Questioning faith in the parsha
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Hebrew: שמואל יוסף עגנון, July 17, 1888 – February 17, 1970) was a Nobel Prize laureate writer and was one of the central figures of modern Hebrew fiction. In Hebrew, he is known by the acronym Shai Agnon (ש”י עגנון). In English, his works are published under the name S. Y. Agnon.
Agnon was born in Galicia (today Ukraine), later immigrated to the British mandate of Palestine, and died in Jerusalem. His works deal with the conflict between the traditional Jewish life and language and the modern world. They also attempt to recapture the fading traditions of the European shtetl (village). In a wider context, he also contributed to broadening the characteristic conception of the narrator’s role in literature. Agnon shared the Nobel Prize with the poet Nelly Sachs in 1966.
One of the greatest Hebrew novelists and short-story writers, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 with Nelly Sachs. Resisting easy classification, Agnon’s work represents a fusion of irony, religious storytelling, experimentalism, and surrealism. Agnon explored the subjective and collective experiences of the Eastern European Jews throughout history. He used the traditional religious sources and folklore, blurring later in his works the boundaries of sacred and secular texts. His language was a blend of classic and rabbinic Hebrew and Yiddish revived in a spoken Hebrew.
“I belong to the Tribe of Levi; my forebears and I are of the minstrels that were in the Temple, and there is a tradition in my father’s family that we are of the lineage of the Prophet Samuel, whose name I bear.” (from the Nobel acceptance speech, in 1966)
Agnon’a father, who had received rabbinical training, was a fur trader by profession. Agnon was also given a traditional education. He studied in his youth the Talmud under the tutelage of his father and a local rabbi. From this Eastern European background, that placed the study of Scripture at the center of communal life, Agnon acquired a deep knowledge of the rabbinical texts. At the age of eight Agnon wrote both Hebrew and Yiddish. His first poems, written in Hebrew and Yiddish, were published in a newspaper when he was fifteen. However, after leaving Buczacz, Agnon never again wrote in Yiddish.
In 1907 Agnon moved to Jaffa, Palestine, where he served as the first secretary of Jewish Court in Jaffa. He also had other clerical jobs. From the title of his story ‘Agunot: A Tale’, printed in Ha-Omer in 1908, Agnon took his name, which became his legal surname in 1924. In 1912 Agnon went to Berlin. There he continued his studies of literature and moved in literary and scholarly circles. His first book, published in 1912 by Yosef Hayim Brenner, was a story entitled ‘Ve-Hayah he-Akov le-Mishor’ (And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight). Agnon lived in Germany throughout World War I. He served as a research assistant to scholars, and helped to found the journal Der Jude (The Jew). During this period he met the businessman Salman Schocken, who became his lifelong patron and publisher. In Germany Agnon also met and married his wife, Esther Marx.
Agnon returned in 1924 to Jerusalem, remaining there for the rest of his life. His large novel, an allegory on the decline of the Jewish religious life in Poland, HACHNASATH KALLAH (The Bridal Canopy), appeared in 1931. The plot chronicled the travels of a Jewish Don Quixote, Reb Yudel, a Hassidic, who starts to seek a dowry for his daughters in the early 19th-century Europe. Frummet, his wife, has complained: “How much longer, said she to him, will you be as unfeeling as a raven toward your children? Have you no pity for your hapless, hopeless daughters who sit sighing and weeping like wives whose husbands have vanished, an who know not whether they are widowed or not? Why, the girls have all but wept their eyes away and the hair on their head is turning white, yet here you sit like a lump of clay in form of a man, without lifting a finger to marry them off.” Yudel’s inner, religious world, is at odds with his surroundings. Finally he returns home, and finds a buried treasure, making him into a wealthy man. Nowadays the novel is regarded more complex than merely as a homage to the traditional religious world and a portrait of simple faith in God. Agnon weaves together in the story references to biblical and rabbinic texts, balancing between pious fable and comedic farce. KOL SIPURAV SHEL SH. Y. AGNON (1931) was the first four volumes of the author’s collected works, which was published in much enlarged form in 1966. SIPUR PASHUT (1935, A Simple Story) a bittersweet romance, was set in the small town of Szybucz, Agnon’s fictional name for his hometown of Buczacz.
