The Human Spirit: Falling in love with Agnon

Celebrate the golden jubilee of Jerusalem’s reunification by reading the Nobel Prize laureate, who 50 years ago said ‘always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.’

January 19, 2017 12:03
4 minute read.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon

Shmuel Yosef Agnon. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As the city of Jerusalem prepares for the anniversary of its reunification, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is preoccupied with another 50th anniversary.

Exactly five decades have passed since S.Y. Agnon received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Rabbi Saks is, pardon the expression, on a crusade to honor the sole Hebrew writer whose greatness was acclaimed in Stockholm.

Saks is translating stories that have never appeared in English, annotating other translations, and editing a collection of Agnon’s works that give the non-Hebrew reader a sense of Agnon’s breadth (Forevermore & Other Stories, Toby Press). He’s helped organize conferences and delivered keynote lectures in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and New York.

He’s quoted in the highbrow magazine The New Yorker.

Not only is he enraptured by the literature, but Saks owes Agnon a personal debt.

Neither a native Hebrew-speaker nor someone who grew up on the Hebrew texts that are subtly referenced on every page of Agnon, the unlikely promulgator of Agnon’s works grew up in Roselle, New Jersey – best known as the town where Thomas Edison built the world’s first overhead electric lighting system. He went to public school. His American-born grandparents didn’t even speak Yiddish. Nonetheless, when he was in high school, his New York Times-reading paternal grandmother, Blanche, gifted him with a volume of Agnon short stories. Maybe she’d read that it was the 20th anniversary of that Nobel Prize, which Agnon shared in December 1966 with German/ Swedish Jewish poet Nelly Sachs.

Saks had never head of Agnon. But although the Yankee from Roselle was reading the stories in English with a scant Jewish background, he was electrified by Agnon’s ability to convey love and reverence of Jewish tradition while critiquing and satirizing at the same time. He was moved by Agnon’s portrayal of the tension between Diaspora and homeland.

Saks became religiously observant.

His parents made their home kosher.

He went to study at Yeshiva University, grew up to be a rabbi and moved to Agnon’s Jerusalem.

Said Agnon, in his oft-quoted, unusually biographical acceptance speech: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile.

But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”

In real life, Agnon made aliya twice. He left his home in Buczacz, Galicia, and settled in Jaffa in 1908. After writing a story called “Agunot,” he changed his name from Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes to Agnon, a play on the term for a person chained in marriage. A brief study sojourn in Berlin beginning in 1912 stretched to 12 years, until his home, library and manuscripts went up in flames. On his return, Agnon’s first Jerusalem residence was damaged by an earthquake, and his second home ransacked in the Arab riots of 1929. Only afterward did he and his wife build the fortress-like structure in Talpiot – today’s Beit Agnon, a museum and cultural center.

He was supported by an arrangement with magnate Salman Schocken that obligated him to publish his works in the family newspaper Haaretz. The municipality reportedly banned traffic on Agnon’s street so as not to disturb the genius at work.

When Saks arrived in Jerusalem in 1994, Agnon was no longer there, of course. He’d died in 1970. Saks visited the café Tmol Shilshom, named for Agnon’s most famous novel (Only Yesterday) and purchased a used copy in Hebrew.

He couldn’t read it. The Hebrew was still too hard.

So he started reading his Sabra children Agnon stories at bedtime. They weren’t really children’s stories, but the cadence of the Hebrew and the sometimes mystical plots captivated them.

Saks’s day jobs included serving as principal of Yeshivat Hamivtar and setting up the ATID Torah educational think tank/ teacher training center and WebYeshiva.

org with Rabbi Chaim Brovender, but he buckled down to reading Agnon’s entire opus. He attended literature lectures at the Hebrew University and read all 23 volumes in the library. He says he’s also read everything ever written about Agnon, a task, he says, though not simple, “is much less daunting than reading everything about the American Civil War, about which a book is published every day.”

Agnon’s was Israel’s first-ever Nobel Prize which was deemed a national, not just a personal, triumph – so much so that Abba Eban purportedly offered to vet the acceptance speech. Here was a modern writer using what he called “the reawakened Hebrew language,” confronting the grand themes of his people and creating great literature.

Agnon said, “I returned to Jerusalem, and it is by virtue of Jerusalem that I have written all that God has put into my heart and into my pen.”

So let’s celebrate the year of Jerusalem’s reunification by reading Agnon. If your Hebrew isn’t up to it, you can read in English. The new texts include footnotes that illuminate the copious references to Jewish sources. Agnon himself read world literature in translation, and the first stories that made Saks fall in love and change his life were in English, too.

Just don’t be surprised if you, too, fall in love.

The author is a Jerusalem writer and is the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.

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