Agnon, Shemuʾel Yosef

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AGNON, SHEMUʾEL YOSEF (18881970), was a Hebrew prose writer and, along with the German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs, the 1966 Nobel laureate for literature. Born Shemuʾel Yosef Czaczkes in the town of Buczacz in the eastern European region of Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Agnon was raised in a traditionally observant Jewish family with an openness to participating in contemporary Western culture. Under the influence of Zionism, he immigrated to Palestine in 1908. There he lived primarily in Jaffa, which at the time was the center of secular-oriented Zionist culture. He also lived for several months in Jerusalem, a stronghold of non- and anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewry. During this period he changed his original family name, Czaczkes, to Agnon, adapted from the title of the first story he published in Palestine, "ʿAgunot." (ʿAgunot is a Jewish legal term for women unable to remarry because their husbands are missing or refuse to grant them a proper divorce, a circumstance Agnon used metaphorically to refer to psychological and spiritual alienation.)

Apparently motivated by the desire to expand his cultural horizons, Agnon left Palestine for Germany in 1912. As the product of traditional eastern European Judaism, he became an important resource for assimilated German Jews, who found in the German translations of his Hebrew writings ways to connect with the Jewish tradition from which they were distanced. While in Germany, Agnon associated with the Jewish philosophers Martin Buber (18781965), with whom he began to edit a collection of Hasidic tales that was not completed, and Franz Rosenzweig (18861929), and with the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem (18971982). In 1924 Agnon immigrated once again to Palestine with his wife Esther (née Marx), whom he had married in Germany in 1920, and their two children, settling this time in Jerusalem.

As a youth Agnon wrote in both Yiddish and Hebrew, but beginning with his first immigration to Palestine he devoted himself to prose writing in Hebrew. Agnon departed from the traditional religious practice of his upbringing during the periods of his first immigration to Palestine and his residence in Germany, in keeping with the prevailing secular cultural ethos of Zionist settlers and Jewish intellectuals at the time. Yet by the time he settled in Jerusalem in the 1920s he had returned to a traditional pattern of observance, which he maintained for the rest of his life.

The complexity of Agnon's relationship to the Jewish religious tradition is most evident in the genres in which he wrote:

  1. Anthologies of traditional Jewish texts;
  2. Works of fiction and adaptations of legends that portray the world of premodern Jewry;
  3. Realistic social fiction;
  4. Modernistic stories of a world beset by a crisis of religious faith.

The worlds Agnon presents in his prose run the gamut of Jewish experience from premodern religious traditionalism to a modernism beset by severe identity crises. The Hebrew of these works is characterized by frequent allusions to the style and content of rabbinic, medieval, and early modern religious literature. In adopting such a religiously allusive style, Agnon maintained close ties to the world of Jewish tradition, even as he explored the challenges of modernity.

Anthologies of Traditional Texts

The approach to the Jewish tradition in these anthologies is one of respect for the spiritual treasures found in biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and early modern sources. In preparing each of these anthologies, Agnon followed in the footsteps of a number of European Hebrew writers (most notably Hayyim Nahman Bialik [18731934], Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky [18591944], and M. Y. Berdichevsky [18651921]) who were concerned that the textual forms in which the Jewish tradition had been transmitted had become largely inaccessible to the modern reader. In order to preserve traditional religious knowledge among Jews, they compiled anthologies written in a uniformly accessible Hebrew style and based on modern principles of thematic organization. Two anthologies edited by Agnon were published in their entirety during his lifetime: one on the Jewish High Holidays, Yamim noraʾim (Days of Awe, 1937), and one on the revelation at Mount Sinai, Attem reʾitem (Present at Sinai, 1959). In addition, Agnon sporadically published versions of texts in two other thematic areas: the Hasidic tradition founded by Baʿal Shem ov and the relationship of Jews to their sacred texts. While he published short anthologies of texts in these two areas, it was only after his death that full anthologies of these texts were published.

