1. Agnon’s Autobiographical Creation of his Persona
Agnon constructed a unique persona, built upon myths that root him in Jewish history and simultaneously nuance tradition in modernity. Agnon shaped his understanding of the writer’s role in the Jewish and wider world by embedding hints of autobiographical elements in his stories. The author portrayed himself with myths about his origins, name, and journey in order to construct his persona and comment on Judaism and reality through satire, irony, and allusion. S.Y. Agnon was raised in Galicia, where he was engulfed in both traditional and secular learning. He journeyed to the Land of Israel in his young adulthood, soon left the Holy Land for Germany, and finally returned to settle in Jerusalem. In his incorporation of autobiographical echoes in his work, Agnon’s writer persona emerged through parallels to the various stages of his life. His writing about childhood, the state of the lost artist in the Land of Israel, and the memorial of Eastern European Jewry after the Holocaust framed the self-portrayal of Agnon’s character. An examination of these themes will reveal insight into Agnon’s identity as a writer.
The story The Kerchief suggests parallels to Agnon’s childhood. The narrator is in fact an adult, as is evident in his frequent interjections blessing his parents’ memory, but the perspective of the unfolding events is one of a child. In this double-framed narration, the reader senses juxtaposition between the boy’s innocent naivety and the retrospective awareness of reality’s hypocrisies. The Kerchief presents Jewish tradition as an instrument of purity and holiness in the home.
The child’s sense of the power of ritual to transform his parents and home is complicated by the reader’s suspicion about his young ignorance. While readers become enveloped in the boy’s world of spiritual intensity, his sweet naivety taints his credibility. The child’s adoration for his father, a sentiment expressed by Agnon himself, pervades the first half of The Kerchief. The clear naivety in this admiration, in lines such as, displays Agnon’s commentary about the naivety of hope for redemption, since the boy invests so much desire for the Messiah’s arrival (11). In this ironic parallel to his own childhood, Agnon embeds elevated spiritual tradition with a claim about the incurability of worldly suffering.
Agnon’s self portrait is obvious in the story Hill of Sand, starring a young writer in Yaffo, where Agnon first lived before his emotional decision to leave the Land of Israel for Germany. Hemdat’s artistic dreams and expectations are contrasted with his inability to write and engage in successful relationships. Hemdat remains a solitary figure, even when he is surrounded by his peers or in a busy market. As a writer struggling to maintain the myth of his self, Hemdat is isolated from the happenings of the Land of Israel despite his locality within them. An example of this marginalization occurs in the description of the founding of Tel Aviv:
The autobiographical elements of Hill of Sand reflect Agnon’s portrayal of himself as a writer who is both engulfed in the traditions and culture of the community and isolated as a solitary artist who struggles to reach his creative potential.
Another stage in Agnon’s life is his return to Israel and his grieving over the tragedies of the Holocaust. The Sign presents intricate autobiographical parallels to Agnon as a settler in Talpiyot and a survivor of his destroyed hometown, Buczacz. The story details the contrast between the creation of the narrator’s new home and neighborhood in the Holy Land and the destruction of a people and culture in Buczacz. The protagonist boasts of his ability to resist mourning on Shavuot, but the reader senses his over-compensation and denial, as eventually the narrator is overcome by the power of memory. In the finale of the story, Ibn Gabirol sanctifies the town of Buczacz with a memorial poem. The protagonist is able to produce a comprehensive restoration of the city with his memory. The narrator reports,
Through the clear parallels between the author and this character, Agnon presents his power as a writer to recreate the lost tradition and community of Eastern European Jewry. The Sign demonstrates Agnon’s personal sense of responsibility to sustain the livelihood of a destroyed society in all of his modern creations, and his role as a writer is to sanctify this loss with artistic works of memorial.
Autobiographical components in the stories of S.Y. Agnon amount to the creation of his calculated persona as a writer with a specific role in Jewish history and modernity.
2. Agnon as a “Revolutionary Traditionalist”
S.Y. Agnon blends together the seemingly opposing themes of tradition and modernity in his work. His writing employs traditional Judaism as a method to expose the innate tragedies of reality, while he simultaneously illustrates the hopelessness of an existence without such tradition. In his stories’ symbolism, narration, and individual conflicts, Agnon exposes the struggle of the modern Jew in the complicated balance between tradition and modernity. An examination of the stories The Tale of the Scribe, The Parable and its Lesson, and A Whole Loaf will uncover Agnon’s meaningful subtleties in his role as a “revolutionary traditionalist.”
