Shemu’el Yosef Agnon, Lwów, ca. 1908. ARC. 4° 1270. (Agnon Archive, The Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

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Agnon, Shemu’el Yosef

(1888–1970), Hebrew writer; Nobel laureate in literature. Shemu’el Yosef Agnon (formerly Czaczkes) was born in Buczacz, a small town in eastern Galicia, then under Austro-Hungarian rule. He left his hometown permanently when he was 20, but Buczacz and Galicia had a place in his literary work for the rest of his life. “Although forty years had passed since Dr. Langsam had left his birthplace, he still talked about it all the time,” says Agnon, as if describing himself but referring to one of the characters in his novel Sipur pashut (A Simple Story; 1935).

Agnon grew up in a traditional, middle-class Jewish home, the firstborn of five children. He entered heder at age three, but left it six years later to study with private tutors as well as with his father, a fur merchant who had been ordained as a rabbi. As a youth, Agnon divided his time between the Hasidic kloyz (his father was a follower of the Chortkover rebbe) and the old bet midrash, the stronghold of rabbinical tradition. Though his main training was in religious and traditional texts, at a young age he became interested in the new Hebrew literature and European writing. He also read literature in German with his mother’s help.

Agnon’s first works were published when he was a teenager (1903), and he soon gained a reputation in Galician literary circles, writing short stories and poems in Hebrew and Yiddish that were very much rooted in the social life of his milieu. Some of his prose works were published almost simultaneously in both Hebrew and Yiddish. His works appeared in various journals in Galicia, mainly Ha-Mitspeh and Der yidisher veker. Critics agree that at this stage he was more skilled in Yiddish, in both prose and poetry, than in Hebrew. In 1907, he moved to Lwów, where for a short time he was an assistant to Gershom Bader, the editor of a short-lived Hebrew journal called Ha-‘Et. There he became acquainted with figures in the world of Hebrew in Galicia, among them the writer Gershom Shofman and the Hebraist and educator Eli‘ezer Me’ir Lipschuetz.

Attracted by Zionism, and also threatened by possible recruitment to the Austro-Hungarian army, Agnon left for Palestine. Traveling by way of Lwów, Kraków, and Vienna, he arrived at the port of Jaffa early in June 1908 (during the Second Aliyah). He settled in Neveh Tsedek, a Jewish quarter in Jaffa, abandoned his religious practices, and became an integral part of the newly emerging literary community in Palestine. He made his debut with “‘Agunot” (Abandoned Wives), a painful tale of marriage and divorce, set in Jerusalem. This story was published in Ha-‘Omer in October 1908 under the pseudonym Agnon—later to become his official name. Following its publication, Agnon was recognized as a writer of merit (mainly by Yosef Ḥayim Brenner) and was warmly embraced by the elite of the Yishuv. His prose works—he abandoned poetry altogether—were frequently published in the local weekly Ha-Po‘el ha-tsa‘ir, but also abroad, in Odessa (Ha-Shiloaḥ) and Warsaw (Ha-Tsefirah). After he arrived in Palestine, Agnon wrote only in Hebrew, although Yiddish remained the latent language in much of his writing, particularly in his dialog, which includes expressions in that language.

Some of Agnon’s stories from this period give a picture of his new milieu (“Tishre” [later known as “The Sand Hill”]; 1911), but others were based on themes derived from the Old World he had left behind. His best-known work from that time is the novella Ve-Hayah he-‘akov le-mishor (And the Crooked Shall Become Straight; 1912): drawing on a Hasidic tale, the story takes place in Buczacz and its vicinity, rendering the life and lore of premodern Galicia. In this novella, Agnon alludes extensively to classical Jewish texts, exposing his encyclopedic mastery of these sources, a skill unmatched by any other Hebrew writer of the modern age. His use of this technique became the landmark of his literary style.

In October 1912, Agnon left for Germany, where he remained for more than a decade. He first lived in Berlin with occasional stays in Leipzig, and after the war settled in the Frankfurt area. He was well received by Martin Buber, the intellectual leader of German Zionists, and by members of the Jewish intelligentsia (such as the young Gershom Scholem), who regarded him as an authentic, articulate representative of the traditional culture suppressed by their forefathers. Most of the stories he published in Germany were oriented toward Eastern Europe, depicting the world of Polish Jews in a manner that often echoes Jewish pietistic literature. His most representative work of this period is Ha-Nidah (The Banished One; 1919), a long story focused on the struggle between Hasidism and the Misnagdim in early eighteenth-century Poland. He also edited Das Buch von den Polnischen Juden (The Book of the Polish Jews; 1916) for the Jüdischer Verlag, his employer. Agnon’s works were published in leading Hebrew journals (such as Ha-Tekufah, owned by Avraham Yosef Stybel), and were also widely circulated in German translation (mainly in Buber’s Der Jude).

