Remembering Israeli Literature's Only Nobel Laureate

On the Pleasures of Re-reading S.Y. Agnon

Seems Like Only Yesterday: Agnon won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.
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Seems Like Only Yesterday: Agnon won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.

By Andrew Friedman

Published December 05, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
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Sitting in a lecture hall in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem, a group of 25 immigrants is discussing “A City and Its Fullness” (“Ir U’meloah” in Hebrew), a collection of 150 stories by Shai Agnon about the author’s ancestral home of Buczacz, located in present-day Ukraine. The meeting, part of a five-week course titled “Agnon’s Home Town,” takes place on the ground floor of Agnon’s renovated house on a lush Jerusalem street, just a few steps from the edge of the stark Judean Desert.

The stories, published posthumously, neatly illustrate the complexity, diversity and richness that earned the author Israel’s only Nobel Prize in literature, in 1966. On one hand, Agnon was the consummate Zionist who believed wholeheartedly in the effort to build a Jewish state in Palestine; on the other, he remained nostalgic for the bucolic village of his youth. He developed a deep connection to the Land of Israel, but an equally strong devotion to the enlightened and secular world. He was a loving family man who cherished his privacy and isolation in order to write.

The competing aspects of Agnon’s personality seem to strike the reader not as contradictions, but rather as complementary facets of the author’s inner persona that resonate neatly with the immigrant experience in Israel. Significantly, Agnon’s stories about Buczacz were written in the 1950s, half a century after Agnon arrived in Jaffa. Despite that fact — or, perhaps, because of it — they are steeped in nostalgia and romanticism for an age and a place gone by.

Several of the immigrants in the class said they believe strongly in the Jewish mission to build the Land of Israel but also harbor fond memories of their former homes in the United States, England and farther afield. For them, the contrasting messages of commitment to the Land of Israel alongside fond memories of the Old Country were compelling.

“I would compare Agnon’s relationship to Buczacz to Mark Twain’s relationship to Hannibal, Mo.,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, the lecturer for the course. He is a native of New Jersey and the director of WebYeshiva.org, an interactive online Jewish learning portal. “Unlike many authors, Twain was a celebrated writer during his lifetime, and that enabled him to travel the world, which in turn enhanced his writing. But ultimately, he remained the little Missouri kid, painting fences and exploring what must have been a wonderland for a curious little boy.

“That’s what Buczacz was for Agnon. It was a small town — approximately 11,000 people, 7,000 of whom were Jews — with a river called the Strypa to serve as a backdrop for his adventures. That left a deep impression, and his romantic view of the town colored the entire breadth of his work.”

Like Twain, whose language and writing style came to define the term “Americana” but require the reader to possess a degree of prior knowledge and understanding about American history and folklore, reading Agnon is not for the uninitiated. His Hebrew style is antiquated and rich, steeped in a style derived from a deep resonance with Jewish sources and tradition, as well as with a love of general literature and “high” German culture.


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