Only Yesterday

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Only Yesterday

by Shmuel Yosef Agnon


A novel set In Palestine especially in Jaffa and Jerusalem, from about 1908 to 1912; published in Hebrew {as Temol shifeham) in 1945, in English in 2000.


A simple Calician Jew immigrates to Palestine hoping to work the land and, just when his personal problems seem to be solved, meets with an untimely death.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1887–1970) was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in Buczacz, a small town in eastern Galicia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to middle-class Jewish parents. His father, a furrier, belonged to a sect of pietistic Jews known as the Hasidim. From age three to ten, Agnon received a traditional Hebrew education at the elementary level, then studied with private teachers, learning Talmud (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). He also read Jewish folklore and Hasidic literature. Agnon‘s mother, a devotee of German letters, helped expose the boy to a variety of languages, in which he read secular literature in translation. Along with German, Agnon learned Yiddish and Hebrew. In 1908, having become active in Zionist circles, Agnon immigrated to Palestine, where he settled in Jaffa and worked for Zionist organizations and a literary journal as an assistant editor. Agnon wrote his first stories in Yiddish, then turned to Hebrew. He quickly adopted the surname Agnon, taking it from the title of his first important story, “Agunot” (1908), the Hebrew word for wives abandoned but not divorced by their husbands and so forced to live in marital limbo. In 1912 Agnon left Palestine to study in Germany. Stranded there at the outbreak of World War I, he remained in Germany until 1924, passing some productive years mingling with the country’s Jewish intellectuals and acquiring a patron-Salman Schocken-who became his publisher. He wrote short fiction in Germany and married Esther Marx, with whom he would have two children. In 1924, after a fire destroyed their home and Agnon’s collection of books and manuscripts, the family relocated permanently to Jerusalem. Agnon resumed the religious life he had abandoned during his first period in Palestine and continued to produce fiction. In 1931 he published a long novel, The Bridal Canopy (Hakhnasat kalah) about a Hasidic Jew’s quest to find dowries and husbands for his three daughters. A few years later, in 1935, he published In the Heart of the Seas (Bi-levav yamim) and that same year A Simple Story (Sipur pashut), closing out the decade with A Guest for the Night (Oreah natah la-lun, 1939). His impressions and experiences of the Second Aliyah (wave of Jews to Palestine) inspired his magnum opus, Only Yesterday (Temol shilshom) in 1945. Agnon would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. Still considered his masterpiece by many, Only Yesterday intertwines social history with the comic grotesque to convey some hopes and realities of Jewish life in early-twentieth-century Palestine.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Zionism and the Second Aliyah

Year after year in the diaspora—the dispersal of Jews outside their ancient homeland—the exiles voiced their yearning to return. The term Zionism, coined in 1893 (by Nathan Birnbaum), came to signify both this ancient aspiration and the modern unrelenting movement for return. One of the main ideals of modern Zionism was the in-gathering of exiles from every part of the world, an aim that would be advanced by waves, or aliyot, of immigrants with distinctive characteristics:

First Aliyah (1882–1903)

20,000–30,000 immigrants

Reacting to pogroms (deadly attacks on Jewish communities) and to persistent anti-Semitism in Russia, most of these immigrants were well-educated residents of small towns and cities who knew little about agriculture. Some came from Galicia, Agnon’s home territory.

Second Aliyah (1904–1914)

35,000 to 40,000 immigrants

Disappointed with the failures of the Russian Revolution of 1905, and driven out by a new wave of pogroms, most of these settlers came from Russia. Generally young, single, male, and socialist, they would establish the first kibbutz, the Histadrut labor union, and other important institutions.

Third Aliyah (1919–1923)

35,000 immigrants

Consisting mostly of men from the Soviet Union, Poland, and Romania, these immigrants were better prepared than previous waves. Many received Zionist agricultural training in Europe before their departure.

Fourth Aliyah (1924–1930)

88,000 immigrants

Largely Polish, middle class and urban, this wave faced high unemployment upon arrival.

Fifth Aliyah (1932–1938)

215,000 immigrants

In flight from the ever worsening pre-World War II conditions in Germany, Poland, and Austria, this wave assumed tidal proportions. Threatened by the numbers, because of the increasing viability of establishing a Jewish nation, the indigenous Arabs responded with violence and convinced the British to curb immigration.

World War II and Aliyah Bet— (1939–45)

82,000 immigrants

Known as immigration B (nonofficial immigration), the smuggling of Jewish war refugees into Palestine greatly boosted the number in this last wave before the appearance of Agnon’s novel.

