The fascinating correspondence between these two giants in the field of Judaic Studies reveals much about both men, including their impressions of a young Leon Wieseltier…
As is well known, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was always happy to receive gifts of books for his collection. According to one interpretation, that is the reason that he maintained an empty shelf in his home library, so that his guests wouldn’t get the impression that there was no room for him to receive more books! Interestingly, on the 23rd of Tamuz in the Hebrew year of 5737 (July 9, 1977), Scholem received not one, but two books, with dedications from the same author.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was an American scholar of Jewish History who taught initially at Harvard and from 1980 at Columbia University, where he served as the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society. Baron had been Yerushalmi’s PhD advisor at Columbia and it must have been satisfying for both men when Yerushalmi “returned home” after his long sojourn at Harvard. I myself left Columbia with a degree in history in 1979, missing the opportunity to study with Yerushalmi by one year. He is widely remembered for his 1982 work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.
The first of the books that Yerushalmi presented to Scholem was his own historical work, published the previous year, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the ‘Shebet Yehudah’ (Cincinnati 1976).
The second, more intriguing book, was a slim volume (29 pages) published in Bombay India in 1916, Guide: The Secret Doctrine of the Soul and Body With Miscellaneous Information Useful in Daily Life, by one “Judah Shallum Kasooker, Jerusalemist”.
I was unable to find any information regarding the author, Judah Shallum Kasooker, or why he refers to himself as a “Jerusalemist”. This volume is the only title of his in the National Library of Israel, which holds three copies. His picture is also somewhat intriguing:
As you can see, he distributed his book for free (only additional copies were charged), and each of the copies at the NLI has a different name written in the blank space. The Yerushalmi – Scholem copy had been given to Joseph David Gadkee.
The work was dedicated to the author’s “brethren who are lovers of the Jewish religion”. Gershom Scholem of course stamped his own copy, as was his custom.
It is beyond the scope of this post to properly review this guide, but among the topics discussed are levels of the soul, reincarnation, prayer, the Sabbath, charity, death and “separation of the sexes”. Of course, one has to finance one’s publications, especially when they are distributed for free. Our author ran an advertisement on the last page for “Vegetable Pain Drops”, which were good for more or less whatever ails you!
Perhaps it should not surprise us that the author himself was an alternative healer, who did not charge the poor for his services.
Returning to Yerushalmi’s dedication, including the phrase “This book also goes up to Scholem”, Yerushalmi was obviously alluding to Scholem’s infamous “negative catalogue” of 1937 –“קונטרס עלו לשלום : רשימת ספרי קבלה וחסידות המבוקשים לאוסף ספריו של גרשם שלום” -This was a six-page list of 111 works that Scholem hoped to purchase for his library. He would later lament in his autobiography, From Berlin to Jerusalem, that the main result of this folly was that book dealers subsequently raised the prices of works they knew Scholem was after!
At this point let us zoom out and take a look at the Scholem – Yerushalmi relationship. Firstly, it’s important to realize that Scholem was Yerushalmi’s senior by 35 years, so the relationship was hardly equal. By the time that Yerushalmi began his academic career Scholem was already a world-renowned scholar, amongst the most important academics in the field of Judaic Studies.
In the NLI’s Gershom Scholem archives, there is preserved a fairly extensive correspondence (about 15 letters) between the two, which took place between 1973, when Yerushalmi was a young lecturer at Harvard, until 1980, when he was transitioning to his new position at Columbia, and only two years before Scholem’s demise. Initially Scholem wrote to Yerushalmi in English and Yerushalmi responded in beautiful Hebrew. Later they would both write in both languages.
Their letters display a great degree of mutual admiration and as time went on and the two visited each other (along with their spouses), a close personal friendship as well. Amongst the topics they discussed were publications and translations of some of Scholem’s books as well as the upcoming (1979) book by David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History. Their mutual fascinations with Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were also discussed as well as young scholars-in-training at the time, especially Leon Wieseltier. The file also contains two letters written after Scholem’s death. They are a letter from Yerushalmi to historian Prof. Jacob Katz in 1984, in which he sent Katz his correspondence with Scholem for possible publication, and a letter from Fania Scholem (his widow) to Yerushalmi in 1987.
