Books: A sharp pen

The Toby Press publishes a new compilation of satires by the renowned S.Y. Agnon.

S.Y. Agnon
A new compilation of satires by S.Y. Agnon, an iconic figure of modern Hebrew literature, is an especially delightful read for political cynics, particularly in the Jewish world.
The Orange Peel and Other Satires includes translations of Agnon’s scathing political writings – some set in his native Galicia, and others in Israel.
Best known for his classic novels, such as The Bridal Canopy, A Simple Story and Only Yesterday, Agnon, born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes in Buczacz, Galicia – now Buchach, Ukraine – received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. His writing is replete with references to biblical and Talmudic texts. Indeed, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he proudly acknowledged that his mentors were “first and foremost... the sacred scriptures...
the Mishna and the Talmud and the Midrashim and Rashi’s commentary on the Torah... the later explicators of Talmudic law, and our sacred poets and the medieval sages, led by Maimonides.”
Agnon’s masterful writing consistently addresses the conflict between the traditional Jewish world and modern life – upon both of which he had a profound grasp – coupled with keen observation of human nature. His entertaining political satires, perhaps even as much as his more famous oeuvres, demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the world and a wry sense of humor.
Agnon doesn’t miss a beat in his depiction of characters in Zionist circles, where – as clearly described in the comical-yet tragic novella Young and Old Together – planning a gala event with impressive speeches and first-class food, as well as social climbing, were the main activities of supposedly ardent Zionists. With his sharp pen, the champion writer rips the Zionist establishment in the Diaspora in the early 20th century to pieces, brilliantly mocking the self-aggrandizement and social climbing that replaced idealism and, in some cases, even empathy for Jewish captives. Anyone familiar with the North American Jewish establishment of the 20th century, both before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, would likely recognize Agnon’s fictional characters. The themes remain relevant to this day.
Other stories in the compilation, taken from Agnon’s The Book of State, deride Israeli government bureaucracy, among other issues, with brilliant comedy.
Yet, as told in the foreword by Agnon scholar Jeffrey Saks, “In a posthumous record of conversations with Agnon, the author and editor David Cnaani reports him having declared The Book of State to be ‘just a poor feuilleton [a type of light, jesting story], and I’m sorry that I even published it... I have no desire to criticize the state. We have but one small medinah’leh, with so many enemies, and we must protect her.’” Despite his seeming remorse for criticizing the fledgling Jewish state that he dearly loved, Agnon, as Saks notes, “intentionally included” these amusing yet provocative political stories in a book collection that he later organized. Perhaps this fact, along with the content of Agnon’s stories, demonstrates an internal dilemma of how far to go when criticizing Israel in the public sphere. That conflict exists today as well among many loyal patriots who often must decide to what extent they are willing to go public with negative assessments, weighing potential improvements to society versus international condemnation of the tiny State of Israel, located in such a dangerous neighborhood.
Politics aside, this newly published collection of translated works by a most celebrated Hebrew author is a welcome contribution to the world of literature and a most pleasurable read.