Only Yesterday is set during the Second Aliyah, which was distinctive, among other reasons, for the pivotal ideals that propelled the immigration. Back in Russia, the Jewish intelligentsia heeded criticism that they were not a nation because they had no peasant or identifiable working class. They had remained small traders in Europe, or storekeepers, peddlers, industrial workers, and craftsmen. They needed a fresh start, went the logic, a land in which they could enter every branch of the economy; once they became economically independent, political independence would follow naturally. With this in mind, young Zionist pioneers immigrated to Israel, not just to establish themselves as a nation, but having just been victimized by a particularly vicious onslaught of pogroms, to re-assert their manhood,


The First Alfyah showed animosity toward the Second, feeling threatened by the new-corners. These new pioneers, warned an orange growers’ journal, “aren’t just interested in work and food. … They want power, economic and social dictatorship over the agricultural domain and those who own it” (Bustenai in Sachar, p. 73) How did the experiences of the two differ? in 1882, idealistic Jews in the Russian empire—mostly university students—formed an emigration society known as “Bilu” (an acrostic “House of Jacob, let us go”) A smatt contingent of 19 Biluites immigrated to Palestine and set up a communal agricultural colony, enduring not only the harsh unforgiving climate and the diseases but also the rigorous work schedule. Mikveh Israel, an agricultural training school founded more than a decade earlier, set them to work in the fields for 11 or 12 hours a day for a mere pittance. Even after the Biluites obtained their own tract of land—about 100 acres eight miles inland from Jaffa—they struggled economically and some left the new settlement, Rishon I’Zion (“first of Zion”), returning to Mikveh Israel or to Russia.

Meanwhile, other Jewish agricultural settlements struggled for survival too, including Petach Tikva in the Sharon Valley, Zamarin near Mount Carmel, and Rosh Pina in the Galilee. Unlike Rishon t’Zion, these farms were privately, not cooperatively, owned. In 1884 several of the settlements, including Rishon I’Zion, received financial aid from Baron Edmund de Rothschild—about $6 million spent on land, housing, machinery, and livestock for the settlers. Rothschild’s money financed the construction of synagogues, dispensaries, and old-age homes too, but not without strings. In return, he expected control over the selection of crops to grow and administrators to employ. These were the administrators who first resorted to the hiring of cheap Arab labor (hence the drive by the idealists in the Second Aliyah to control their own finances and to promote the hiring of Jewish labor).

to remake themselves from the ground up through hard physical toil. They embedded their goal in the lyrics of a folk song, which Agnon echoes in first line of his novel:

“Anu banu Artza, liv’not uThibanot ba” goes the song—“We’ve come to the Land of Israel to build, and to be rebuilt, here.”

“Like all our brethren of the Second Aliya,” says the novel, “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.”

(Sachar, p. 76; Agnon, Only Yesterday, p. 3)

In keeping with the ideal, this contingent of pioneers scorned material luxury, embraced hard work, and took comfort in the collective, embracing it as an ideology. It was the Second Aliya that founded the land’s first kibbutz (Degania in 1909), whose members held property in common and met mutual needs together.

Many of these Second Aliyah immigrants embraced Labor Zionism, a synthesis of Zionist and socialist ideals propounded by Nachman Syrkin and Ber Borochov. Separately, Syrkin and Borochov argued for a Jewish society in Palestine that controlled its own finances and hired only Jewish laborers, in contrast to the prior Jewish settlements there. The older Zionists, already in Palestine, scoffed at these ideas but they attracted young Russian Jews already drawn to communism and socialism, and inspired the formation of a new political party, ha-Po’el ha-tsa’ir (The Young Worker).

Acting on its ideals, the Second Aliyah set out on a “conquest of labor,” meaning they intended to replace Arab labor with Jewish labor in the existing Zionist agricultural settlements. Organizations helped, providing subsidies to enterprises that hired Jewish labor. But times were trying for the Second Aliyah immigrants, and many of them despaired. Most flocked to the cities, especially to Jaffa. But be it Jaffa or Jerusalem, they found the community to be provincial, hot, dusty, and otherwise uninviting. There was no warm welcome from the Turkish authorities of the Ottoman empire, or from the Orthodox Jews and Jewish farmers of the First Aliya, who tended to be either more religious or more capitalistic than the Second Aliyah pioneers. Certainly there was no welcome from the Arabs, who now stood in greater danger of being displaced. Add to this cold reception a dearth of job opportunities plus rampant diseases like malaria, and the disillusionment that ensued is hardly surprising. In the face of all the obstacles, perhaps 80 percent of the Second Aliyah left Palestine within a few weeks or months, returning to Europe or pressing on to America. The remaining 20 percent, or 8,000, struggled stubbornly to be accepted and to forge a Jewish society in Palestine. Mostly young, single, and male, they endured a daily existence replete with a piercing loneliness; again, the antidote for many (though not for Agnon’s protagonist) was the collective.

