The greatest tale

Shmuel Yosef Agnon is considered by many to be the father of modern Hebrew literature.

SY Agnon's library (photo credit: Beit Agnon)
SY Agnon's library
(photo credit: Beit Agnon)
Shmuel Yosef Agnon is considered by many to be the father of modern Hebrew literature. His stories and novels have enveloped the Jewish people for more than a century. Agnon’s first book, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, was published exactly 100 years ago by the Labor Zionist newspaper Hapoel Hatzair in 1912. Published in installments, the book was Agnon’s ticket to the literary world, one which was filled with a uniquely biblical language that colored the characters and scenes of stories rooted in both Eastern Europe and the modern State of Israel.
Agnon wrote over 1,000 stories in his lifetime, some as long as 500 pages and others just a page, most of which were published after he died. But like every great writer, there stands behind Agnon an array of people and places that have contributed to his lasting influence and success in the world of literature.
Beit Agnon in Jerusalem is active in preserving his legacy. The cultural institution administers the Agnon family’s home as a museum, maintaining Agnon’s original library and study and continuing with building renovations.
“But more importantly,” says director and curator Eilat Lieber, “we carry out activities dedicated to Hebrew literature that make S.Y. Agnon and other great Israeli authors more accessible to both the older and younger generations of Israelis.”
Those activities include literary events that draw 200 to 300 people at a time, popular lectures and seminars and annual trips which trace Agnon’s life back to his birth as Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in Buczacz, Galicia (today Ukraine).
THIS YEAR, Beit Agnon is celebrating the centenary of Agnon’s first published novella, which he wrote when he was only 23. To honor this landmark, Beit Agnon is searching for copies of the first edition. Of the 50 copies published in 1912, the location of only two are known – one is in the National Library in Jerusalem and the other is owned by the Agnon family.
The celebration, however, extends beyond the search for these books, explains Caroline Shapiro-Weiss, the public relations director of Beit Agnon.
“S.Y. Agnon was the first and only Hebrew writer to date to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1966 [with Nelly Sachs], for writing in a language that was not his mother tongue. He didn’t grow up in a society where people spoke Hebrew, yet he played such a fundamental role in writing and developing literary Hebrew that was uniquely ‘Agnon-esque’” Shapiro-Weiss told The Jerusalem Post.
“Israel is still young enough to be marking such achievements,” she added.
Agnon’s son, Hemdat, in an exclusive interview with the Post, recalls his parents speaking German during their years in Germany before their eventual return to Israel. Hemdat Agnon, who was born Shalom Mordechai in Hamburg in 1922, remembers that the first word he learned in Hebrew from his father was “hass,” meaning hush.
“My sister, Emunah, who was a year older than I, loved to talk all night when we were little. My father would come into the bedroom and tell us to be quiet so that he could work, demanding ‘hass.’ In addition, I remember my mother teaching my sister to say the nightly Shema prayer before going to bed. In that way, I also learned some Hebrew,” Hemdat explains.
When the family returned to Israel in 1924, settling in Jerusalem, they switched to speaking Hebrew almost immediately.
Esther Marx, Agnon’s wife, knew some Hebrew as her father, a wealthy Orthodox banker, made sure that his daughter was educated in Hebrew and biblical studies.
She met Agnon when he was visiting Germany after successfully publishing his first novel, And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight, thanks to the financial assistance of the writer Yosef Haim Brenner, who sold his suspenders to fund Agnon’s first publication.
Following its success, Agnon set out on a mission to expand his worldly knowledge and become an even greater writer by studying in the greatest of Germany’s libraries, researching culture and literature.
In addition to meeting Esther, his wife of 50 years, Agnon also met the literary patron who would enable him to write for the rest of his life without any financial worries. Salman Schocken, a wealthy German publisher and businessman, recognized Agnon’s great writing talent, and provided him financial stipends as a struggling writer. Schocken Books would eventually publish Agnon’s works from 1931 onwards and his stories appeared regularly in Haaretz, still owned by the Schocken family, who also own all the publishing rights to Agnon’s work to this day.
From hassidic folk tales to gothic romances and psychological dramas, all imbued with biblical language and talmudic references, Agnon’s wide range of stories can be understood on many different levels. Agnon himself always declared that his inspirations were “first and foremost the sacred scriptures, and after that, the teachings of the medieval Jewish sages, and the spectacles of nature and the animals of the earth.”
Indeed, in Agnon’s library on the second floor of Beit Agnon, one can see the 8,000 books that he used to researched his short stories, novellas and novels. On one shelf stands the Zohar, which delves into the mystical aspects of the Bible, and next to it stands Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
In addition, Agnon’s own real-life experiences – a fire that destroyed his library, manuscripts and rare book collection in Germany in 1924 and the Arab riots that destroyed his library once again in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1929 – both influenced his writings in some way.
BUT IT was Agnon’s love for Jerusalem and Jewish tradition that perhaps superseded all his muses.
“I built a house and planted a garden...I built it facing the Temple Mount to always keep in my heart our beloved dwelling which was destroyed,” writes Agnon of his permanent home in Talpiot, built in 1931 by the renowned architect Fritz Korenberg. For the next 39 years, Agnon wrote many of his awardwinning stories and his Nobel Prize speech in this quiet home on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
“People from all over the world come to visit Beit Agnon, from as far away as Japan,” said Lieber. “He was a universal writer, translated into 45 languages.”
Although Agnon’s own life was a tale in itself, it was one that could not have been translated into great literary success without the help and support of his family.
Hemdat Agnon, now 90, recalls that when he served in the Palmah, he and his unit could take a few days off every six weeks to go home to their families.
“On one of my visits, I came home to find my father despondent and my mother very sick. My father desperately needed help getting a 600-page manuscript typed up, which only my mother could do because she was one of the few people, besides her children, who understood my father’s difficult handwriting,” says Hemdat.
Agnon hand-wrote all his stories and his wife diligently typed up his work on the Remington Steele typewriter that can still be seen in the Beit Agnon library today.
“Schocken was pressuring my father to send the manuscript immediately and with my mother sick, my father had no choice but to ask me to type out his work.
Thanks to my previous experience of reading letters that he would write from Germany while visiting Schocken on business, I could decipher his writing. The problem was getting the necessary time off from the army to do this.”
In the end, Hemdat was permitted to take more time off to assist his father, as the army allowed soldiers from kibbutzim to extend their vacations to help their families with harvesting.
“The army recognized that this was my father’s livelihood, and his need of me.
This is how the book Tmol Shilshom came into fruition,” Hemdat explained with a smile.
Although Hemdat himself has never written a story, he does share his father’s sentiments on the beauty of Jerusalem.
He and his sister, Emunah, raised their own families in Jerusalem and continue to live in the quiet, modest way that characterized their father before them. Hemdat seeks no publicity and is happy to pass on the stories of his past to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchild, if not by pen then by word of mouth.
“I feel it is my duty,” he explains.
Beit Agnon will be holding an official celebration marking the centenary of the publication of S.Y. Agnon’s first book on May 30. For the upcoming summer, it has planned a variety of activities commemorating Agnon and modern Hebrew literature suitable for families and people of all ages.