If I had been asked this question a few years ago, I might have proposed a throwback course, where the goal is to arrive at a better understanding of a single key work through sustained analysis, where, that is, the key work is itself the topic of the course. But I recently taught a course like this—on Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities—and while the experience was rewarding, I'd like to try something different before repeating it. So then the question becomes: Which text would provide a particularly fruitful way into a topic that I'd like to teach. And the text that comes most readily to mind is Gershom Scholem's diaries. I'm interested in offering a course on German-Jewish culture at the fin of the fin de siècle, and the notebooks that Scholem, who was born in 1897, kept between 1913 and 1919, seem to me to take us into that topic in all kinds of productive ways.
In the first place, of course, the diaries are revealing with respect to Scholem himself, a cultural phenomenon of no small importance. They show that he was still in his teens when he began to formulate the ideas on which his later success would be based, and also that he began to formulate those ideas as rebellious intuitions. More even than his precocious learning, what guided him was the sense that the great German-Jewish historians of the nineteenth century must be, in basic ways, utterly wrong, for they had written in a spirit of compromise and accommodation.
Scholem is anything but a representative figure; yet the dynamic of rebellion and innovation I just described is hardly unique. And for all his extraordinariness, young Scholem could be used as a case study in the mechanisms of productivity among German Jews of the expressionist generation.
But it wasn't only Scholem's mature ideas about historical Judaism that the diaries begin to articulate. What he wrote in them as a teenager often comes close to many of his influential later claims about German-Jewish culture. The diaries abound with arresting commentary about such things as the condition of the acculturated bourgeois Jewish circles in which Scholem grew up, the Zionist circles in which he eventually moved, and how the best German-Jewish artists drew on Jewish tradition, whether they were aware of it or not. Thus the diaries invite reflection on all these aspects of German-Jewish culture, as well as on the continuities between the primary material of German-Jewish culture and the more important secondary accounts of it.
The diaries also contain quite a bit of useful information about the daily lives of Jewish university students, but that may be a topic for another seminar. Because of my space constraints, it is definitely a topic for another day.