Mea Shearim—the ultra-Orthodox alternative

A popular religious movement thrived back in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe, well-spring of the immigrants who peopled the first two aliyot. Founded in the eighteenth century, the religious movement, Hasidism, was a pietistic type of Judaism that derived certain ideas from the faith’s mystic tradition and differed in approach from the scholarly mainstream. Hasidism focused on the emotional component, stressing fellowship, charismatic leadership, and piety and intensity of prayer over strict observance and study of Torah (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Reaching out to the masses, the new movement soon spread into Galicia, original home to the novel’s protagonist. The movement attracted an increasing number of adherents and underwent change. By the early 1800s, Hasidism had evolved into an ultraconservative movement that the community of Orthodox Jews accepted as a legitimate variation.

The Hasidic community organized itself into groups, each centered around a charismatic spiritual leader known as the tsaddik (“righteous one”) or rebbe (a term of address for a teacher). This format would endure, as would an emphasis on the joy in worship. Praying actively, the Hasidim stimulated themselves into a religious fervor through song and dance, or more quietly through intense reflection on God and creation. The rebbe, the luminary around whom a group of Hasidic Jews clustered, differed from the mainstream rabbi, whose status derived from a command of Jewish law and rabbinic literature. A rebbe, Hasidism taught, embodies the Torah. He is a moral and practical advisor who can work wonders and who leads by virtue of his wisdom, piety, and luminous spirituality, which results from his ability to commune with God. Despite this distinction, Hasidism developed a new focus on the study of Torah in the nineteenth century, and it too endured.

Hasidic groups came to Palestine as early as the eighteenth century and many Hasidim immigrated in the aliyot. In Jerusalem they flocked to certain neighborhoods, among them, one that is frequented by the protagonist in Only Yesterday. The neighborhood is called Mea Shearim, after a verse from Genesis (26:12)—“And Isaac sowed in this land and he ‘reaped hundredfold’ [mea shearim]” Founded in the 1870s, a few decades before the novel takes place, the neighborhood is square and fort-like, enclosing houses of worship and an academy devoted to the study of Talmud. Its early-twentieth-century residents included various Hasidic groups, each organized in customary fashion around a rebbe. Distancing themselves from the modern world, the groups refused to participate in Zionist politics. A man was counseled to spend his free time studying the Torah. Marriage and family was the sole forum for interaction between men and women in Hasidic circles. Then, as now, the primary focus was on idealistic spiritual goals. If the Zionists of the Second Aliyah embraced one set of ideals, the Hasidim of Palestine embraced another, and the two sets clashed—severely.

The Hasidim, in fact, Orthodox Jewry in general, had long opposed the Zionists in Palestine. As they saw it, the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and Palestine must happen because of divine—not human—intervention. The Orthodox Jews organized in opposition to the Zionists as early as 1912, coordinating efforts in various countries through the formation of Agudat Israel (the Federation of Israel). Jews had to pray for return to Palestine, believed its members, but to hasten this return was a grievous sin. Zionism itself was part of a “Satanic conspiracy,” a plot to forestall the coming of the Messiah, who alone could reestablish a Jewish state. Certainly it did not help matters that religion played no great part in the idealistic notions of the Second Aliyah. Zionism, railed the ultra-Orthodox Jews, “wanted to leave religion out of the national revival and as a result the nation would become an empty shell”; having suffered so greatly for two thousand years, was it “not madness now to aim at transforming the Jews into a nation like all others, to politicise them, to establish a state which was neutral towards religion” (Lacquer, p. 408). The ultra-Orthodox of Palestine, concentrated in Jerusalem, especially in Mea Shearim, and otherwise mostly retired from public life, found an ally for their own anti-Zionist stance in Agudat Israel.

The birth of modern Hebrew

The inhabitants of Mea Shearim mostly spoke Yiddish. Of course, the scripture they studied was in Hebrew and in Aramaic. But the Hebrew was a biblical form of the language. They had no use for the modern Hebrew being forged by some of the Zionists at the time. This was not an old language being revived but a new one being re-formulated and re-created for the twentieth-century environment. Clearly the ancient language was too stilted, too artificial to pertain to modern realities. Something new had to be formulated. A legendary figure often associated with this re-creation is Eliezer ben Yehuda (1858-1922), who published four volumes of a modem Hebrew dictionary, coining 200 new Hebrew words in the process. In fact, however, he had no direct influence on the revival of the language, which took root during the Second Aliyah. It was this group of pioneers that consciously promoted Hebrew and strove to use it in their social settings, which was no simple proposition. “It was, indeed, not easy to start speaking a new language that is not spoken in society, and has no established models to imitate” (Harshav, p. 114). The goal was one Hebrew pronunciation to replace the jargons that diverse immigrants spoke—from Yiddish, to Ladino, to a mix of other languages counterproductive to unification.

