This Week In History: Israel's 1st Nobel laureate

In 1966, literary legend Shai Agnon received the news that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

SY Agnon 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Agnon House)
SY Agnon 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Agnon House)
On October 18, 1966, Israeli author Shmuel Yosef Agnon brought great pride and nachas (joy) to the State of Israel, with the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the Jewish state's first Nobel Prize laureate.
Widely known as Shai Agnon, the author was Israel's foremost classical writer who served as a link between the Hebrew literature of his generation and the diverse range of Hebrew literature that preceded him. The emphasis in his writings is on exile, and he was known as a narrator of the spiritual tumult and drama of the return to Zion. He was a great source of inspiration to younger generations of writers.
Upon receiving the news of the Nobel triumph, then-prime minister Levi Eshkol sent his congratulations to Agnon, and then-education minister Zalman Aranne paid a visit to the writer at his home. The 78 year old Agnon maintained a calm composure, but humbly expressed his surprise, saying: "I absolutely did not expect it."
Agnon was born in Galicia (now Buchach, Ukraine.) His father was an ordained rabbi and he immigrated to Palestine at the age of 20, where he lived in Jaffa, before moving again to Germany where he met his wife. He soon returned to Israel and settled in Jerusalem where he remained for the rest of his life. Agnon died four years after receiving the Nobel Prize.
"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," Agnon said upon accepting the award in Stockholm on December 10, 1966.
Agnon shared the $60,000 prize with Jewish poet and playwright Nelly Sachs, a German refugee who fled to Sweden. The Swedish Academy's Nobel Committee bestowed the prestigious award on Agnon, "for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people." For her part, Sachs was honored "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength."
In making the formal announcement of the award to the two Jewish writers, at the opening of the Concert Hall ceremonies, Dr. Anders Osterling, chairman of the Swedish Academy's Nobel Committee made special mention of the Jewish heritage that tied the two writers to one another. He noted that the Academy's purpose of combining the literary winners was "to honor writers who, though writing in different languages, are united in spiritual kinship and complement each other in a splendid striving to present the cultural heritage of the Jewish people by the written word and from a common source of inspiration which, in them, has proved to be a vital power."
Agnon sketched his own life briefly, noting that, even in his youth in Galicia, he had always regarded himself as "a Jew from Jerusalem." "In your choice," he told the academicians, "I feel humbled. I have never forgotten the Biblical direction enjoining us to go humbly before our God. If I am proud of anything, it is for the privilege vouchsafed me of living in the Holy Land, which God promised to our forefathers and thus fulfilling His command."
Agnon told the audience that he had devoured both Jewish scriptures and German literature as he evolved as a writer from a young age; he wrote his first song at the sprightly age of five, out of longing for his father who was away on business. However, Agnon only detailed the Jewish literature that had inspired him, which included the Sacred Scriptures, the Talmud, Mishna, Midrashim and Rashi's commentary on the Torah. "Because it is they that gave me my foundations," he explained. "And my heart tells me that they are responsible for my being honored with the Nobel Prize."
The Concert Hall ceremonies were concluded with an address by Dr. Ingvar Andersen on behalf of the Swedish Academy. He told Mr. Agnon: "In your writings, we meet once again the ancient unity between literature and science as antiquity knew it. Your great chronicles have a manifold message. We honor in you a combination of tradition and prophecy, of saga and wisdom." To Sachs, Dr. Andersen said" "Your lyrical and dramatic writing belong to the great commentaries of world literature, yet your sadness is free of hate."
The Israeli people have since received nine Nobel prizes, and the Jewish people as a whole have been graced with many, comprising some 25 percent of Nobel laureates. Just last week, Robert J. Lefkowitz, a Jewish physician and path-breaking biochemist from New York, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with Brian K. Kobilka, a researcher at California’s Stanford University.
Israelis who received the Peace Prize include former premiers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Other Israeli awards include economics and chemistry, most recently awarded to Professor Daniel Shechtman in 2011.
For the meantime, however, Agnon remains Israel's sole literature laureate, canonized by the NIS 50 bill which bears his image alongside an excerpt of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. His memory also lives on in Jerusalem's Sderot Shai Agnon, in a synagogue named after him a few blocks away from his old home in Talpiot, and even across the world, in Ohio's Beit Sefer Agnon.
JTA contributed to this report