To This Day

S.Y. Agnon; Hil­lel Halkin, trans.

  • Review
By – March 5, 2012

When read­ing Agnon one must put aside any tra­di­tion­al ideas of nov­el, plot line, sto­ry telling, or lit­er­ary con­struc­tion. One must also have a good under­stand­ing of Tal­mud, Bible, Jew­ish folk­lore, his­to­ry, and cus­toms. In oth­er words, Agnon is not easy to ready. But, he is well worth the effort and this last nov­el of his is a must read in the Jew­ish canon.

To This Day was first pub­lished in Hebrew in 1951 and only recent­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by long time Agnon trans­la­tor, Hil­lel Halkin. The last of Agnon’s six nov­els to be trans­lat­ed must be read to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the entire body of work of one of the great­est of Jew­ish writ­ers. A slim book, but filled with metaphor, humor, and human dra­ma, it tells the sto­ry of Shmuel Yosef, strand­ed in Ger­many dur­ing the first World War. He suf­fers the depri­va­tions of war time like his fel­low Jews and Ger­man cit­i­zens, and wan­ders about the streets of Berlin in search of a prop­er apart­ment that will fit his par­tic­u­lar needs as a writer.

What may seem a humor­ous and some­times frus­trat­ing jour­ney to find the per­fect apart­ment is in real­i­ty a metaphor for the home­less Jew seek­ing a place to call his own in a world that is not all that wel­com­ing and often times hos­tile. Agnon writes a Tal­mu­dic nov­el,” in that there is a cen­tral point around which are told many sto­ries and fables that cir­cle round and round and may or may not come back to the orig­i­nal point of the sto­ry. Some­times one is left won­der­ing if the inci­dent described real­ly hap­pened in the sto­ry or if it is a device to elab­o­rate one of his many famil­iar themes of exile, faith, and God’s prov­i­dence. The book can be read quick­ly, but it will not be quick­ly forgotten.

On Decem­ber 10, 1966 Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the first, and to this date, the only Israeli, received the Noble Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. He thanked the Swedish Acad­e­my and then began his talk by speak­ing of the destruc­tion of Jerusalem by Titus of Rome in the 1st cen­tu­ry of the Com­mon Era and the exile of the Jews. He described him­self as being born in a city of Exile and to him came a dream or vision that he was stand­ing with the Levites in the Holy Tem­ple singing the Psalms of King David. But in the wak­ing world he was unable to sing the Holy Tem­ple melodies and the Angels allowed him to sing his melodies in his writ­ing of stories.

These self rev­e­la­to­ry remarks sum up the true essence of the writ­ings of Agnon, whether in his short sto­ries or nov­els. His writ­ings are rem­i­nis­cent of a lit­er­ary Cha­gall. They por­tray a life in a world that no longer exists but yet exists in a dream-like state, nei­ther real nor imag­i­nary, but some­where in between.

Agnon’s name is an illu­sion as well, being born Shmuel Yosef Cza­czkes in 1888 in the East­ern Gali­cian town of Bucza­cz, which at the time was part of the Aus­tro Hun­gar­i­an Empire. He was edu­cat­ed in the world of Hasidic tra­di­tions by his father and pri­vate tutors, learn­ing the Tal­mud and its Aggadic sto­ries that were to have a strong influ­ence in his writ­ings. Young Shmuel was also influ­enced by his mother’s fam­i­ly, which was steeped in the learn­ings of the Mit­nagdim, as well as Ger­man sto­ries and fables his moth­er taught him. Lat­er, as a young man liv­ing in Ger­many, he would read wide­ly in Ger­man and French lit­er­a­ture. While he would dis­avow that these lat­er read­ings had influ­ence upon his work, it is often said that his writ­ings bear some resem­blance to mod­ern Ger­man lit­er­a­ture. Agnon him­self would say that his writ­ings were most influ­enced by Sacred Scrip­tures, Torah, as well as the Mish­nah and Talmud.

He renamed him­self Agnon around 1908 as his writ­ing became more pro­lif­ic, and took his sur­name from the Hebrew word agu­nah. Agu­nah means a woman who is not free to mar­ry because her hus­band has refused her a divorce by either leav­ing or aban­don­ing her. Much has been made of why Agnon chose this par­tic­u­lar name for him­self and one won­ders if it is not an allu­sion to the deser­tion of Israel by God. The metaphor as por­trayed in the Torah per­tains to when Israel has strayed and God laments Her way­ward­ness. In His lament, God turns His face from Israel, leav­ing her aban­doned and belong­ing to no one.

Agnon mourned and yearned for a world of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ry that was dis­ap­pear­ing, first by the assim­i­la­tion of Ger­man Jews into a sec­u­lar cul­ture, and final­ly, by the approach­ing and final hor­ror of the Holo­caust. In 1907 Agnon left Bucza­cz for Israel in the Sec­ond Aliyah, and while he loved Eretz Israel, he was not pre­pared for the pio­neer life of the ear­ly set­tlers. In 1913 he went to Ger­many and lived there until 1924, becom­ing an ardent Zion­ist, and formed impor­tant and life­long friend­ships with the pub­lish­er Salman Schock­en and Mar­tin Buber, the great Jew­ish philoso­pher. Dur­ing this peri­od he mar­ried Esther Marx, who was born into a promi­nent Ger­man- Jew­ish fam­i­ly of intel­lec­tu­als and Zion­ists. Togeth­er they had two chil­dren, a son and a daughter.

In 1924 Agnon’s library of Hebrew books and many of his writ­ings were destroyed in a mys­te­ri­ous fire. Once again Agnon, with his fam­i­ly, returned to Israel (then Pales­tine) where he remained until his death in 1970. Dur­ing his years of wan­der­ing from Bucza­cz to Israel to Ger­many, and back to Israel, Agnon had giv­en up the Ortho­dox lifestyle of his ear­ly years and immersed him­self in a Jew­ish sec­u­lar cul­ture. After the dev­as­tat­ing loss of his library and return to Israel, he took up tra­di­tion­al reli­gious prac­tices again. In an inter­view Agnon gave he said that the loss of his library was God’s pun­ish­ment for leav­ing Israel and set­tling in Germany.

While many of his writ­ings were destroyed we have left hun­dreds of short sto­ries and his mas­ter­piece nov­el, Only Yes­ter­day. Like Agnon’s life they tell sto­ries of wan­der­ing, loss, and mourn­ing for a world that no longer exists. The sim­ple sto­ries of his writ­ing hide deep­er, more c o m p l e x themes of the nature of man’s exis­tence and the rela­tion­ship of him­self to the greater Being of cre­ation. They are often auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal mus­ings reflect­ing Agnon’s per­son­al search for con­nec­tion to God and man in a world that is often cru­el, strange, and mirac­u­lous. The Nobel Prize was award­ed for the rich­ness and intel­lec­tu­al depth of Agnon’s writ­ing, as well as the recog­ni­tion that he had been a leader in bring­ing Israeli lit­er­a­ture the matu­ri­ty and recog­ni­tion it deserved.
Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

Discussion Questions