Before the efflorescence of modern Hebrew as a spoken tongue came a Hebrew literary renaissance (c. 1890-1920). This renaissance built on the work of Mendele Mokher Sefarim, who forged a synthetic literary Yiddish (which balanced Hebrew, Slavic, and German elements) and a similarly blended Hebrew (which balanced layers of Hebrew and Aramaic). Writers like U. N. Gnesin, Yosef Chaim Brenner, and Only Yesterday’s Agnon advanced the evolution of the modern language into its next phase, translating world literature into the synthetic Hebrew prose and using it to create new fiction as well. In this next phase, fragments from different layers of Hebrew (e.g., biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern) might be intermingled in a sentence but were still detectable, could still be unwoven, so to speak. The fusing of the layers into a seamless whole would occur later, after the Second Aliyah, thanks to the conversational Hebrew that its social groups introduced and to the journalistic endeavor—“it was primarily Hebrew journalism that boldly formulated the style of modern spoken Hebrew” (Harshav, p. 125). The Second Aliyah pioneers were the groundbreakers, though. They championed the use of Hebrew in schools and in their new city of Tel Aviv, founded in 1909 and sometimes touted as “the first Hebrew city.” A few years earlier, in 1904, a teacher-training institute in Hebrew had opened in Jerusalem. In 1906 a secondary school in Jaffa began instruction in Hebrew, and other schools followed suit. By 1912, when Only Yesterday ends, there was a network of Hebrew schools in Palestine, teaching some 3,200 students. That same year the Hebrew Language Committee insisted that banks and other institutions speak Hebrew only. But it would take much longer for the language to become dominant in the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine. In 1916, a minority of Jews—40 percent—declared Hebrew their main language. It remained for the Third Aliyah to introduce secular Hebrew as the uniform language for official meetings and writings in the Yishuv.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Only Yesterday is divided into five parts—a prologue and four chapters, whose settings alternate between Jaffa and Jerusalem. The prologue, which begins in Galicia and ends in Jaffa, Palestine, relates the story of Isaac Kumer, an idealistic young Jew who desires nothing more than to immigrate to Palestine, where he hopes to work the land. In time Isaac’s father, a poor shopkeeper, scrapes together enough money to help his son realize this dream. Isaac travels to Lemberg, the capital of Galicia, then on to Trieste, Italy, to be officially approved for passage into Palestine. He boards a ship bound for the Holy Land. On the voyage, the rather feckless Isaac is taken under the wing of the ship’s cook, who feeds the young man because poor planning has left him with insufficient resources. Issac meets an elderly Jew, Moyshe Amram, and the two almost strike up a friendship but secular and religious differences interfere.

Isaac arrives in Jaffa to find himself quite alone at first, but eventually ends up at the home of Yedidya Rabinovitch, a fellow immigrant. Like Isaac, Rabinovitch and his housemates have come to Palestine to cultivate the land. Their efforts to find farmwork prove unsuccessful—Jewish settlers from previous generations are hiring Arabs over Jews—and all the new immigrants become discouraged. Isaac fortunately finds work as a house painter. A poor painter, he nevertheless earns enough to afford a room of his own; his painting improves thanks to a new acquaintance, the bohemian Leichtfuss (Sweet-foot)—so nicknamed because he was cured of snakebite by having his foot wrapped in halvah candy.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s friend, Rabinovitch, finds work in a clothing store and becomes so successful in the trade that he leaves Palestine temporarily to establish himself as a successful merchant in Europe. After his departure, Isaac falls in love with Rabinovitch’s cosmopolitan girlfriend, Sonya. For her part, the worldly Sonya becomes fond of Isaac for his innocence and simplicity, then tires of him and ends the relationship, deciding to concentrate on her new job as a teacher. Already feeling guilty over his supposed betrayal of Rabinovitch, Isaac is stung when she breaks up with him. Restless and dissatisfied, he neglects his own job, visits the agricultural colony of Petach Tikva, and decides to move to Jerusalem. Sonya sees him off at the train station.

