Jewish Studies Shmuel Yosef Agnon
by
Roman Katsman, Benjamin Frankel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0180

Introduction

On August 8, 1887, Shmuel Yosef was born in Buchach, Galicia (today located in Ukraine) to Shalom Mordechai and Esther Czaczkes, the family being a traditional, religious observant Jewish family. Agnon learnt in a “cheder,” and received a traditional Jewish education within the community, and in a more extensive and comprehensive way in personal learning with his father. From a young age, he read classics in German and Hebrew works written during the Haskalah period. He began by writing poetry and prose in Hebrew and Yiddish and, at a more mature age, moved on to writing prose primarily in Hebrew. At the age of twenty-one he immigrated to pre-state Israel, living in Jaffa while leading a secular lifestyle. There he published in 1908 his story “Agunot” (Grass widows), which he signed with his new name Agnon. Four years later the story “Vehaya ha’akov lemishor” (And the crooked shall be made straight) was at first serialized (1912) and later on published as a novella. In 1912, Agnon moved to Berlin. During this time he stayed in the town Bad-Birkenau with Bialik, with whom he had spent time in pre-state Israel in 1909. In Germany he met Gershom Scholem, who became his close friend and translated some of his stories into German, and in 1915 he met his future patron Shlomo Zalman Schocken, who would later publish his stories in Ha’aretz, the newspaper he owned, and as separate editions. In 1919, Agnon met Esther Marx, and they married in 1920; their two children—Emunah and Hemdat—were born in Germany. Agnon’s book of stories Al kapot ha-man’ul (At the handles of the lock) was published in 1922. In a fire that broke out in his home in 1924, his large personal library was destroyed, including the manuscript of his novel Bi-tzror ha-chayim (In the bundle of the living) as well as a collection of Chasidic tales he had edited in collaboration with Martin Buber. This setback led to Agnon’s return to pre-state Israel. While residing in Jerusalem he returned to a religious lifestyle. In 1925, his book Polin: Sipurei agadot (Poland: Fairy-tale stories) was published. In 1927, his home was damaged in an earthquake, and in the 1929 riots, a large part of the house was destroyed. In 1930, after a visit to Leipzig in connection with the publication of his books, Agnon paid a visit to his birthplace (the novel Oreakh nata lalun [A guest for the night], first printed in installments and coming out as a book in 1939, was based on this visit). In 1931, the novel Hakhnasat kala (Bridal canopy) and the cycle of stories Sefer hama’asim (The book of deeds) were published, that year also marked the first publication of a complete edition of all of his stories, published by Schocken in Berlin, in four volumes. In 1937, two anthologies prepared by Agnon were published. The first, Yamim nora’im (High holidays), contained excerpts from the Bible, midrashim, customs, acts of sages, and Chasidic tales about the High Holidays. The second, Sefer, sofer ve-sipur (Book, writer, and story), dedicated to Schocken, contained various texts from Jewish sources dealing with the creation narrative, the writing methods and authorship, the traditions of formation and transmission of the Jewish religious writings. The collection Elu ve-elu (Of such and of such) was published in 1941, and in 1945 the novel Tmol shilshom (Only yesterday) came out. Publication of the novel Shira began in 1949, but Agnon never completed it. In the 1950s, the collections Samukh ve-nire (Adjacent and visible; 1951) and Ad hena (Thus far; 1953) were published. At the same time, Agnon wrote the stories for the collections Ir u-mloa (A city in its fullness; printed posthumously in 1973) and Korot bateinu (Chronicle of Our Houses; publication began in 1947 but was printed in its entirety in 1979, after Agnon’s death), which were both about Jewish communities in Europe demolished during the Holocaust. In 1953, the second edition of the Complete Works was published by Schocken, this time in seven volumes, which won Agnon the Israel Prize of Literature in 1954. In 1959, the anthology Atem re’item (Present at Sinai) was published, and Agnon’s writings were sold in unprecedented numbers. The last book published during his lifetime, Ha’esh ve-ha-etzim (The Fire and Woods), came out in 1962. In 1966, Agnon won the Nobel Prize for literature (which he shared with Nelly Sachs, a German-Swedish poetess of Jewish origin), “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.” A year later, in 1967, a new edition of Complete Works came out. Agnon continued to edit and proofread his writing until he passed away on February 17, 1970. He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. After Agnon’s death, his daughter Emunah Yaron-Agnon (along with her husband Chaim Yaron) took upon herself the task of the publication of all his previously published works in a new edition. In addition, she adapted and prepared for print books from Agnon’s literary estate: entire novels—Shira (1971) and Be-chanuto shel mar Lubli (In Mr. Lublin’s store; 1975); correspondence with his wife—Esterlein yekirati (My dear Esterlein; 1983); with his patron—S. Y. Agnon—S. Z. Schocken (1991); with various persons—Mesod chakhamim (Counsel of sages; 2002); collections of his work—Yiddishe varen, early works in Yiddish (1976); Lifanim min ha-chomah (In the walls; 1976); Pitchei devarim (Forewords;1977); Takhrich shel sipurim (A bundle of stories; 1984); Sipurei ha-Besht (The Stories of Baal Shem Tov; 1987); and others—Sefer ha-otiot (The book of letters; 1983) and Mi-atzmi el atzmi (From myself to myself; 1976). Agnon’s archive contains thousands of pages (fragments of unpublished literary works, drafts, letters, photographs, and various documents) written in his handwriting. It was classified and codified by Rafael Weiser, the founder of this archive, and treasured in the Department of Manuscripts and Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. The Agnon House in Jerusalem has collected a big number of studies in Agnon, and they are available online on its website.

