Perhaps no other author has had as much influence on Israel as writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the Jewish State’s first Nobel Prize winner.
Israel was only 18-years-old when, in 1966, the diminutive Agnon, well into his 70s, won literature’s highest honor. For a country in its infancy, soon to become embroiled in the Six-Day War, Agnon’s award was more than a personal victory. It was a triumph for the revived Hebrew language. The prize gave legitimacy to a young country seeking to establish itself. For many Jews, Agnon did not win as a Jewish author; he won as a Hebrew writer. His award was recognition of Hebrew culture, and by extension the Jewish homeland.
S. Y. Agnon was born into a Yiddish-speaking Orthodox family in a shtetl in Galicia, Eastern Europe, in 1888. At the time, approximately 10 million Jews spoke Yiddish, the lingua franca of the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews, who represented most of world Jewry. Meanwhile, in pre-State Palestine, Zionists—even those born in Europe for whom Yiddish was their mother tongue—resolutely spoke Hebrew as they worked to establish a modern nation with a revived ancient language.
As a young man, Agnon wrote in both Yiddish and Hebrew but after moving to Palestine for the first time in 1908, he wrote exclusively in Hebrew. Words were his tools and Agnon chose to write in an idiosyncratic old-new Hebrew. Drawing on his Orthodox background, he peppered his modern Hebrew with biblical and religious references. Traditionally, Yiddish was the language of the home, with Hebrew reserved for prayer, but through his innovative usage of biblical language Agnon helped to make Hebrew a richer everyday tongue. For Agnon, Hebrew was old and new, religious and political. It was for everything—like any other nation’s language. With his Nobel Prize, Agnon established Hebrew as a legitimate language for modern literature.
Israel’s only Nobel laureate for literature not only chose his words carefully; he also chose his name. Born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes, he changed his name to Agnon, which he took from the title of his first published work, “Agunot.” In this way, Agnon existed in his work. His writing didn’t just give him his identity; it named him. Agunot, which means “the chained,” is a term for women whose husbands have not granted them a divorce. As such, they are tied to a marriage that no longer exists. They are in limbo: no longer married in any meaningful way but not free to remarry. Agunot are stateless, like Jews before the establishment of Israel, and devoid of autonomy. They exist in an in-between world.
Agnon could himself be counted among the agunot: he was simultaneously between worlds—between Europe and Israel, tradition and modernity, piety and progress. Like the paintings of Chagall, although Agnon’s work is modernist, it is haunted by traditional folk images. For Agnon, modern political Zionism was tied to another, more historic world—and both, together, was Jewish culture.
Saul Bellow, himself a Nobel laureate, writes that “back in the 50s I visited S. Agnon in Jerusalem and as we sat drinking tea, chatting in Yiddish, he asked whether I had been translated into Hebrew. As yet I had not been. He said with lovable slyness that this was most unfortunate. ‘The language of the Diaspora will not last,’ he told me. I then sensed that eternity was looming over me and I was aware of my insignificance. I did not however lose all presence of mind and to feed his wit and keep the conversation going, I asked, ‘What will become of poets like poor Heinrich Heine?’ Agnon answered, ‘He has been beautifully translated into Hebrew and his survival is assured.'”
Bellow notes that while Agnon was joking, he was also half-serious: He believed that for Jewish culture to survive it must do so in Hebrew. Of course, both before and after Agnon, Jewish writers have won Nobel prizes writing in Yiddish, English, German, French, Russian and Hungarian. Yet for a people in Diaspora, while languages may come and go, Hebrew texts endured.
In his acceptance speech to the Nobel Academy, Agnon cited as his influences “the Sacred Scriptures…[and] then the Mishnah and the Talmud and the Midrashim and Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.” Although he also devoured German-language literature, Agnon considered Hebrew texts to have had the most impact on his work. “Why, then, did I list the Jewish books?” he asked, “because it is they that gave me my foundations. And my heart tells me that they are responsible for my being honored with the Nobel Prize.”
Religion was central to Agnon’s Hebrew and, mostly, to his life. Raised Orthodox, he said a religious blessing on hearing he’d been awarded the Nobel prize, which he received wearing a black velvet kippah. Similar to Isaac Kumer, the protagonist of his masterpiece “Only Yesterday,” who was also an early Zionist immigrant to Palestine who moved from orthodox Europe to secular Jaffa to religious Jerusalem, Agnon vacillated between Orthodox observance and secularism. As Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger write in “Jews and Words,” “Agnon acutely felt the brink. ‘I stood at times among the worshippers, at times among those who question.'”
Despite his wavering religious practice, which ended with his return to Orthodox Judaism, Agnon never lost his reverence for religion. He wrote a book, “Days of Awe,” to serve as a companion to the prayer book used during the religious High Holy Days. “For the benefit of those who wish to be informed in the matters of Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur and the Days Between [sic], I have assembled some sayings from the Torah and from the Prophets and from the Writings, from the Talmud Babylonian and Palestinian, from the halakhic Midrash and the aggadic Midrash, and from the Zohar and from other books written by our Early Rabbis and Latter Rabbis, of blessed memory,” he wrote. As it informed his life and work, religion informed his Zionism.
“Always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem,” Agnon said on accepting his Nobel Prize, “If I am proud of anything, it is that I have been granted the privilege of living in the land which God promised our forefathers to give us, as it is written (Ezekiel 37: 25): ‘And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children forever.’”
Although Agnon was a passionate Zionist who described his European birthplace as “one of the cities of the Exile,” his childhood shtetl was the subject of much of his work. While he chose Israel he never relinquished Europe. He remained proud of the Jewish tradition in Europe that, in moving to Palestine, he ostensibly forsook. Despite his Zionism and status among Israel’s cultural founding fathers, Agnon’s work does not sugarcoat the experience of early Zionists. In “Only Yesterday,” Kumer, who as a young idealist immigrated to Palestine expecting a sense of solidarity with his fellow Jews, soon learns how unwelcoming other immigrants could be, and how difficult are the realities of life in Zion.
Agnon embraced contradictions and ambivalence. He accepted his status as one of the “Agunot.” His stories explored the tensions between tradition (European piety) and modernity (the new Jews of the Zionist state). His language blurred the lines between the religious and the vernacular. Agnon blended celebration with solemnity; he saw his dreams of a Jewish State realized but also the destruction of the communities in Europe from which he came. He claimed to have been born on the fast day of Tisha B’Av, itself a bittersweet day. While Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the temples, tragedies that led to Jewish exile, it is also said to be the date on which the Messiah is born.
Agnon trusted his primarily Jewish audience to appreciate the ironies and paradoxes of history and fate. He was himself an example of this paradox. In 1966, Israel was under twenty years old, and reeling from Holocaust. As the first Israeli Nobel Prize winner, Agnon contributed to a change in Israeli self-identity. Yet it’s ironic that he was a poster boy for the new Jews—the Hebrew speakers who built a nation through Jewish labor, in contrast to their European brethren who were purportedly physically weak and disconnected from the land. For Agnon was no manual laborer; he was an intellectual who worked with words rather than his hands.
This, too, is fitting because Agnon helped to define the Jewish State with his words. A complex man whose work defies easy categorization, and who embraced contrast and ambivalence, Agnon shares much with the Israel of 2013, where his writing remains a staple of schools’ curricula. So while Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes died in 1970, the words and language of S.Y. Agnon live on.