Jerusalem proves more conservative than Jaffa and more given to social and religious divisions. But Isaac manages to adapt to his changed environment and to make new friends. He meets Bloykof, an artist who suffers from a fatal illness and, like Sweet-Foot before him, helps Isaac become a better painter. When Bloykof at last succumbs to the disease, a bereaved Isaac finds solace in religion, resuming rituals he neglected in Jaffa. He grows the long beard favored by Hasidic Jews and listens to the fiery sermons of Rabbi Grunam Yekum Purkan. Again Isaac encounters Moyshe Amram, who now lives in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, and this time the two strike up a friendship. Isaac meets Moyshe’s shy granddaughter Shifra, the child of his daughter, Rebecca, and her fanatically Orthodox husband, Reb Fayesh. Although Fayesh disapproves of Isaac’s Galician origins and his Zionist ideals, Isaac becomes attracted to Shifra.

During his stay in Jerusalem, Isaac performs an act that ultimately has fatal consequences. One day while working he encounters a stray dog and whimsically paints the words “Crazy Dog” on its skin. Jews who come across the dog—Balak is his name—construe the words as “Mad (Rabid) Dog” and run off or throw rocks at the stray to drive it away. Reb Fayesh, encountering Balak one night, becomes so frightened that Fayesh suffers a paralyzing stroke from which he never recovers. While he is bedridden, Isaac visits the family and becomes increasingly drawn to Shifra, deciding at last to propose. The naїve Issac intends to clear up matters between him and Sonya in Jaffa first. Before leaving Jerusalem, he visits Reb Mohel, the ritual slaughterer who circumcised him as a baby and, on the anniversary of his mother’s death, makes a pilgrimage to the Western (Wailing) Wall to pray for her soul.

Back in Jaffa, Isaac surprises Sonya with his changed appearance and demeanor; she treats their relationship as something well in the past, freeing him to return to Shifra without divided loyalties. But Isaac stays in Jaffa for a while. He attends a birthday party for a child born on the ship to Palestine and reconnects with some old friends, including Rabinovitch, returned from Europe as a successful businessman. Now happily married to a wealthy woman, he invites his friend to go into business with him, and Isaac considers the offer but finally opts to return to Jerusalem.

Isaac repeatedly berates himself for not working the land.

Meanwhile, the dog Balak has become the focus of newspaper stories; many Jerusalemites have seen him and nearly every sector of society—from the religious to the political—has a theory as to what his purpose might be. Some even blame the dog for the drought that has stricken the city. For his part, Balak senses that he is experiencing isolation and persecution, and the experiences cause him great confusion. In contrast to the realistic tone that pervades the rest of the novel, it slips here into a fantastic, modernist mode in which the dog’s consciousness is represented at times through the use of interior monologue, with the dog even breaking into rhymed prose. He begins to go mad and exhibits symptoms of rabies.

Returning to Jerusalem, Isaac resumes his house painting and courts Shifra, despite gossip from the neighbors. He grows more religious than before, moving in with a pious family, studying Torah, and praying daily. On learning of Isaac’s love for Shifra, Reb Alter and his wife intercede for the young man with Shifra’s mother, Rebecca, who at last consents to the marriage. The wedding takes place, though many of Rebecca’s neighbors refuse to attend because of the groom’s background. However, a great rabbi saves the day. Hearing of the wedding, he calls upon the Fayesh household; his presence attracts many guests, filling Rebecca with joy and honor.

On the final day of the week-long festivities, tragedy strikes. Attending one of Rabbi Grunam Yekum Purkan’s sermons, Isaac spots Balak approaching. The other attendees want to flee, but Isaac assures them the dog is not mad; he himself painted the words on Balak’s skin. Recognizing the house painter as the cause of his troubles, the rabid dog bites him. A few weeks later, Isaac develops rabies and dies in agony, bound to a bed in a locked room. On the day of his burial, the drought ends and rain falls at last.

The water flowed from above and from below, on the roofs of our houses and underneath our houses … and the whole Land was like a Garden of the Lord …. And you our brothers, the elite of our salvation … you went out to your work in the fields and the gardens, the work our comrade Isaac wasn’t blessed with …. May all mourners mourn for that tortured man who died in a sorry affair. And we shall tell the deeds of our brothers and sisters, the children of the living God, the nation of the lord, who work the earth of Israel for a monument and fame and glory.

(Only Yesterday, pp. 641-42)

Jaffa and Jerusalem

Isaac Kumer flits between Jaffa and Jerusalem in the novel, between Sonya in the first city and Shifra in the second. In contemplating his relationship to Sonya, he reveals himself to be an unreliable narrator. The reader cannot trust Isaac, not because he is dishonest, but because he is naїve. He misreads the affair with Sonya, blaming himself for not marrying her while she sees their interlude as a casual fling. He furthermore refers to masters of manipulation as “distinguished leaders” and to ordinary men as “mentors” (Halkin, p. 4). Thus, to understand the perceptions of the novel, the reader must rely on the interplay of its elements rather than on Issac Kumer’s voice.

