Shmuel Yosef Agnon

Shmuel Yosef Agnon

Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born in Buczacz, Galicia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Poland). His father had received rabbinical training, but was a fur trader by profession. Agnon received a traditional education. He studied in his youth the Talmud under the tutelage of his father and a local rabbi. From this Eastern European background that placed the study of Scripture at the center of communal life, Agnon acquired a deep knowledge of the rabbinical texts. His first poems, written in Hebrew and Yiddish, were published in a newspaper when he was fifteen.

In 1907 he moved to Jaffa, Palestine, where he served as the first secretary of Jewish Court in Jaffa. He took the surname Agnon, and published the short novel AGUNOT (1908) in Hebrew under his pen name. From the title of the story Agnon took his name, which he adopted as his legas surname in 1924. In 1912 Agnon went to Berlin. There he continued his studies of literature and moved in literary and scholarly circles. He lived in Germany throughout World War I and served as a research assistant to scholars, and helped to found the journal Der Jude (The Jew). During this time he met the businessman Salman Schocken, his lifelong patron and publisher. In Germany he also met and married his wife, Esther Marx.

Agnon returned in 1924 to Jerusalem, remaining there for the rest of his life. His large novel, an allegory on the decline of the Jewish religious life in Poland, HACHNASATH KALLAH (The Bridal Canopy), appeared in 1931. The plot chronicled the travels of a Jewish Don Quixote, Reb Yudel, a Hassidic, who starts to seek a dowry for his daughters in the early 19th-century Europe. Frummet, his wife, has complained: "How much longer, said she to him, will you be as unfeeling as a raven toward your children? Have you no pity for your hapless, hopeless daughters who sit sighing and weeping like wives whose husbands have vanished, an who know not whether they are widowed or not? Why, the girls have all but wept their eyes away and the hair on their head is turning white, yet here you sit like a lump of clay in form of a man, without lifting a finger to marry them off." Yudel's inner, religious world, is at odds with his surroundings. Finally he returns home, and finds a buried treasure, making him into a wealthy man. Nowadays the novel is regarded more complex than merely as a homage to the traditional religious world and a portrait of simple faith in God. Agnon weaves together in the story references to biblical and rabbinic texts, balancing between pious fable and comedic farce. KOL SIPURAV SHEL SH. Y. AGNON (1931) was the first four volumes of the author's collected works, which was published in much enlarged form in 1966. SIPUR PASHUT (1935, A Simple Story) a bittersweet romance, was set in the small town of Szybucz, Agnon's fictional name for his hometown of Buczacz.

Agnon's greatest novel is generally considered TEMOL SHILSHOM (1945, The Day Before Yesterday). The story is set in the period of the second aliyah, the wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine between 1907 and 1913, and anticipated the emergence of Israel out of the Holocaust. The novel contrasts old and new ways of Jewish life and intertwines two plots - a story of Yitzhak Kummer, would-be pioneer, and the wanderings of the dog Balak. Kummer journeys from Europe to Palestine and dies of rabies after being bitten by Balak.

The short story 'At the Outset of the Day' appeared three years after the establishment of the State of Israel, and its mood of bewilderment reflects the uncertainty of the future. In the story the narrator flees from enemies with his daughter to the city. In a courtyard fire burns her daughter's dress and she trembles from cold. The father has nothing to cover her and he asks clothing from his friend, Reb Alter, a religious leader. He is turned away empty-handed. The story ends in the open courtyard of the Great Synagogue. The father sees the House of Study full of Jews, the doors of the Ark are open. "My soul fainted with me, and I stood and prayed as those wrapped in prayer and ritual gowns. And even my little girl, who had dozed off, repeated in her sleep each and every prayer in sweet melodies no ear has ever heard."

SEFER HAMAASIM (1951) was a collection of 21 short stories, in which Agnon used a technique akin to stream of consciousness. Critics have found from these stories connections to the world of Kafka and noted that Agnon and Kafka actually shared the same cultural background - that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the late 1950s critic Edmund Wilson proposed that Agnon receive the Nobel Prize. In 1962 the city of Jerusalem made him an honorary citizen, and he came to be regarded as an Israeli national institution. Among Agnon's other works is the unfinished SHIRAH (1971), set in the German-Jewish academic community of Jerusalem. Agnon died of a heart attack on February 17, 1970. He was buried on the Mount of Olives.

Selected works:

AGUNOT, 1908 - Forsaken Wifes
HAKHNASATH KALLAH, 1931 - The Bridal Canopy (revised and amplified 1953)
NIDACH, 1931
SIPUR PASHUT, 1935 - A Simple Story (trans. by Hillel Halkin)
The Bridal Suite, 1937
ORE'AH NATA LALUN, 1938-39 - A Guest for the Night
YAMIM NORA'IM. 1938 - Days of Awe
SHEVU'AT EMUNIUM, 1943 - in Finnish: Uskollisuuden vala
TEMOL SHILSHOM, 1945 - The Day Before Yesterday
In The Heart of the Seas, 1948
Days of Awe, 1948
KOL SIPURAV SHEL SH. Y. AGNON, 1931-62 (collected works in 11 vol.)
Two Tales, 1966
Twenty-One Stories, 1970
Selected Stories of S.Y. Agnon, 1970
SHIRAH, 1971 - Shira (trans. by Zeva Shapiro)
A Dwelling Place of My People, 1983
A Book That Was Lost: And Other Stories, 1995
Agnon's Alef Bet: Poems, 1998 (trans. by Robert Friend, illustrations by Arieh Zeldich

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