“For a while she lingered in the bed thinking of her mother, who, while sick all her life and barely able to eke out a living, had never asked her cousins for anything. If ever one of the neighbors said to her, “You have such rich relations, why don’t you let them know that you exist?” she would reply with a smile, “Do you know what the best thing about rich relations is? That you don’t have to support them.” (from A Simple Story)
During the early 1930s Agnon’s works were widely published in German language editions. When the Nazis closed the Schocken publishing house, the company moved to Tel Aviv, and opened later a branch in New York City, which brought Agnon’s works to new readers. In 1938-39 appeared ORE’AH NATA LALUN (1938-39, A Guest for the Night), was about Agnon’s hometown in Poland following the World War I. It described the spiritual decline that he witnesses, his yearning for restoration of an imagined past in the “shtetl,” his hometown, and forebodings about the future of Jewish life in Europe. The work was inspired by a brief journey the author made to his birthplace.
Agnon’s greatest novel is generally considered TEMOL SHILSHOM (1945, The Day Before Yesterday). The story, which is set in the period of the second aliyah, the wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine between 1907 and 1913, anticipated the emergence of Israel out of the Holocaust. Agnon contrasts old and new ways of Jewish life and intertwines two plots – a story of Yitzhak Kummer, would-be pioneer, and the wanderings of the dog Balak. Kummer journeys from Europe to Palestine and dies of rabies after being bitten by Balak.
The short story ‘At the Outset of the Day’ appeared three years after the establishment of the State of Israel, and its mood of bewilderment reflects the uncertainty of the future. In the story the narrator flees from enemies with his daughter to the city. In a courtyard fire burns her daughter’s dress and she trembles from cold. The father has nothing to cover her and he asks clothing from his friend, Reb Alter, a religious leader. He is turned away empty-handed. The story ends in the open courtyard of the Great Synagogue. The father sees the House of Study full of Jews, the doors of the Ark are open. “My soul fainted with me, and I stood and prayed as those wrapped in prayer and ritual gowns. And even my little girl, who had dozed off, repeated in her sleep each and every prayer in sweet melodies no ear has ever heard.”
SEFER HAMAASIM (1951) was a collection of 21 short stories, in which Agnon used a technique akin to stream of consciousness. Critics have found from these stories connections to the world of Kafka and noted that Agnon and Kafka actually shared the same cultural background – that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the late 1950s critic Edmund Wilson proposed that Agnon receive the Nobel Prize. In 1962 the city of Jerusalem made him an honorary citizen, and he came to be regarded as an Israeli national institution. Among Agnon’s other works is the unfinished SHIRAH (1971), set in the German-Jewish academic community of Jerusalem. Agnon died of a heart attack on February 17, 1970. He was buried on the Mount of Olives.
- ‘Agunot’, 1908 – Forsaken Wives
- SIPPURE AHAWIM, 1925
- HAKHNASATH KALLAH, 1931 – The Bridal Canopy (revised and amplified 1953; translated by I. M. Lask)
- NIDACH, 1931
- BI-LEVAV YAMIN, 1935 – In The Heart of the Seas, 1948 (tr. by I.M. Lask)
- SIPUR PASHUT, 1935 – A Simple Story (trans. by Hillel Halkin)
- ORE’AH NATA LALUN, 1938-39 – A Guest for the Night
- YAMIM NORA’IM. 1938 – Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days (edited by S.Y. Agnon)
- SEFER, SOFER, VESIPUR, 1938
- OREAH NATAH LA-LUN, 1939 – A Guest for the Night (tr. by Misha Louvish)
- SHEVU’AT EMUNIUM, 1943 – Two Tales: Betrothed & Edo and Enam (tr. by Walter Lever) – Uskollisuuden vala (suom. Jussi Aro)
- TEMOL SHILSHOM, 1945 – The Day Before Yesterday / Only Yesterday (tr. by Barbara Harshav)
- SEFER HAMAASIM, 1951
- CHEMDAT, 1952
- ATEM REITEM, 1959 – Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law (commentaries selected by S.Y. Agnon)
- KOL SIPURAV SHEL SH. Y. AGNON, 1931-62 (collected works in 11 vol.)
- Twenty-One Stories, 1970 (ed. by Nahum N. Glatzer)
- Selected Stories of S.Y. Agnon, 1970 (ed. by Samuel Leiter)
- SHIRAH, 1971 – Shira (trans. by Zeva Shapiro)
- A Dwelling Place of My People: Sixteen Stories of the Chassidim, 1983 (translated by J. Weinberg and H. Russell)
- SEFER HA-OTIYOT, 1983 – Agnon’s Alef Bet: Poems (translated by Robert Friend)
- A Book That Was Lost: And Other Stories, 1995 (edited with introductions by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman)
- YAFO YEFAT YAMIN: LEKET MI-TOKH SIPURAV SHEL SH. Y. AGNON, 1998 – Jaffa, Belle of the Seas: Selections from the Works of S.Y. Agnon (selection and painting, David Sharir)