, Scholem toggled between contemplating suicide and trying to manage his suspicion that he was the Messiah. To him, embracing his Jewishness and escaping to Mandate Palestine in the 1920s represented an urgent compulsion that offered release from Weimar Germany and his assimilationist parents.
After Scholem landed in Jerusalem, he found success as a scholar within a nascent Jewish intellectual outpost that swelled in resources and influence as his academic reputation grew, while the Prochniks’ experience was one of financial difficulties and marital strain in a bewildering late 20th-century Zionist society. Looking back now as an older man and a more mature scholar, George Prochnik has produced a book of remarkable erudition and emotional depth that plays the life and thinking of Gershom Scholem against his own. This is at once a compelling intellectual biography of the formidable Scholem and a piercing personal memoir. The two threads together tell a story of Jews in Israel in a way too often overlooked: not in sweeping terms of faith and nations and history, but in the more intimate terms of what people do to make their way in the world, and what they tell each other and themselves as they do it.
Prochnik is an immensely talented writer, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, as well as the author of the widely praised The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (2014). In Stranger in a Strange Land, he manages, in a very satisfying way, to unfold Scholem’s life in tandem with his own, allowing each of the narratives to develop in measured increments. The biographical sketches of Scholem necessarily play it straight with what can be documented — enhanced significantly by what Prochnik has been able to harvest from Scholem’s exuberant and expressive diaries along with the author’s confident and clear-eyed critique of Scholem’s life and work. But the thread of Prochnik’s memoir develops into something bravely raw and deeply wrenching. Biography and memoir build alongside each other with an ease that belies the difficulty of Prochnik’s task as a storyteller. The reader awaits the next chapter of Scholem’s career in Jerusalem and senses it bending gently away from the scholarly ideal, while becoming more invested in a growing family’s confusing choices in a morally challenging place and time.
Among the more thought-provoking themes of the book are the subtle interplay between Jewish identity in Jerusalem, the embrace and demands of other Jews there, and the fraught compromises one faces in carving out a living in such an iconic spot. In Scholem’s life, Prochnik teases out the evidence that the scholar may have looked past the richness of kabbalah practice in Jerusalem to boost his own status as the virtual inventor of kabbalah historiography, and shares his own unsuccessful attempts to carve out an academic niche for himself as a modern Western scholar in a well-established academic community that has become set in its traditionalist ways. In Scholem’s case, the story becomes one of extravagant youthful passion evolving into a life of accomplished scholarship, marked by an element of being in the right place at the right time. In Prochnik’s case, the story is one of just barely getting by surfing state stipends and desultory employment: an exhausted and worried working wife, babies and toddlers, bouncing rent checks, all set against modern tropes about religion, ethics, and individual fulfillment that can’t be squared.
The most poignant passages render the interplay between George and Anne, the best of which Prochnik evinces with compact and cutting dialogue. The state’s and their neighbors’ embrace of the young couple, such a welcome tonic in their earliest days, become something different and more complex as they have children and struggle to make ends meet. Unlike Scholem in his time, the Prochniks become strangely removed from the plight of the Palestinians and the rise of the nationalist/religious right. They feel the pragmatic pull toward Orthodoxy and struggle with the uncomfortable reality that their avoidance of traditional dress is damaging their employment prospects. George takes to wearing a kippah in public and starts to avoid the walks he used to enjoy in Arab East Jerusalem. He sees families like his who follow the low house prices and government subsidies to live in West Bank settlements and, in the process, become more Orthodox and nationalistic. Anne obliquely pleads with George to nudge more toward conformity and religious observance, toward the ideals that brought them to Jerusalem to create a family, toward what it takes to ease their worries. One reads Prochnik’s prose of taut late-night quarrels and wonders if tense discussions like these between a man and a woman over thousands of years have done more to shape the Abrahamic faiths than anyone imagines.
It is in this blend of the intimate and sweeping that the book excels. In Stranger in a Strange Land, George Prochnik has crafted a beautiful and haunting piece of nonfiction literature that combines the pleasures of creative biography and personal memoir into a richly textured and deeply felt story. His book tells a story about the vagaries of faith and tradition that cannot otherwise be told.