The Tale of the Scribe displays a clear idealization of the main character. The scribe’s occupation is a holy calling due to his unmatchable piety and devotion. The story demonstrates how a traditional lifestyle of Jewish piety shapes a person to be admirably pure, humble, and selfless. With the illustration Raphael’s flawless devotion, the reader expects God to grant the scribe and his wife’s desire to have children. But the story’s reality does not conform to this assumption. Is it possible that this ideal couple is not worthy to receive this gift from God? The Tale of the Scribe displays that the couple is not naturally flawed, but that their extreme piety prevents them from ever having children.
Raphael and his wife possess the necessary human qualities of desire and attraction, but their constant fixation on piety suppresses their intimacy. This story demonstrates a common motif in Agnon’s writing, which features the inability to participate in successful relationships. In The Tale of the Scribe, Agnon both idealizes and criticizes Jewish tradition. He shows the deep value of religious morals and customs but also warns that extreme piety is detrimental to one’s natural relationships. As is symbolized by Raphael’s inability to have children, Agnon argues that all-consuming tradition will lead to the downfall of Judaism’s future.
The Parable and its Lesson offers another perspective on Agnon’s confrontation of tradition and modernity. With expressions of pious storytelling, references to rabbinic legends, quotes from Hebrew scripture, and citations from Kabbalistic thought, the story seeks to reconstruct the culture and society of a lost city. Agnon idealizes the shamash as a devout, virtuous man led by tradition and glorifies Buczacz as a Torah-centered community. Readers learn about Agnon’s understanding of our modern relationship with the destroyed traditional world in the end of the novella, when the narrator discusses his motives for recording the tale. The narrator decides to write the shamash’s story as a memorial to the holy community of Buczacz, since the original version in the pinqas burned with the city. By recreating the traditional society of Eastern Europe through his writing, Agnon believes he fulfills his obligation to the memory of this lost Jewish world. But still, the narrator admits that no recreation of Buczacz through a story will ever successfully embody the full reality of the destroyed world.
The Parable and its Lesson makes clear that Buczacz is no longer Buzcacz, even in the writer’s attempt to revive it. In this novella, Agnon argues that stories about the past’s traditional Jewish society are necessary to fix the flaws of modern Judaism. The narrator writes that even the Jews in the holy city of Jerusalem commit the sin of talking during the Torah service today. The Rabbi of the shamash’s story taught the townsfolk through two parables that we are helpless to the evil and tragedies of reality, but we at least can have some control over our fate by minding our words before God. As displayed by their senseless talking, modern Jews continue to live helplessly in the world’s evil. The Parable and its Lesson suggests that today’s Jews must commemorate, revere, and learn from the traditional world that was destroyed in the Holocaust in order to gain some control over the fate of Judaism.
The protagonist of A Whole Loaf personifies Agnon’s conception of the modern Jewish struggle. The character wrestles with the decision about whether to deliver Dr. Ne’eman’s letters to the post office or to satisfy his severe hunger at a local restaurant. The readers experience the protagonist’s contesting inner-dialogue, and his inability to commit to a seemingly mundane decision is both stressful and humorous. Agnon utilizes this inner-conflict to represent a greater problem in modern Judaism. Dr. Ne’eman is the author of a controversial book. Many people claim to have gained spiritual healing from his book, and there is a debate about whether or not it was composed by Dr. Ne’eman or by God in Heaven. With these descriptions, it is evident that Agnon draws a parallel between Dr. Ne’eman’s writing and the Torah. The character is choosing between carrying out a life of Torah and tradition (symbolized by Dr. Ne’eman’s letters) or sustaining his instinctual needs and desires as a human being (symbolized by his hunger).
The character understands these two tasks as exclusive—he must give up one for the other. In the end, he inability to decide leads him to failure, without fulfilling either endeavor.
The symbolism of this conflict claims that a modern Jew cannot completely achieve his human desires due to his religious imagination, but he also cannot fully commit himself to tradition due to his rationality. Just as The Whole Loaf mocks the helplessness of the protagonist in his frustrating inability to decide, Agnon mocks the modern Jew in his failure to make any progress as a result of the separation between tradition and rationality. The Whole Loaf argues that Jews must embrace a balance with both tradition and modernity, since it is impossible to succeed by attempting to choose just one path.