A key polarity emerges when Isaac flits from Jaffa to Jerusalem and back again. His entire experience in Palestine can be described as an aimless wandering between a nebulous present and a fossilized past in search of a purpose that never quite materializes. Thwarted in his dream to work the soil as a farmer and lacking the socialist zeal of many fellow immigrants, he becomes a house-painter who drifts between the new world (Jaffa) and the old (Jerusalem). He finds no noble place for himself in the new order and, though he returns to the old, is marginalized there too. His rootlessness surfaces also in his off-again, on-again relationship with religious observance and in his private doubts. Although descended from a pious Jew, Reb Yudel Hasid, who “made aliyah” to the Holy Land after discovering a treasure that secured his family’s prosperity, Isaac feels the age of miracles is past and no such good fortune will befall him. In this, he is correct, though whether his unremarkable days are due to the disillusioned time in which he lives or his own wavering faith remains ambiguous.


Dog imagery abounds in Only Yesterday: dogs appear as pets, mascots decorations, symbol and destructive forces. Isaac’s friend Leichtfuss keeps a dog as a companion, white Rabinovitch alters his destiny for the better when he feeds chocolate to a lapdog and attracts its wealthy mistress, who later becomes his wife Likewise, Isaac seals his own tragic fate by capriciously painting “Crazy Dog” on a stray in Jerusalem. The novel follows the painted dog, Balak, through his wanderings around Jerusalem; rejected and persecuted, the animal is ultimately driven mad. The dog has been the subject of much critical speculation. “Explications have ranged rather amusingly from the inevitable hypothesis that the dog symbolizes the Jewish people/to more ingenious exercises that characterize the dog as a detailed articulation of the psyche of Issac Kumer (Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare, pp. 416–417). A symbol of different things in different places, the dog’s significance is summed up by Rabbi Grunam Yekum Purkan in one of his fiery sermons. Condemning those, Hke the Zionists, who seek secular rather than religious solutions, he rants that “the face of the generation is like the face of a dog- And not just an ordinary dog, but a crazy dog” (Only Yesterday, p. 621).

In any case, torn between Jaffa and Jerusalem, without a firm foothold in either, he gravitates to the latter, the familiar Hasidic experience, but the novel will not let him find satisfaction in the old world either.

While Jaffa is the new life of halutsim [pioneers], labor, national revival and Sonia [Isaac’s worldly girlfriend], Jerusalem is the eternal city with its traditions, possibilities for return to religious behavior, and Shifra [Isaac’s orthodox bride] …. The vectors of the plot and hence, [Isaac’s] yearnings, oscillate: Jaffa,


Thousands of years old, Jerusalem, along with Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, made up one of the four “holy cities of Palestine where, Jewish communities had been established long before the influx of twentieth-century immigrants. These prior Jewish inhabitants were known collectively as the “Old Yishuv”. On visiting their inland city of Jerusalem in 1898—which by then included Mea Shearim (est. 1874)—Theodor Herzl, founder of the World Zionist Organization, registered shock at “the musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance, and foulness” and charged the Zionists with building “a glorious new Jerusalem,” which would arise only after the Second Aliyah (Herzl in Armstrong, p. 366). In contrast, Jaffa, though also an ancient city, came then to represent change and progress. Its situation as a port city was a contributing factor. Merchants, many of them jews of the First and Second Aliyot, opened an estimated 400 shops associated with “a heavy investment in private housing, public buildings, mosques, and commercial buildings” between 1880 and 1910 (Kimmerling and Migdal, p. 45). Wishing to avoid the more parochial atmosphere of Jerusalem, Zionists established Jewish cultural and administrative organizations, including Hebrew schools and the first workers’ federations, in Jaffa. In 1909 the Zionists obtained financial backing for the construction of a new Jewish supurb, begun on the sand dunes just north of Jaffa; by the end of the Second Aliyah (1914), the suburb—Tel Aviv—contained 139 houses and 1,419 Jewish residents (Sachar, p. 88). In one of many digressions in the novel, Only Yesterday describes the building of Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem, Jaffa, Jerusalem. The novel is, in effect, a literary statement that redemption can be found in neither place, in neither way of life. Jaffa is unsatisfying; the satisfaction that Jerusalem offers is only a brief prelude to a brutal, meaningless death.

(Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare, p. 444)

It is a nihilistic vision, the perception of the author himself who lived in Palestine during the Second Aliyah and wrote as Orthodox Jewry of Russia and Eastern Europe was being annihilated by the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Sources and literary context

Many of Agnon’s own experiences influenced Only Yesterday. Like his protagonist, Isaac Kumer, the novelist was a native of Galicia, and he too immigrated to Palestine as part of the Second Aliyah. Also like Isaac, Agnon spent considerable time in Jaffa and Jerusalem. Hasidism was a factor in his upbringing, and he himself witnessed the decline of religious faith among the Jewish settlers of Palestine, which became an integral part of his novel. Finally, the novel is “studded with terms taken from pious texts” that were part of the novelist’s background (Band, “Exile in Redemption,” p. 5).

Agnon’s earlier fiction echoes in Only Yesterday. In the course of the story, the reader leams that Isaac descends from Reb Yudel Hasid, the protagonist of The Bridal Canopy. Isaac is not based upon Agnon himself; the writer, Hemdat, whom Isaac befriends in Jaffa, comes closer to filling that role. The protagonist also encounters in Jaffa someone from real life, the novelist Yosef Chaim Brenner. His presence in the novel is fraught with unspoken meaning. Four decades before Only Yesterday, Brenner wrote a similarly despondent novel, Breakdown and Bereavement (1920), also about a Zionist pioneer. Agnon’s work follows in the same tradition.

Because of its enormous scope and its painstaking recreation of the development of Palestine in the 1900s, Only Yesterday is often described as an epic novel of the Second Aliyah. According to literary scholar Arnold Band, it is “actually the opposite. It is a novel written a generation later” that “employs the deadly tensions between the ideals of the Second Aliyah and their impossible realization as a paradigm of the human tragedy involved in believing in powerful myths that one cannot realize in life situations” (Band, “Exile in Redemption,” p. 7).

Some critics also believe Isaac Kumer’s trajectory makes the work a Bildungsroman —“novel of growth”—of sorts, which charts its protagonist not so much from innocence to experience as from innocence to failure and pointless death. Many also compare the biblical Isaac to Agnon’s hapless protagonist, noting that the sacrifice of the latter seems ultimately meaningless, unlike that of his biblical ancestor. The episodes concerning the dog Balak evoke comparisons with the comicgrotesque writings of Franz Kafka and other surrealists. Considering the novel as a whole, Only Yesterday emerges as “one of [Agnon’s] most intricately textured books” and, despite the tragic fate of its protagonist, “marvelously comical … The novel abounds with hilarious satires of [Isaac’s] naїvete, of Zionist bureaucrats, of religious fanatics like Reb Fayesh and Grunam Yekum Purkan, and the self-confident foibles of the modern settlers of Palestine” (Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare, p. 445). At the same time, the novel raises perplexing questions, like “what can we learn from this absurd and shocking ending about the meaning and value of Zionism and the pioneering enterprise?” (Miron, p. 10). So heavily did these questions weigh on Agnon himself that he ends his story with the promise of a future novel that picks up where this one leaves off: “Complete are the deeds of Isaac/The deeds of our other comrades …/ Will come in the book A Parcel of Land.” But it was never written (Only Yesterday, p. 642).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Mandate period to World War II

Only Yesterday was composed from 1931–1942, with parts of it appearing in serial format throughout the 14-year stretch. Palestine had by the beginning of this stretch transferred hands, passing out of the control the now-defunct Ottoman Empire into the hands of Great Britain, as mandated by the League of Nations (in 1922). Through all these changes, the waves of Jewish immigration rolled on, first encouraged by the British, then stymied on the strength of Arab resistance.

Meanwhile, Palestine itself was undergoing vital development. Zionist land holdings mounted, new industries began operation, scientific agriculture came to model collective farms, and various cooperatives were founded. Public utilities and communications began operation as cities developed and suburbs arose. All the while there was Arab resistance, which mounted as the Jewish community grew, prompting the British government to issue the “White Paper” in 1939, calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within ten years. Both the Jews and Arabs rejected the specifics of the proposal, each feeling betrayed by the British. In any case, before it could be put into effect, World War II broke out, effecting a temporary truce in Jewish-Arab hostilities. Although Only Yesterday makes no direct reference to the mandate or the resulting strife between Jews and Arabs, it does allude to the spread of madness—represented by the dog Balak—which it connects to world war. “Since [Balak] had tasted the taste of human flesh, he went on biting. Many were injured by him and many mentioned him with horror. Until the troubles of the great war came and that trouble was forgotten” (Only Yesterday, p. 640). The reference here is to World War I. But given that most of the novel was written during the onset of World War II “when news of the meaningless slaughter of millions of Yitshaks in Europe reached Jerusalem, the correspondence between the central metaphor of the novel and the historical situation is too striking to be disregarded” (Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare, p. 447).