Biography

A classic philological approach gives rise to a comprehensive concept, which aspires to arrive at a general, comparative examination of the entire corpus of Agnon’s work, including its various versions and editions (Sadan 1978). Isaac Bakon examines Agnon’s early writings in Galicia and Pre-state Israel, follows his first publications (at the age of fifteen–sixteen), their nature and the public’s influence on Agnon (Bakon 1989). Haim Be’er discussed the relationships between Agnon and Bialik and Brenner (Be'er 1993). Ziva Shamir wrote on Agnon’s relationships with Bialik in the early periods in pre-state Israel and in Bad-Birkenau in Germany (Shamir 2017). Dan Laor casts a light on various stages in Agnon’s life based on personal and social contexts, such as his relationships with his patron, Schoken, the partnership with Buber for a project of conserving Hasidism, and abolishing the project (Laor 1995). Laor’s book S. Y. Agnon: A Biography is, for today, the most comprehensive biography of the writer (Laor 1998).

  • Bakon, Yitzhak. Agnon ha-tsa’ir. Beer-Sheva, Israel: Ben-Gurion University Press, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    English translation: “The young Agnon.” Agnon, while receiving a traditional Jewish education, began writing from an early age. He was tutored by family members and spiritual teachers (Brenner, Bialik, and others), while also spending time within Jewish literary circles (Lemberg, Vienna, and others). Bakon characterizes Agnon’s early work through its variety of possibilities: Yiddish and Hebrew writings dealing with a wide variety of genres.

  • Be'er, Haim. Gam Ahavatam Gam Sinatam - Bialik, Brenner, Agnon. Ma`arakhot Yahasim. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    English translation: “Their Love and Their Hate: Bialik, Brenner, Agnon, Relationships.” The relationships of three of the greatest writers in Modern Hebrew literature are examined in Haim Be'er's book through meetings, dialogues, letters, references and literary insinuations. Be’er examines the age difference between the three, the public position, their polemics, the attitude toward public figures and other cultural figures, and more.

  • Laor, Dan. S. Y. Agnon: Hebetim khadashim. Tel-Aviv: Sifriiat poalim, 1995.

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    English translation: “S. Y. Agnon: New perspectives.” Laor looks at various events that influenced the editing of Agnon’s work, those being, such as the Holocaust (its mention in writings displaying personal and theological difficulties), polemics in the Zionist movement, and others. He analyzes A Guest for the Night against the backdrop of Agnon’s visit to Poland in 1930 and relates to the presence of Agnon and his work among young Hebrew writers prior to the Holocaust.

  • Laor, Dan. Hayey Agnon. Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    English translation: “Agnon: A biography.” After perusing Agnon’s archives and his correspondences, reading studies about his work, visiting the places where he had spent time and interviewing people he had met, Dan Laor wrote Agnon’s biography, with an emphasis on his writings and the events that occurred at the time of their publication.

  • Sadan, Dov. Massot u-ma’amarim ‘al S. Y. Agnon. Tel Aviv: Hakibutz hameukhad, 1978.

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    English translation: “Essays and articles on Agnon.” Sadan examines the nature of Agnon’s prose in the context of Hebrew literature. From Agnon’s stories he gathers a primary model for his literary protagonist and his characteristics. Sadan explains the importance of reading all of his writings while comparing the versions and editions to establish a whole concept, illustrating this with the aid of the motif of a kerchief that recurs in several stories, as well as with characters from one story mentioned in another.

  • Shamir, Ziva. Me-ohev le-oyev. Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibbutz Hameuhad, 2017.

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    English translation: “From friend to foe: Agnon and Bialik: A story of an unpaid debt.” Shamir raises a variety of suppositions regarding the change in Agnon’s attitude toward Bialik—from his friend to his enemy: beginning with differences in temperament and character, through Agnon’s social connections (the desire to belong to a group of young writers, that included Shlonsky, and to sever his ties with Bialik’s older bourgeoisie), culminating in oedipal patricide. Shamir argues that Bialik was Agnon’s tutor and was believed to have been an influence on him, while Agnon strove to cast off the image of an attendant.

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