In Berlin in 1915, Agnon met Zalman Schocken, a businessman and philanthropist who took him under his wing and supported him for the rest of his life. It was mainly through Schocken that Agnon was introduced to the great traditions of German and European literature. In 1920, Agnon married Esther Marx and moved to Bad Homburg, then the location of a vital community of Hebrew writers. Besides publishing his first two collections of short stories with the Jüdischer Verlag, he completed a long epic on Jewish life in Galicia, Bi-Tseror ha-ḥayim (In the Bond of Life), and edited (with Buber) a multivolume anthology of Hasidic literature. Both projects, however, were cut short in June 1924 when a fire destroyed his house, consuming his library and manuscripts. It also brought his German period to its end.

In autumn 1924, Agnon returned to Palestine, chose Jerusalem as his home, and also resumed an Orthodox way of life. In 1931, the newly established Schocken Verlag in Berlin published his collected works in four volumes, including his first novel, which brought him wide recognition as a central figure in modern Hebrew literature. He was acclaimed also for publishing many of his works in papers such as Davar, the labor daily edited by Berl Katsenelson, and later in Ha-Arets, acquired by Schocken in 1937, and edited by his son, Gershom Schocken.

The bulk of Agnon’s literary output was accomplished during the almost five decades in which he lived in Jerusalem: five novels, hundreds of stories, and several anthologies of classical Jewish texts. In this new environment, he confronted the issues of Zionism and the rise of modern Israel, and also directed his attention to the Old Yishuv, populated mainly by pious Jews. Agnon gained great esteem with his publication of Temol shilshom (Only Yesterday; 1945), based on his personal experiences during the time of the Second Aliyah. In this novel, Agnon follows the route of a young émigré on his way from Galicia to Palestine, and there, from Jaffa to Jerusalem, describing the unresolved conflict between his religious and emotional ties with the Diaspora and the challenges of the modern secular society facing him in the new land. In leading his protagonist to a tragic death, Agnon suggests that Zionist ideology offers no easy solution for the modern Jew.

Of particular significance is Agnon’s commitment to his East European milieu, which he cultivated long after leaving Buczacz. Three of his five novels (as well as numerous stories), all written in Palestine, are set in eastern Galicia, providing a rich panorama of the life of Polish Jewry through the centuries: Hakhnasat kalah (The Bridal Canopy; 1931) is a folk epic centered on the adventures of Reb Yudel Ḥasid, a pious Jew of the early nineteenth century, who becomes the nucleus for the representation of premodern Jewish society. This book was followed by Sipur pashut (A Simple Story; 1935), a realistic novel that takes place at the threshold of the twentieth century, depicting the divide occurring in the life of a small-town bourgeois family torn between old beliefs and customs and the spirit of modern times. Agnon’s third novel was Oreaḥ natah la-lun (A Guest for the Night; 1939), hailed by the Nobel committee as his greatest achievement. On the basis of his summer 1930 visit to Poland, which included a one-week stay in Buczacz, he created a novel of consciousness in which the encounter of the “I” with a desolated hometown becomes a symbol of what he envisions as the unavoidable disintegration of the Jewish Diaspora. The deserted bet midrash, which the narrator tries desperately to bring back to life, becomes the novel’s central image, evoking emotions of both nostalgia and nightmare.

Deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, but no less exposed to the challenges of modern life and culture, Agnon’s work represents both worlds and, even more so, the complex and rather traumatic transition of Jews from tradition to modernity. This observation was originally offered by two of his critics, Dov Sadan and Barukh Kurzweil, who vehemently rejected an early perception of Agnon as a pietistic writer locked in the bonds of tradition. Nonetheless, some of his works are indeed a tribute to the ancestral world as it was shaped in the Ashkenazic Diaspora (or, for that matter, in the Old Yishuv) for hundreds of years; but other works bear a modern face, revealing a traumatized Jewish existence caused by social changes, loss of faith, war, and migration. This is particularly exemplified by Sefer ha-ma‘asim (The Book of Tales; 1932–1951), a cycle of experimental stories that transmit a sense of anxiety; the work has often been compared to the writings of Franz Kafka.