The Zionist and ultra-Orthodox controversy

The growing Yishuv, Arab anti-Jewish violence, the annihilation of Eastern European and Russian Jewry in World War II—all these realities prompted much of the Orthodox camp to modify its virulent anti-Zionist stance. This contingent did not accept Zionism, but it did begin to take a more active hand in settling the Yishuv. In the 1920s and ’30s members of the once strenuously anti-Zionist Agudat Israel themselves moved to Palestine, establishing settlements and dropping their former resistance to the modern Hebrew language. They became part of a general proliferation of factions in Israel that belong to three basic currents—socialism and Labor Zionism, the religious parties, and right-wing Revisionists. The religious parties included Zionists as well as non-Zionists. From the beginning, the Zionists had included a religious faction, the Mizrahi Party. Modern Zionism, said party members, was not a secular movement but the first step in God’s plan to carry out the promise of this land to the Jewish people. The ultra-Orthodox continued to disagree, but while some still refused to participate in Zionism, others, including Agudat Israel, started to involve themselves. The picture grew less bifurcated, more complex and factionalized.

Zionism itself became factionalized. In 1935 the General Zionists split into groups A and B. Group A was nonideological. Against socialism, group B championed private enterprise. A third group, the Revisionists, pushed for attaining maximum territory, political control, and military preparedness, dropping out of the cooperative Zionist movement in the 1930s to establish an underground paramilitary unit (Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization). The year before Agnon’s novel was published, this unit began conducting guerrilla warfare to achieve its ends. Released as a complete novel in 1945, Only Yesterday appeared in a world that domestically as well as globally could be seen as touched by confusion and madness.


Only Yesterday was warmly received, indeed celebrated in the Yishuv, winning the Us-siskin Prize in 1946. Critical consensus saw this, along with earlier and later works by Agnon, as “the most comprehensive and important artistic endeavor produced during the development of the Hebrew novel, from … the 1850s until our own day”; more exactly, Baruch Kurzweil describes Only Yesterday as “the most important and successful experiment in the field of the social novel in [Israeli] modern literature” (Kurzweil in Miron, p. 3).

It would be a half century before the work was translated into English, only to again meet with an enthusiastic reception. Dan Jacobsen of the New York Review of Books called the translation “a labor of love” and praised the novel’s epic scope, saying no other Israeli writer “conveys more vividly, in more gritty and humanly recognizable terms, the strangeness of the entire Zionist enterprise” (Jacobsen in Riviello, p. 18). Jonathan Rosen, in the New York Times Book Review, admired the way “[a]ncient religious longing, modern political aspirations, and personal dreams all intersect” (Rosen, p. 28).

Several critics commented on Agnon’s unique use of religious and folkloric sources that made his work seem at once ancient and modern, and on his deft wielding of irony and satire. Hillel Halkin, writing for New Republic, remarked that “for a great writer [Agnon] flirts dangerously with parody all the time, his pseudo-rabbinic Hebrew being so exquisitely styled that it teeters constantly on the brink of self-mockery. He uses languages like a bull-fighter’s cape, daring us to fume at it and charge, only to find the blade of his irony plunged into us up to the hilt” (Halkin in Riviello, p. 19). And Robert Alter summed up Only Yesterday as “a scathing vision of God and man, Zionism and Jewish history, desire and guilt, language and meaning …. A work of powerful, and eccentric originality” (Alter, p. 3).

—Pamela S. Loy and Nancy E. Berg

For More Information

Agnon, S.Y. Only Yesterday. Trans. Barbara Harshav. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Alter, Robert. “My Life as a Dog.” Review of Only Yesterday. Los Angeles Times Book Review, 7 May 2000, 3.

Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Band, Arnold J. “Exile in Redemption.” Paper presented at the international conference The Poetics of Exile, the University of Auckland, Auckland, N.Z., 17–19 July 2003.

_____. Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Halkin, Hillel. Review of Only Yesterday, by Shumel Yosef Agnon. The New Republic, 7 August 2000, 39.

Harshav, Benjamin. Language in Time of Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal. Palestinians: The Making of a People. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism. New York: Schocken, 1976.

Meijers, Daniel. Ascetic Hasidism in Jerusalem. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992.

Miron, Dan. “Domesticating a Foreign Genre: Agnon’s Transactions with the Novel.” Prooftexts 7 (1987), pp. 1–27.

Riviello, Barbara Jo, ed. Book Review Digest. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 2001.

Rosen, Jonathan. Review of Only Yesterday. New York Times Book Review, 24 September 2000, 28.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.