Much can be gleaned about Benjamin’s Jewishness, and that of his whole class, from this short diary. He is evidently completely unobservant—more, ignorant of the basic details of Jewish practice—and he feels a nervous disinclination to be “claimed” in any way by Judaism. A fully modern man, he could find “nothing holy” in organized religion. Yet at the same time it is impossible not to notice that Benjamin is surrounded by Jewishness like a fish by water. His traveling companion is Jewish; the house he is staying in is Jewish. As his friend Gershom (born Gerhard) Scholem, a product of a similar background, would later note, it was quite normal for assimilated German Jews never to enter a Gentile home or invite a Gentile to theirs. Jewish identity was much more durable than Jewish belief.
This would be of merely sociological interest were it not for the complicated ways that Jewishness and Judaism informed Benjamin’s brilliant and vastly influential work. His best-known writings—on Proust and Kafka, nineteenth-century Paris, the movies, “the age of mechanical reproduction”—came after the period covered by Early Writings. But even in these seven years, from the ages of eighteen to twenty-five, it is possible to see Benjamin develop from a precocious, pompous adolescent into a daring and deep thinker. The last pieces in the book—in particular “The Life of Students,” “Trauerspiel and Tragedy,” and “On Language as Such and the Language of Man”—lead directly to his most important insights into the nature of literature and history . . .