Shai Agnon: A Mystery Wrapped Up in an Enigma

Truth is sometimes indistinguishable from fiction.

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In his acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in literature, S. Y. Agnon (1888-1970), one of the most prolific and celebrated Hebrew authors of the 20th century, offered some insights into his enigmatic life and work. In his life and work, truth bleeds into fiction, making the two indistinguishable.SY Agnon


From the Pious to the Profane

The writer is known for his short stories, novellas and novels, written in a variety of styles ranging from pious folk tales and gothic romances to psychological dramas. Agnon claimed that his inspirations were "first and foremost the sacred scriptures, and after that, the teachings of the medieval Jewish sages, and the spectacles of nature and the animals of the earth."

This image of himself as a pious and parochial Jew is central to the identity he constructs of himself as the modern Jewish writer. He is able to present himself as the writer of his people by conflating in his fiction aspects of his own biography with the history of the Jewish people.

For instance, he claims that he was born on the Ninth of Av, the date that marks the destruction of both Temples, as well as the alleged date on which the future messiah will be born. Likewise, he links the two times his house burned down, once in Homburg, Germany, in 1924 and the second time in Jerusalem in 1929, with the destruction of the two Temples. He also acknowledges that his first immigration to Israel in 1907 occurred on Lag B'Omer, the day that commemorates Bar Kokhba's rebellion against the Romans in the land of Israel.

The very name "Agnon" is a literary construction intended to tie his fate to that of the Jewish people. Born as Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes, he adopted his surname and nom de plume from his first story published in the Land of Israel entitled "Agunot." The name derives from the status of abandoned women in Jewish law. These women have been abandoned by their legal husbands and left without a writ of divorce. Without this document, these agunot are in a state of limbo, belonging neither to the world of the married or of the single. And as the literal meaning of the name implies, they are chained to this infuriating status.

Trapped Between Worlds, Belonging to Neither

In many ways, Agnon sees himself in a similar position--trapped between different worlds but belonging to neither--and his literature plays on these themes. The sense of longing becomes the impetus and source of Agnon's writing itself, since it is through the very act of writing that Agnon attempts to alleviate the collective desire for fulfillment and the fractured existence of the Jewish people.

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Beverly Bailis is a Revson Fellow and doctoral candidate in modern Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary where she specializes in Hebrew and Yiddish modernism.