We will take a look at a few of the highlights from their correspondence, which began after Yerushalmi sent a copy of his 1971 work, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cordoso: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics. Scholem (30.1.73) praised the work and encouraged Yerushalmi to also publish the letters of Cardoso’s brother, the Sabbatian theorist Avraham.
Yerushalmi for his part was ecstatic at Scholem’s positive evaluation of his work and responded (2.3.73) with superlative praise for Scholem and his status in the world of Jewish scholarship. Among his comments, “I merited to receive praise and encouragement from the generation’s greatest scholar in Judaic Studies…since beginning to compose my book I couldn’t restrain myself from one recurring thought, which is – what will ‘he’ say?”
In a very interesting letter from Yerushalmi ( 11.1.76), which may not have actually been sent to Scholem, Yerushalmi spoke glowingly of Scholem’s book, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, which he would have read in the original German edition (1975), as the English translation was published only in 1981. He confessed that in addition to finding the book enlightening on the subject of Benjamin, it was so as well on the subject of Scholem himself. He chose however not to go into detail, as “I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself”. Last but not least he shares with Scholem his “obsession” regarding Franz Kafka, “one of the very few writers who ‘speak’ to me in a particularly intimate way”.
In a wide-ranging letter from 3.4.76 Yerushalmi opened with thanks to Scholem for sending him a copy of his book Devarim B’Go, and closes with a request to Fania Scholem to assist them in finding an apartment to rent (or swap) on their upcoming trip to Jerusalem. In the body of the letter, Yerushalmi laments having to serve as head of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. The up side to his undesired administrative tasks is the opportunity to interact with scholars from the Arab world, though he assumes that, “the majority return home to Tripoli or Damascus, and point to me as proof of the authenticity of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion'”!
On the eleventh of January, 1978, Yerushalmi informed Scholem that he was sending to him, together with the letter, three “segulot” (amulets), two that had been written in the United States and a third from Tunisia.
This letter also contains the beginning of what would become extensive correspondence regarding David Biale’s proposed book Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter Culture, which would be published the following year by Harvard Press. The book, based upon Biale’s prior PhD dissertation, was the first work regarding Scholem himself, and thus all involved wished to proceed with caution.
Lastly, Yerushalmi mentions that he does have satisfaction from a few excellent students, one being [Leon] Wieseltier, who would go on to a successful career as a literary critic and as the literary editor of the “New Republic”. Scholem would also comment about him in later correspondence.
On February 12, 1978 Scholem responded with a four-page handwritten letter on a variety of topics. The great majority dedicated to a response to Yerushalmi’s question regarding David Biale and his proposed book regarding Scholem. Scholem responds at great length (also enclosing one page of comments that he had previously sent to Biale himself), and among other things, writes that, “My general opinion is that it is a serious and interesting book…I would be positive about its publication”. On the other hand, “I disagree on certain things which on the one hand suffer from ‘overinterpretation’, while on the other, many sources he is unaware of are ignored”. Scholem goes on to provide a list of books and articles that in his opinion Biale should incorporate into his research. He closes this part of his letter with one specific criticism and writes, “regarding the influence of Hermann Cohen’s ideas on my perspective, this is a brash hypothesis that seems unfounded to me…I have never dreamed of such a connection and even now that Biale has revealed it, his words are not at all convincing”.
Scholem returns at the end of his letter to the topic of Yerushalmi’s promising student and writes, “I consider Wieseltier to be a very talented young man. He, however, is at risk of spreading his talents too thin. It would be appropriate for someone like you to invest in bringing him close”.
Yerushalmi responded on April 24, 1978, attempting to allay Scholem’s concerns regarding Biale’s forthcoming book. “I would certainly have authored a different book about you, but I think this book is serious enough that it deserves to be published. It is the first attempt to understand your oeuvre, and others will come to correct and to add… Biale is a flexible young man, and he wants to please you. Even though some points could easily be refuted, let’s not forget that at the end of the day, this is his book, and he is fully responsible for it”.
The final letter that we have is from over two years later (10.6.80), when Yerushalmi informs Scholem that he will soon be moving from Boston to New York and returning to Columbia University. With that, it appears that their intensive spurt of correspondence came to a close. Scholem died two years later in early 1982, Yerushalmi in 2008, not before achieving, somewhat like Scholem, status as one of the preeminent scholars in the field of academic Judaic Studies.
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