Putting his house in order

More than 30 years after city bought Agnon's home, it's been reopened as a cultural and literary center.

S Y agnon writer 248.88 (photo credit: coutresy og Agnon House Archives)
S Y agnon writer 248.88
(photo credit: coutresy og Agnon House Archives)
When he was 18 years old, Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes, later better known as S.Y. (Shai) Agnon, wrote a poem and showed it to his father, expecting compliments. His father's reaction was, "So you wrote a poem. What's the big deal? At your age, Franz-Joseph was already an emperor!" We can learn two things from this anecdote. First, that the renowned caustic wit of our only - thus far - literature Nobel laureate was apparently genetic. The second is that, contrary to the thinking of some modern scholars, young people should be highly challenged. After all, although Agnon didn't become an emperor, he did turn out to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century - and not only in Israel and in Hebrew. That anecdote was one of several recounted earlier this week at the official opening of the renovated Agnon House at Rehov Klausner 16, after almost three years of restoration work on the small home in Talpiot. The event was a model of restraint and good taste, held with respectful deference to the special nature of the late owner and his modest, even ascetic, way of life. "We hesitated for quite some time even on the issue of the color of the floor tiles," explains Eilat Liber, head of the restoration project. "The interior style of the houses in that period was rather colorful - with different colored paint in every room and colored tiles, but we were aware of the extremely modest lifestyle of Agnon who, over the years, changed the floor tiles to simpler gray ones. We finally decided to go for an exact restoration of the first floor - the hall and the small living room - but to remain faithful to the original style of the period on the upper floor. In any case, during the whole process we had Emuna [Emuna Yaron, Agnon's daughter] at our side, whose recollections and willingness to help us were invaluable." Today, the house looks totally refurbished. There is a simple but welcoming garden, which includes a large picture of Agnon working in his garden; a large hall that takes up almost the entire first floor; a small living room, with its original simple wooden table covered with a white tablecloth, a container of sugar and a cup of tea still displayed on it; and, at the entrance, Agnon's briefcase, umbrella and hat silently wait for him to come and take them for a walk around the neighborhood. "This house's purpose is to serve as a place of inspiration for writers, scholars and young people who are striving to make their way in literature and art in general," says Tzilla Hayun, the chairperson of Agnon House, who has been involved in the restoration project from the start. "We plan to make it into an important center for culture, literary events and art. And we plan to hold exhibitions. The first one, entitled 'The Spirit of the Place,' is already on display. The curator, artist Eilat Hashahar Cohen, chose a series of modern artwork inspired by Agnon's life and work, focusing on Esther, Agnon's wife. As well as the changing exhibition, there is also a permanent display about Agnon's life. The huge library is in the midst of being computerized. We want to make this a place that is dedicated to the layperson who appreciates the arts, as well as scholars and literature students. We will have concerts, lectures and series of encounters on a wide range of topics. Agnon House will also produce cultural events that will take place in Tel Aviv and other cities." IRONICALLY, AGNON didn't like the house. In a letter to his wife, Esther, who was still abroad while her husband had returned to Jerusalem and purchased the house, he wrote that after living in it for two weeks, everything was like a nightmare: the workers (whom he described as some who build while others ruin the work that had been done) didn't allow him to concentrate on anything. Besides his complaints that he couldn't have one hour of peace, he added that the furniture was ugly and concluded that his general feeling was that he was "sitting in a grocery store." Emuna confirms that her father never liked the house. "Although over the years it had become a real home for our family, my father never liked it and only felt really comfortable in his private library on the upper floor. He would spend all his mornings writing at his lectern and, afterwards, in the early afternoon hours, he would sit at his heavy wooden desk and edit what he had written in the morning." The house in Talpiot was the fourth one the Agnon family lived in. It was designed and built by architect Fritz Kronberg, one of the most famous of his time. "Houses in general were a rather delicate and painful issue in Agnon's life," explains Liber. "Their first family home, while they were still in Germany, was destroyed by a fire. All Agnon's books, including some very rare ones, and above all, the almost finished manuscript of what was meant to be his monumental work on hassidic stories, were lost in the disaster. And before that, while still a child, his parents moved from one place to another. In his hometown of Buczacz, no one can say for sure where the Czaczkes family lived." Agnon's housing agony didn't end upon coming to Israel. During the riots of the Arab population in the 1920s, a house he rented in Talpiot was destroyed and looted. As a result, he finally decided to purchase a house of his own. He chose Kronberg as the architect because, among other reasons, he was a neighbor. "It is true that Agnon's attitude toward this house was not simple," explains Micha Yinon, head of the culture department at the Culture Ministry and one of the driving forces behind the restoration project and its financing. "Nevertheless, it was the place where he lived and wrote for 40 years. In this house, simple and almost as austere as himself, Agnon wrote some of the cornerstones of modern Israeli and international literature - short stories like 'A Simple Story' and novels such as Only Yesterday, A Guest for the Night and Shira. He may not have liked the place, but it was his home." Emuna, who edited her father's stories that had not been published during his lifetime, remembers her years in the small house as happy ones. "My brother Hemdat and I were told not to make noise while my father was writing; but aside from those hours, we could bring in friends, and quite a lot of people used to come here, especially on Shabbat afternoons. In those days, I was not aware of my father's status. Only when I turned 16-17 and was a student at the teachers' seminary in Safed, when a paper I handed in received a high mark and the reaction among the other students was 'Well, of course - Agnon's daughter' did I begin to understand who my father was." AFTER AGNON'S death in 1970, his children decided to sell the house. It was a time of a building boom in Talpiot, which, after the Six Day War, was no longer subject to attacks from the Arab side of the border. The previous mayor of Jerusalem (until 1965, when he was replaced by Teddy Kollek), Mordechai Ish-Shalom, couldn't stand the thought of Agnon's house, where he used to go very often during the writer's life, being replaced by one of the high-rises being built in the area. According to Emuna, it was in fact Yitzhak Rabin's idea to send Ish-Shalom to the government to propose a simple idea: "Save Agnon's house." The matter became urgent, especially after renowned scholar Prof. Yosef Klausner's house had already been demolished. Ish-Shalom, while mayor of Jerusalem, was so attuned to the writer's needs and requests that he put up a sign in the street warning the public to "Be quiet, a writer is at work here." It was finally the Jerusalem Municipality that decided to purchase the house in 1970 and turn it into a small museum for the public. Over the years, it became clear that a radical overhaul had to be done to prevent additional deterioration of the old house, built in 1931. Three years ago Yinon asked Hayun to be in charge; Hayun recruited Liber, and together they applied for donations from private individuals and foundations. The first to respond was the Bracha Foundation, soon followed by the Meitar Family Fund, an anonymous donor, the Culture Ministry and the municipality. The total sum needed, NIS 3 million, was amassed and the project implemented. On his first official visit to the restored house, Mayor Nir Barkat was told that the next step should be to purchase the plot nearby (before it also became a high-rise) and to add an auditorium to Agnon House. According to Hayun and Yinon, Barkat didn't say no, but it goes without saying that the money for the plot should be taken out of the municipality's thin budget. "For the moment, as far as we have been able to find out, the owner of the plot is reluctant to sell it. That might give us enough time to find the money," says Yinon. How does Emuna feel about the current situation of her childhood home? "At the beginning I couldn't stand it," says the octogenarian. "I remember I could see the Dead Sea from my bedroom window and the Temple Mount from the other side. But after a while I got used to it and now, after the restoration work has been done, I am absolutely satisfied. I like it."