Walter Benjamin. (Werkbundarchiv, Museum der Dinge)

In April 1911, the 18-year-old Walter Benjamin took a hiking trip with a friend in the Thuringian Forest. His diary of the trip is one of the first items included in Early Writings 1910-1917, the latest volume to appear in Harvard University Press’ Benjamin edition—an exemplary scholarly project that has now been ongoing for 25 years. Nothing especially noteworthy seems to have happened on the trip, and the diary, which is just a few pages long, contains fairly cursory accounts of the natural splendors Benjamin saw (“The sunset was marvelous after the rain … the woods were irradiated with red, and individual branches and tree trunks along the path were glowing”).

The most interesting thing about the diary is its Jewish subtext. Benjamin notes that it’s Passover, and that the pension he’s staying in is owned by a Jewish man who “kept saying, ‘So, what do we make for Yontev?’ ” Benjamin parses the word in a way that suggests it is new to him: “One does not say ‘Good day’ but ‘Good Yontev.’ ”

Similarly, the proprietor subscribes to the Israelitisches Familienblatt (“Jewish Family Journal”), and Benjamin notes that the magazine contains advertisements for “dishes for the Seder.” It takes his traveling companion to explain to him what these Seder plates are: “The latter are used for the Passover feast and have different compartments for different foods. So says Steinfeld.” Later Benjamin complains, “with coffee there was matzoh, and that’s how it will be; for … we are in Pesach week.” But while the pension seems to keep kosher for Passover, there is no actual Seder, which seems to both relieve Benjamin and disappoint him: “Thank God they didn’t do Seder. It might well have been very interesting and might even have moved me, but it would have seemed to me like theater, nothing holy.”

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 20th-century 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’s staying in is Jewish. As his friend Gershom Scholem, a product of a similar background, would 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, 19th-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 18 to 25, it’s possible to see Benjamin develop from a precocious, pompous adolescent into a daring and profound thinker. The latest 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. In fact, the last of these, never published in Benjamin’s lifetime, can be seen as a kind of skeleton key to his mature work, full of overtly mystical beliefs that would go underground when Benjamin became a professed Communist.

Benjamin was not just young when he wrote the pieces in this book; as an activist in the German Youth Movement, he was, one might say, professionally young. The youth movement was a loosely organized phenomenon with many tendencies—its adherents were interested in curriculum reform, sexual liberation, and nationalist renewal, among other causes, and there is a definite flavor of the 1960s in its vague, tumultuous commitment to change. Benjamin was exposed to it starting at 13, when he began to attend the Free School Community—an experimental, progressive school founded by the prominent reformer Gustav Wyneken, who became his mentor. Until the outbreak of the First World War, Benjamin was active in youth organizations—he was president of the Berlin University chapter of the Independent Students’ Association, and several of the essays in the book first appeared in movement journals.

In these pieces, we sometimes find Benjamin writing as a muckraker, holding the German education system up to ridicule for its pedantry and mindless authoritarianism. In “Teaching and Valuation,” he complains of the “pious reiteration or regurgitation of unrelated or superficially related facts” and offers a “blacklist” of teacherly philistinism: “Apropos of Horace: ‘We have to read Horace in this class. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or not; it’s on the syllabus.’ ” When Benjamin quotes a teacher at a classical Gymnasium telling a student, “Please don’t think that anyone believes this enthusiasm of yours for the ancient world,” it’s hard to avoid suspecting that he himself was the student.

In response, Benjamin calls, in fairly platitudinous terms, for “a classical secondary school we could love,” where teaching would be related “to living values of the present.” But at heart, he was much too utopian to be contented with any actually existing reform movement. The title of his dispatch from a major youth retreat in 1913 is “Youth Was Silent”: “Excursions, ceremonial attire, folk dances are nothing new and … still nothing spiritual … we will continue, in the name of youth, to weigh the Youth Congress against the demands of the spirit.” It didn’t help that German youth were just as prone to anti-Semitism as their parents: “When the prizes for sports were being awarded, the name Isaacsohn was announced. Laughter rang out from a minority,” Benjamin notes.

The further one reads, however, the clearer it becomes that what Benjamin was really seeking, in the guise of school reform, was spiritual and social rebirth. Thus, in an essay on “Moral Education,” he concludes that “all morality and religiosity originates in solitude with God”—a prescription that seems to leave little role for school reform, or for schools in general. The tension between Benjamin’s private and public agendas becomes even clearer in the unpublished pieces in Early Writings, the poems and stories and sketches he showed only to a few friends. There, the rhetoric of the youth-movement essays clouds over into the dense, tormented prose that would be so characteristic of the adult Benjamin.

In “The Metaphysics of Youth,” for instance, he writes: “Greatness is the eternal silence after conversation. It is to take the rhythm of one’s own words in the empty space.” There is also a good deal of unresolved sexual anguish at work; Benjamin writes portentously about “the prostitute,” as in, “The woman is the guardian of the conversations. She receives the silence, and the prostitute receives the creator of what has been.”

Benjamin’s disenchantment with the youth movement didn’t become official until the beginning of the First World War. He was disgusted by the way the allegedly progressive movement rallied around the kaiser. Personally, he wanted nothing to do with the war, and he went to great lengths to avoid the draft, finally moving to Switzerland. In terms of his intellectual development, however, this disillusionment was a blessing, allowing him to unyoke his true concerns from the official cause of “youth” (and by 1914, he wasn’t so young any more). “The Life of Students,” from 1915, shows Benjamin bidding farewell to the student movement, while drawing on his experiences to frame a new, radically utopian vision of progress:

History rests concentrated, as in a focal point, something seen from time immemorial in the utopian images of thinkers. The elements of the ultimate condition do not manifest themselves as formless progressive tendencies, but are deeply embedded in every present in the form of the most endangered, excoriated, and ridiculed ideas. The historical task is to give shape to this immanent state of perfection and make it absolute, make it visible and ascendant in the present.

Already in these lines, it’s possible to hear the messianic tones of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which he would write in 1940, just before he committed suicide in the face of the Nazi onslaught:

It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.

When it came to his deepest political hopes, Benjamin seemed to fall instinctively into a Jewish vocabulary of messianism. So, too, with language and literature. “On Language as Such and the Language of Man” has at its core a reading of Genesis and advances an idea of divine language that sounds amazingly like kabbalism: “Language is therefore that which creates and that which completes; it is word and name. In God, name is creative because it is word, and God’s word is knowing because it is name.” One of the things that makes Benjamin so fascinating is the way he seems to translate Jewish ways of thinking into a post-Jewish intellectual culture. Early Writings shows that this fertile dualism was present from the very beginning.