Tales of longing

A reissued translation of S.Y. Agnon’s ‘Only Yesterday’ showcases the complicated tapestry of the author’s thoughts

A VIEW of buildings on King George Avenue in Jerusalem in 1945 (photo credit: JNF/GPO)
A VIEW of buildings on King George Avenue in Jerusalem in 1945
(photo credit: JNF/GPO)
S.Y. Agnon, the 1966 Nobel prize winner and iconic Israeli writer, infused his Zionistic zeal as well as his Orthodox shtetl upbringing into all of his many works. His old-fashioned Hebrew and archaic tone is present on every page of his masterpiece Only Yesterday, but so is a yearning that can only be described as secular and transgressive.
The book was originally written in 1945 and translated into English by Barbara Harshav in 2000. It is now being reissued with a foreword by Adam Kirsch and an introduction by Benjamin Harshav.
Agnon brilliantly captures the many seductions of modernity but also its lingering deficiencies. His novel describes a magical but turbulent time for Jews in Europe as the Second Aliya began and hundreds of idealistic Zionists left Eastern Europe for Palestine with hopes of experiencing a new sort of spiritual revival.
Agnon’s protagonist, Isaac Kumer, was such a man. He was gentle and tender and impressionable but ordinary in many ways. He never anticipated becoming swept away by Zionist passions so ferce they overtook him and enraged his traditional father. But that did not did not stop him from leaving for Palestine.
“Like all our brethren of the Second Aliya, the bearers of our salvation, Isaac Kumer left his country and his homeland and his city and ascended to the Land of Israel to build it from its destruction and to be rebuilt by it,” Agnon wrote. “From the day our comrade Isaac knew his mind, not a day went by that he didn’t think about it. A blessed dwelling was his image of the whole Land of Israel and its inhabitants blessed by God. Its village hidden in the shade of vineyards and olive groves, the fields enveloped in grains and the orchard trees crowned with fruit, the valleys yielding flowers and the forest trees swaying; the whole firmament is sky blue and all the houses are filled with rejoicing.”
Isaac was is in for a rude awakening.
The tilling of the soil he dreamed about was not a possibility; those jobs were given to Arab labor by Jewish farmers who preferred their experience. He became a housepainter in Jaffa and struggled to survive. He remained committed to Zionism and did not yet miss the hours he consumed back home studying Torah.
Eventually he moved to Jerusalem and married a religious girl and continued work as a housepainter. He regrew his beard and started to embrace Orthodox life and its obligations. The longing he had always felt for a certain rootedness and for God returned to him with a gentle force, and he found a majestic beauty in Shabbat in Jerusalem.
“When the city stops its give-and-take and gleams with the light of the Sabbath.
This is the light whose splendor glows even in the rotten generations.... The air is transformed and a kind of hidden joy arises,” Agnon wrote. “All the shops are locked and all weekday businesses come to a halt.... Gone are the angry faces and every eye is shining. Some go to synagogue and study houses and others go to the Western Wall.... How beautiful is the light of mercy to the soul that yearns.”
Agnon’s tone is almost inexplicably beautiful; a complicated tapestry of subdued emotionalism that seems almost rabbinical in tone.
Isaac became a prototype of a Jewish Everyman struggling with seemingly conflicting realms of thought, and giving each a full accounting. The inconsistencies that Isaac discovered in his new Zionist friends are mostly tales of frustrations and ongoing confusion, Jews like himself who seemed unable to make some sort of peace with all the tumult that surrounded them in this new land. One day, in a moment of sheer folly, he wrote the words “crazy dog” on a stray who was needling him, and the dog he called Balak becomes the central focus of the novel. Balak roamed the streets of Jerusalem and elsewhere and became a metaphor of sorts for the Jewish sense of displacement, exile and victimization.
In so many ways, Isaac’s life journey seems to mimic Agnon’s. Agnon left for Palestine as a young man, left a few years later and spent more than a decade in Germany befriending secular intellectuals like Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber, before returning to Palestine and the Orthodoxy of his youth. But one senses that the same conflicts and ambivalences that plagued Kumer also left their mark on Agnon. He wrote about such misery and bewilderment in more than 160 stories about the world he left behind him in Buczacz, which he lovingly recalls as a place “full of Torah wisdom and love and faith and charm and grace.” A place completely destroyed by the Nazis. A paradise forever lost.