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Preserver of Jewish culture

The Patron A Life of Salman Schocken, 1877-1959 Anthony David Metropolitan Books: 452 pp., $30

August 08, 2004|Michael Andre Bernstein | Michael Andre Bernstein is the author of the novel "Conspirators."

By any measure, it was an astonishing generation of Jews that grew to maturity in Central Europe between the last decades of the 19th century and the First World War. Not infrequently, the most successful of these Kraftjuden, or "powerful Jews," as they were called, were children of families only recently permitted to reside outside the ghetto walls and enforced penury that had kept Austro-German Jewry confined for centuries. Their grandparents had been barred from most professions and denied access to higher education, but once released, the pent-up energy and ambition of their offspring transformed utterly not just the world of traditional Judaism but, equally, the long-forbidden realms of secular culture, science and commerce.

Many of these men and women went on to become iconic names in the history of modern Europe, with shelf-loads of biographies and critical studies devoted to their achievements. Surprisingly, though, Anthony David's engrossing new book, "The Patron," is the first full-scale biography of one of the most interesting of these figures, Salman Schocken (1877-1959), whose career, perhaps more clearly than anyone else's, embodies the brief moment when it was possible for a self-made German Jew to occupy a leading role at the intersection of big business, high culture and Zionism.

The publishing house he founded, Schocken Verlag, contributed powerfully to the transformation of Hebrew from a sacred tongue into a vehicle for modern secular literature, and both his Hebrew and his German titles contain some of the most important Jewish works we have in either language. His contributions to Jewish culture became still more urgent after the Nazi assumption of state power and the ensuing exclusion of Jews from German life. Forbidden to publish "Aryan" authors, Schocken Verlag became dedicated not only to preserving classic Jewish texts but also to showing the continuing vitality of the tradition in the work of 20th century writers like Franz Kafka. No doubt, a modern, secular Jewish culture would have come into existence without Schocken, but deprived of his ardent commitment and financial support, the contours of that new culture might well have been different and its canonic texts not nearly as well known.

Hannah Arendt, who briefly worked for Schocken when they both were exiles in New York, once referred to her employer -- not entirely ironically -- as the "Jewish Bismarck," while for Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Schocken was not merely a remarkably successful businessman and patron but "a mystical merchant" and "our Don Quixote of the jet-age." It is impossible to imagine anyone else being described in similar terms -- especially not by temperaments as captious as Arendt's and Scholem's -- and David rightly echoes the judgment that "no one better mirrored the fate of German Jews writ large, or embodied its spectrum of opportunities and impossible choices."

Born in 1877 in Margonin, a drab, economically backward town in the Prussian province of Posen near the Polish border, Schocken was regarded for many years as a typical Ostjude, or "Jew from the East," a group almost as despised by the more successfully assimilated Jews from the metropolitan areas as it was by out-and-out anti-Semites. Schocken attended the local heder, or religious school, until he was apprenticed to a small merchant at 14, much as his father and grandfather had been before him. Schocken, though, had already become a ferocious autodidact, his imagination initially fired by Goethe's novel "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship," with its doctrine of individual self-realization, and even as his interests widened and took on a more Jewish inflection, the canon of German Romantic authors remained cherished touchstones for the rest of his life.

Schocken's apprenticeship taught him rudimentary business skills, but, more important, it left him determined never to settle for the life of a store clerk. He fled to Berlin to make his fortune, only to fail miserably and find himself forced to accept a position as a traveling salesman for a Leipzig textile firm. Slowly, though, in partnership with his older brother, Simon, who was running a mid-size shop in Zwickau, an industrial city in Saxony, Salman Schocken's ideas about how to improve the merchandising of consumer goods brought him success. The Schocken brothers went into business and from their Zwickau headquarters began to build a chain of ever-larger and more profitable department stores.

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