German Jerusalem: The Remarkable Life of a German-Jewish Neighbourhood in the Holy City by Thomas Sparr - review by George Prochnik

George Prochnik

Vienna by Temple Mount

German Jerusalem: The Remarkable Life of a German-Jewish Neighbourhood in the Holy City


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As a tormented young anarchist pacifist pining for radical deliverance while cooped up at home with his parents in Berlin during the First World War, Gershom Scholem felt absolutely committed to one cause: Zionism. The only problem, he acknowledged in his journal, was that Zionists had not yet defined the contents of their ideology. As far as Scholem was concerned, Zionism had no political implications. It did not necessitate an oceanic ingathering of the Jewish people from the diaspora. There was no imperative to farm the Holy Land. The movement, in the eyes of the future pioneering scholar of kabbalah, was a humanistic, anti-bourgeois endeavour that probably required a commitment to living in Palestine or thereabouts. But it did not require the acquisition of sovereign control over territory, let alone taking possession of land belonging to the Arab peoples resident in the country.

Scholem imagined that somehow or other, by being in Palestine as a working, dreaming Zionist prodigy, it would be possible to regenerate Judaism worldwide. That was an essential project, since Jewish life in Europe was in his eyes effectively dead. More than being a result of anti-Semitism, its moribund status was, he believed, a consequence of the Jews’ own voluntary assimilation to the bellicose jingoism and vacuous greed of the majority culture, presently on display in the grotesque slaughter of the war. Attempting to give positive content to his grail of authentic Zionism, Scholem resolved that its adherents were bound to cultivate four qualities: acute historical awareness, despair about Europe, spiritual anguish and a social conscience vis-à-vis all humanity.

Although Scholem’s youthful list of the essential components of Zionism was extreme in its idealism, the basic notions he articulated would have struck a chord with many of the German-speaking Jews from central Europe who, like him, moved to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s. The years during which these figures became a dominating presence in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighbourhood form the subject of Thomas Sparr’s elegiac, anecdotal study German Jerusalem. For a period of four decades, give or take, a small cast of frequently brilliant polymath émigrés infused this leafy neighbourhood, a few kilometres west of Suleiman the Magnificent’s crenellated old city walls, with the aura of Mitteleuropean melancholy they’d sought to transcend by leaving Germany.

A number of the characters sprinkled through the pages of Sparr’s short, variegated book achieved world renown. In addition to Scholem, Hannah Arendt makes an appearance, staying in Rehavia while covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Martin Buber is a recurring presence, though, as Sparr acknowledges, he actually lived in the adjacent neighbourhood of Talbiya. The poet and playwright Else Lasker-Schüler, whom Sparr credits with being one of the inventors of Rehavia as a literary conceit, is introduced projecting her biblically inflected visions over the place’s landscapes. In Land of the Hebrews, Lasker-Schüler likens Rehavia’s gardens to the Garden of Eden, Sparr notes: its ‘pious dwellings have wings to the rear for the journey to heaven … past becomes present’. Less famous yet still highly influential figures, such as the prolific scholar Werner Kraft and the philosopher Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, also play important roles in this story.

Although Walter Benjamin never visited Jerusalem, Scholem worked assiduously to secure him a stipend from the Hebrew University, which was intended to pave the way for his eventual appointment there. Sparr toys with the prospect of Benjamin following through on Scholem’s offers of help and imagines Benjamin going to live in Rehavia. It’s not an altogether idle reverie. Benjamin assured Scholem on several occasions that his mind was made up – or very nearly, almost made up – to get out of Europe and devote himself for a period of time to studying Hebrew and sacred texts in Jerusalem. Admittedly, Benjamin’s avowals tracked fairly closely his receipt of financial support from the Hebrew University. Even so, the notion of Benjamin in Rehavia seems vaguely plausible because the place Sparr conjures often carries the air of a detached intellectual hallucination.