In presenting Jewish life, Agnon is immersed in each of three territories and social environments that he had experienced in person—Galicia (Poland), Israel, and Germany, with both Buczacz and Jerusalem often serving as his focal points. As a person of enormous erudition in Jewish sources, to which he constantly refers, but also extremely creative in domesticating foreign influence into his work (mainly Scandinavian, German, and French writers), he managed to create fiction on the level of the best of twentieth-century European literature; nevertheless, his works remain Jewish not only in themes and content, but also in form, style, and technique.

In 1953, all of Agnon’s stories and novels were reedited and partly revised, to be included in an edition of seven volumes, augmented in 1962 by Ha-Esh veha-‘etsim (The Fire and the Wood), an elegiac collection of stories about the old Jewish world that no longer existed, which turned out to be the last of his books to appear in his lifetime. These eight volumes (Kol sipurav shel Shemu’el Yosef ‘Agnon), which became known as Agnon’s canonical edition, was usually distributed together with Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), a treasury of traditions and legends concerning Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between, which first appeared in 1938 and was accepted as a part of his canon. After Agnon’s death, his daughter, Emunah Yaron, published 14 additional volumes of his fiction, essays, anthologies, and personal correspondence (1971–2002). They include his fifth novel, Shirah (1971); a long story about Leipzig during World War I, titled Ba-Ḥanuto shel Mar Lublin (In Mr. Lublin’s Shop; 1974); and a collection of essays and speeches, Me-‘Atsmi el ‘atsmi (From Myself to Myself; 1976).

The largest and most ambitious of Agnon’s post–World War II publications is ‘Ir u-Melo’ah (A City and the Fullness Thereof; 1973), a compendium of epic proportions that includes folktales, legends, chronicles, and other forms of narrative portraying Buczacz. This unique work, written under the impact of the Holocaust, reflects the writer’s overt endeavor in that period “to save for posterity the forms of a life doomed to extinction” (Gershom Scholem, 1976, p. 116). The need to preserve the old forms of Jewish life is well reflected in many of Agnon’s later works, published posthumously, particularly in a series of new or revised collections of Jewish lore, among them the Hasidic anthology Sipure ha-Besht (Tales of the Ba‘al Shem Tov; 1987), a late by-product of a project he and Buber initiated in the 1920s.

From early in his life, Agnon’s work aroused tremendous interest among critics and scholars, generating a large body of literary criticism in Hebrew and other languages (mainly English). He won the Israel Prize twice (1954; 1958), became an honorary citizen of Jerusalem (1962), and was awarded various honorary degrees in Israel and elsewhere. Widely translated (including into English, German, French, and Swedish), Agnon won the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, together with the German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. The Nobel Prize brought him to Stockholm, Paris, London, and New York. Agnon died in Reḥovot and was buried in a state funeral on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. His literary estate and archives were entrusted to the National and Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem; his private home, declared a national monument, attracts thousands of visitors each year. Nearly 40 years after his death, no other writer has yet challenged Agnon’s status as the greatest Hebrew writer of the modern age.

Suggested Reading

Arnold J. Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (Berkeley, 1968); Anne Golomb Hoffman, Between Exile and Return: S. Y. Agnon and the Drama of Writ-ing (Albany, N.Y., 1991); Baruch Kurzweil, Masot ‘al sipure Shai ‘Agnon (Jerusalem, 1963); Dan Laor, “Did Agnon Write about the Holocaust?” Yad Vashem Studies 22 (1992): 17–63; Dan Laor, Ḥaye ‘Agnon (Tel Aviv, 1998); Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman, eds., The Book That Was Lost and Other Stories (New York, 1995), pp. 3–29; Dan Miron, “Domesticating a Foreign Genre: Agnon’s Transactions with the Novel,” Prooftexts 7.1 (1987): 1–28; Dov Sadan, ed., Shmuel Yosef Agnon: Yidishe verk (Jerusalem, 1977); Gershom Scholem, “S. Y. Agnon: The Last Hebrew Classic?” in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J. Dannhauser, pp. 93–116 (New York, 1976); Gershon Shaked, Shmuel Yosef Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (New York, 1989); Shmuel Werses, Relations between Jews and Poles in S. Y. Agnon’s Work (Jerusalem, 1994); Shmuel Werses, “Mishke‘e yidish bi-khetavav ha-‘ivriyim shel ‘Agnon” in Shai ‘Agnon ki-Feshuto, pp. 106–119 (Jerusalem, 2000).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 323, Gershom Bader, Collection, 1884-1953; RG 485, Israel London, Papers, ca. 1947-1964; RG 773, Israel Elfenbein, Papers, 1915-1964.