The Star of David and the Stars Outside: The Poetics and Semiotics of Jewish Folklore and of Zionism

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“The Star of David and the Stars Outside: The Poetics and Semiotics of Jewish Folklore and of Zionism” written in memory of Dov Noy by his disciple and successor, proposes the perspectives of folklore studies and semiotics as the basis for a critical reading of Gershom Scholem’s essay “Magen David”. The author of the present article reviews the various subsequent versions of Scholem’s essay that was first published in 1947 in Hebrew in an annual literary supplement of the daily Haaretz. The essay stated Scholem’s harsh criticism against the adoption of the Star of David as a Jewish national symbol by Zionist cultural and political institutions. Earlier scholarship has shown how “Magen David” digressed from the usual topics at the focus of Scholem’s magisterial oeuvre, especially the texts of Jewish mysticism interpreted in the light of the phenomenology of religion and historical philology. The present author suggests that the methodological tools that Scholem had honed for reading historical texts on mysticism may not have the same pertinence for analyzing the historical evolvement and transformations of a symbol like the Star of David that has often appeared in contexts of everyday life, magic customs and visual culture. Scholem’s strong rejection of the holistic picture of Jewish folk religion including mystical, magical and poetic expressions, isolating mysticism from all these as a separate, philosophical discourse and phenomenon, did not enable him to see the strong identification of Jews who practiced those more concrete forms of Jewish life sometimes using the symbol of Magen David. Scholem’s choice to publish this essay in Hebrew and in a literary organ, is here interpreted as his attempt to take part in the shaping of Zionist poetical discourse. The relevance of the symbol that he chose for participating in the poetics of the era is demonstrated by an analysis of the focus on stars in the poetry of two dominant poets of Hebrew Zionist culture who were both active in the years before and after the publication of Scholem’s “Magen David” essay, Natan Alterman and Haim Gouri.


A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture



Dorothy Noyes, “The Social Basis of Folklore,” in A Companion to Folklore, eds. Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem, (Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 13–39.


Paul Mendes-Flohr, “Introductory Essay: The Spiritual Quest of the Philologist,” in Gershom Scholem—The Man and His Work, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr (Albany NY: The State University of New York Press, 1994), 4–5; David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, 144–147.


Ilana Pardes, Agnon’s Moonstruck Lovers: The Song of Songs in Israeli Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) is one of the most exhilarating books exploring this development in Israeli culture.


Necker, Das Davidschild: Geschichte eines Symbols (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), afterword.


Cf. Moshe Idel, “Some Forlorn Writings of a Forgotten Ashkenazi Prophet: R. Nehemiah ben Shlomo ha-Navi’,” Jewish Quarterly Review 95.1 (2005): 183–196. The article does not discuss R. Nehemiah’s contributions to the development of the Magen David symbol.


Haim Weiss, “There Was a Man in Israel—Bar-Kosibah Was His Name.” Jewish Studies Quarterly 21.2 (2014): 99–115. Weiss conducts research on the transformations of the Bar Kokhba figure in various stages of the development of modern Jewish nationalism. This is not the place to elaborate on the midrashic sources in which Rabbi Akiva’s presents a relevant midrash on the verse, “I see him, but I don’t see him now. I view him, but he isn’t near. A star will come from among the people of Jacob. A king will rise up out of Israel.” (based on a quote from Numbers 24:17).


Joaneath Spicer, “The Star of David and Jewish Culture in Prague around 1600, Reflected in Drawings of Roelandt Savery and Paulus van Vianen,” Journal of the Walters Gallery of Art 54 (1996) 203–224.


Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), is the most systematic investigation of the cultural implications of the concept that I know of.


Galit Hasan-Rokem, Tales of the Neighborhood: Jewish Narrative Dialogues in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), correlates religious symbols shared by Jews and Christians to everyday life experiences such as baking, borrowing, planting trees, folk medicine.


Dani Schrire, “Poetic Emancipation: Wissenschaft des Judentums, Folklore-Studies and the Discourse on (Folk) Genres,” in Wissenschaft des Judentums in Europe: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Christian Wiese and Mirjam Thulin (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016, forthcoming), especially on Ignaz Goldziher’s Mythology among the Hebrews (London: Longmans, Green and co. 1877). Goldziher’s book online, last accessed July 15, 2016,


Noam Zadoff, “ ‘Zions’ Self-Engulfing Light’: On Gershom Scholem’s Disillusionment with Zionism,” Modern Judaism 31.3 (2011): 272–284. Thanks to Professor Zadoff for fruitful discussions on the topic of this essay. I cannot account for some of his justified critical comments on the 2008 Hebrew edition, such as the addition of “In the beginning” at the beginning of the essay, as some twenty years passed between the daring act of trusting the editing of the text to my hands and the printing, while I had no opportunity to read proofs. But n.b. Shlomo Zucker’s important chronological correction showing that already in 1738 a Magen David was set on top of a synagogue in Altona to mark its Jewishness, see the 2008 Hebrew edition, 53 footnote 95, weakening Scholem’s claim that the Magen David was an “invented tradition” produced by the nineteenth century assimilationist Jews (cf. The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and the criticism of Charles Briggs, “The Politics of Discursive Authority in Research on the “Invention of Tradition,” Cultural Anthropology 11.4 (1996): 435–469). The destruction of most wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe prevents almost totally the search for more hexagrams among them. This correction by Zucker is important especially in as it counters Scholem’s claim that earlier, magical usages of the hexagram characterized Ostjuden and Jews in Morocco and Egypt, and his claim that the shape appeared in Hamburg only in 1828, i.e. only after secularization had set in.


  • Michael Gordon, The Star of David (Moonlight), 2008, photographed computer drawing, one unit of a diptych, 29.7 × 21 cm, artist’s collection. Courtesy of Michael Gordon, Tel-Aviv.
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  • Michael Gordon, Preparatory sketches, 2008, pen on an envelope, 33.5 × 23.5 cm, artist’s collection. Courtesy of Michael Gordon, Tel-Aviv.
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  • Gershom Scholem’s handwritten note and sketch, from his archive. Published in Magen David 2008, details in footnote no. 13 below, p. 8. Courtesy of Mishkan l’omanut, Ein Harod.
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  • Haim Gouri, פרחי אש (Flowers of Fire), Cover Art, 1961 Jerusalem: Tarshish Books, lithograph by Moshe Tamir. Courtesy of Amitai Spitzer, Jerusalem; reproduction from The Story of Moshe Spitzer and his Publishing House “Tarshish.” Eds. Ada Vardi et. al. Jerusalem: Minneged publishing 2015, 260. Photograph by Eli Posner. Courtesy of the editors and the photographer.
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