Walter Benjamin was one of the most idiosyncratic 20th century intellectuals. Though his formal academic training was in philosophy, he eventually wrote his major works in areas that are closer to literary, art, and pop-culture theory. For this reason, and for his association with the Frankfurt School, Benjamin is revered as a kind-of grandfather of contemporary cultural studies.
Benjamin’s popularity in the university has skyrocketed in the past couple of decades and interest in his Jewish roots and identity followed.
In the early 1990s, Professor Susan Handelman published a book on the Jewish thought of Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gershom Scholem. Benjamin’s friendship with Scholem has also been well documented and the correspondences between these two intellectual giants has been published, as well.
Still, much of this Benjamin-related material — particularly the Jewish-interest material — is scattered and difficult, so we at MJL have tried to rectify that. Meaning…
I’d like to call your attention to Jessica Kraft’s wonderful and just-published MJL article on Walter Benjamin. In just 1,500 words Jessica summarizes Benjamin’s important contributions to intellectual life and explores his unique Jewish identity.
Benjamin always maintained some distance from his fellow Germans, and from the presumed German audience to which he addressed most of his writing. He, like so many intellectually prominent German Jews of the time, was stuck in the morass between anti-Semitism and modernity. This in-between space did not allow him to retreat into traditional Judaism, nor did it allow him to assimilate entirely into a hostile host society.
The full article is available here.