Works of Fiction and Adaptations of Legends

The sources for these narratives that portray the world of premodern Jewry in eastern Europe and Palestine were folktales with which Agnon was familiar as well as his youthful experience of traditional Jewish life in Buczacz and his observation of Orthodox Jewish life in Jerusalem. Some of these narratives take the form of legends transmitted by a traditional chronicler. Others are more of a blend of pious storytelling and modern fiction. In this body of literature one may discern Agnon's highly ambivalent attitude toward the world of tradition in which he had been raised, ranging from an ironic and critical distance to a nostalgic celebration of the world of tradition as a valuable spiritual resource from which even the modern Jew has much to learn. (See, for example, the novel Hakhnasat kallah [The Bridal Canopy, 1931; 1953].)

Realistic Social Fiction

In addition to works steeped in the world of Jewish tradition, Agnon wrote a variety of works of fiction that portray the various social settings in which he lived: the Buczacz of his childhood (see the novella Sippur pashut [A Simple Story, 1935]); the Zionist settlers and Orthodox Jews of Palestine during the waning years of Ottoman rule (see the novel Temol shilshom [Only Yesterday, 1945]); German Jewry during World War I (see examples of such stories in Twenty-One Stories and A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories ); Buczacz in the period between the world wars, which he observed firsthand during a visit there in 1930 (see the novel Orea natah lalun [A Guest for the Night, 1939]; and Palestine of the 1930s (see the novel Shirah, [Shira, 1971]). While less overtly preoccupied with the world of religious piety than works of the first two genres, these works, to varying degrees, explore the effects of the crisis of faith and diminishing loyalty to traditional Jewish practices that Jews have experienced in a world plagued by war and torn apart by conflicting ideologies.

Modernistic Stories

Beginning in the 1930s, Agnon published a series of surrealistic short stories under the title Sefer hamaʿasim (The book of deeds). In many of these stories, religious observance is disturbed by nightmarish impediments, and the protagonists are tormented by their distance from traditional faith. The fact that the narrators of these stories rarely accomplish anything (in ironic contrast to the title of the series) signifies the unresolved tension within Agnon's soul between loyalty to tradition and the attractions of modernity. Some of these stories appear in the collections Twenty-One Stories and A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories.

See Also

Midrash and Aggadah; Zionism.


Works by Agnon in English Translation

Anthologies and collections

Betrothed and Edo and Enam: Two Tales. Translated by Walter Lever. New York, 1966.

A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories. Edited by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman. New York, 1995.

Days of Awe. Translated by Maurice T. Galpert and Jacob Sloan. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. New York, 1965.

Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law. Translated by Michael Swirsky. Philadelphia, 1994.

Twenty-One Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. New York, 1970.

Novellas and novels

The Bridal Canopy. Translated by I. M. Lask. Garden City, N.Y., 1937.

A Guest for the Night. Translated by Misha Louvish. New York, 1968.

In the Heart of the Seas. Translated by I. M. Lask. New York, 1947.

Only Yesterday. Translated by Barbara Harshav. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Shira. Translated by Zeva Shapiro. New York, 1989.

A Simple Story. Translated by Hillel Halkin. New York, 1985.

Works about Agnon

Aberbach, David. At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon. Oxford, 1984.

Band, Arnold J. Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Berkeley, Calif., 1968.

Ben-Dov, Nitza. Agnon's Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Leiden, 1993.

Fisch, Harold. S. Y. Agnon. New York, 1975.

Hochman, Baruch. The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Ithaca, N.Y., 1970.

Hoffman, Anne Golomb. Between Exile and Return: S. Y. Agnon and the Drama of Writing. Albany, N.Y., 1991.

Katz, Stephen. The Centrifugal Novel: S. Y. Agnon's Poetics of Composition. Madison, N.J., 1999.

Laor, Dan. Haye ʿAgnon. Jerusalem, 1998. This biography is available only in Hebrew.

Oz, Amos. The Silence of Heaven: Agnon's Fear of God. Translated by Barbara Harshav. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Patterson, David, and Glenda Abramson, eds. Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon. Boulder, Colo., 1994.

Shaked, Gershon. Shmuel Yosef Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. New York, 1989.

Shaked, Gershon. Modern Hebrew Fiction. Translated by Yael Lotan. Bloomington, Ind., 2000.

David C. Jacobson (2005)