The book is liberally interspersed with quotations from the writings of the neighbourhood’s more formidable residents, but descriptions of Rehavia itself rarely figure in these. The individuals were seemingly so strongly wedded to their libraries and their memories of a lost cosmopolitan ideal that they absorbed little of their surroundings beyond what was on offer at the enticingly Old World-style coffee houses they frequented. The spectral quality of these new émigrés – noted and scorned by longer-term inhabitants of Jerusalem – grew more apparent as their hopes that the Zionist settlement might inspire the revitalisation of Jewry at large were swept away by stronger historical currents. Jewish nationalism, Arab nationalism and a surge in immigration due to rising persecution in Europe all proved more robust forces in shaping the rapidly expanding Jewish settlement in Palestine than did the Rehavia enclave.

Even those members of the community who were troubled by the lack of real dialogue with their Arab neighbours didn’t know how to go about remedying the situation. Sparr devotes several pages to the poignant story of Brit Shalom, an association formed in the mid-1920s composed primarily of German-Jewish immigrants who sought to respond to increasing Arab–Jewish violence by formulating a blueprint for a binational state. While the group was tiny, its membership was influential. It included figures like Scholem and Bergmann, and also attracted the support of international celebrities like Albert Einstein. But although the organisation was dedicated to coexistence, the Arabs its members hoped to share power with participated in it only glancingly – as ‘guest Arabs’ at club meetings, in the words of Scholem’s wife, Escha. The publisher Salman Schocken wondered how far the organisation could hope to progress when most of its members’ understanding of the Arabs’ situation came through chats with their gardeners. Brit Shalom dissolved not long after Hitler’s appointment to the German chancellorship, which was followed by a dramatic rise in Jewish emigration to Palestine. Sparr writes that while in 1933 Rehavia had only 87 buildings and 705 residents, three years later these figures had increased to 246 buildings and 2,520 residents.

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Although most of the figures in this book landed in Rehavia because of deep alienation or compulsory exile from the cities of their youth, Sparr shows that what they created in the neighbourhood resembled more a distillation of the High German culture of their past than a fresh start. One immigrant, Gad Granach, summarising the atmosphere, invoked ‘the tragedy of a bottle of medicine at a deathbed’. Even Rehavia’s architecture was a conscious import from Europe. Sparr tells the story of how Richard Kauffmann, Rehavia’s primary developer, took his inspiration from a tour of garden cities in England, Holland and Germany. Many of Rehavia’s buildings have Bauhaus elements that would not have appeared out of place in 1930s Weimar or Berlin. Its physical environment – a close-woven swirl of shady streets, lined with low buildings faced with Jerusalem’s distinctive, peachy-cream limestone, studded with flickering palm trees and floods of bougainvillea, strolled by scholars and pervaded with the sound of multilingual conversation – sounds charming, if terminally disconnected.

Sparr lived in Rehavia in the latter part of the 1980s, as did I, though our paths did not cross. Its heyday was long over, but many of the grace notes that he singles out resonate with my own memories: the floral tranquillity, the sounds of musical instruments being practised, the sight of classic German texts – by Goethe, Schiller, Kleist – being laid out on the pavements in front of apartment buildings, neatly bundled in twine by the children and grandchildren of recently deceased German immigrants whose literary treasures meant nothing to their descendants. I remember poppy-seed pastries lighter and more perfect than any I’ve ever tasted since, sold by sardonic elderly ladies in old-fashioned costumes in bakery cafes, where people read, wrote and conversed. I remember, as well, the Palestinian women in embroidered dresses hawking baskets of grapes through Rehavia’s streets, or climbing the limbs of its olive trees to shake out the fruit on which they depended for their livelihoods. Palestinian boys waited on tables in the elite Rehavia cafes when they should have been in school – and the refuse collectors and street cleaners were Palestinian as well. There just weren’t any Palestinians inside the houses or seated at the tables in the lovely cafes.

Of the essential pillars of Zionism that Scholem outlined in his youth, a sense of historical responsibility, misery over the state of Europe and general spiritual distress were strikingly realised in Rehavia. It was only the final mission – the development of a social conscience towards humanity at large – that never quite crystallised there. Today, as Sparr notes, the neighbourhood, like most of Jerusalem, has grown increasingly religious. If once, in the eyes of some local observers, Rehavia was a kind of island, inhabited by scholars and artists, today the place blends into its surroundings with ease.

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