3. Agnon as a Worthy Read
S.Y. Agnon’s work embodies the many tensions within modern Jewish life. His stories allude to the innate contradictions and balances between pietism and rationality, memory and creation, destruction and restoration, the Holy Land and the Diaspora, faith and tragedy, tradition and modernity. Agnon constructs an environment that allows and encourages all of these inner-conflicts to exist and interact simultaneously, within a recognizably Jewish framework. Jews from every place in geography, history, religiosity, and ideology can feel both comforted and confronted by Agnon’s literature. Even in Agnon’s mythical representation of his persona, he connects himself to Jewish history and projects new correlations of old tradition onto today’s reality. He is responsible for raising the esteem of the Modern Hebrew language of the Zionist state, in addition to his memorial preservation of the lost society of traditional Eastern European Jewry prior to the Holocaust. Agnon blends pious storytelling customs and frequent allusions to sacred Jewish texts with influences of modern Western literary tropes.
The author’s signature story, Agunot, portrays Agnon’s creative uniqueness. Agunot was S.Y. Agnon’s first publication in the Land of Israel, and he derived from its title his fabricated name. The Hebrew word agunah is the legal status of a woman whose husband is gone but did not give her a divorce contract, so she is unable to remarry. There is not an official agunah character in this story, but certainly the feelings of being spiritually lost, mismatched, and incomplete are present. By rooting these feelings of disconnection and dissatisfaction in the Jewish legal term agunah, Agnon ties such spiritual confusion to Judaism. With its narrative style, character development, and unsettling plot, Agunot manifests the frictions of modern Judaism that Agnon characteristically exposes and personifies.
Agnon begins the story with the typical rabbinic opening, “It is said,” which automatically asserts the place of Agunot in Jewish holy literature, possessing sanctity and religious importance. The story opens with a mystical allegory, reminiscent of the Song of Songs, that details the loving relationship of God and the people of Israel, featuring imagery of radiant light and the weaving of a tallit. But an innate flaw in the Congregation of Israel abruptly defects this serene relationship, as the midrashic-style opening reads,
With this introduction, Agnon points to an inherent, underlying problem of the Jewish people. The rest of the story features the complex tensions in modern Judaism that constitute this innate fault.
Agunot demonstrates Agnon’s nuanced conception of the relationship between the Holy Land and the Diaspora. Sire Ahiezer personifies the religious and Zionist aims to restore the holy city of Jerusalem.
With the repetition of the word l’taken, Agnon stresses a central idea of this story and many of his other works—the deep-seeded Jewish desire to restore a lost land, culture, and tradition. Despite Ahiezer’s true passion for the Holy Land and what it represents, he turns away from it and toward the Diaspora in search of a match for his daughter. Agunot demonstrates that both an unbreakable connection to the Land of Israel and an irrefutable value of the Diaspora are inherent in today’s Judaism. This innate contradiction of Jewish reality is one of the many revealed by Agunot.
All of Agunot’s characters are filled with longing and desires, none of which are fulfilled. Lovers are incongruous or separated, yet the story features no satisfying conclusion. The characters suffer from disconnectedness and an inability to engage in successful relationships. Ben Uri’s excessive intention for perfection in his holy task to build an ark leaves him feeling empty and lost. Agnon illustrates the inevitable dissatisfaction of the spiritually motivated artist. The mundane matters of the plot are entwined with mystical, dreamy imagery and weighty scriptural allusions. Agunot epitomizes the feeling of unshakable yearning, leading only to a state of discontent and a missing conclusion.
It is this unsettling, contradictory emotion that inspired the author to take on the name Agnon. Burdened by the tensions between an ancient history and a complex participation in modernity, Judaism spans over worlds of old and new, spirituality and rationality, destruction and restoration, assimilation and nationalism. The writing of Agnon is layered in meanings, allusions, and influences; the reader may explore a piece of his work multipl e times and glean new interpretations in each occasion. With his widespread reach into the identities, histories, and difficulties in Judaism, S.Y. Agnon impacts his readers in their understandings of modernity, tradition, and the Jewish future.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Fiction of S.Y. Agnon with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.