Apr 192014

Chapter two of “Agunot,” as promised. You can find chapter one here.

Ben-Uri stands facing the ark and gazes at the work of his hands. Could it be just an ark? Why, it was a heart, it was a soul. A great soul trembles within. And this soul is none other than his own, of the artist himself, which he’d placed in his hands and cast into his work. How could others understand that?…and whether they did or not, the matter no longer concerned him. He had done his part with all that was in his strength and the recesses of his heart. The inner reaches of his soul drew him up and cast him back into the world — and there he stands like a vessel poured out…

Download chapter two here (PDF).

  2 Responses to “S. Y. Agnon, “Agunot,” Chapter 2”

  1. I’m loving this series!
    This sentence jumped out at me: “In no country, in no city and in no work he had ever done had he felt a feeling like the one he felt now here in the place where the Shekhina was both revealed and exiled, for all our many sins…and the task was complete!”

    I know little about Agnon but to me this is saying something about the potential of creative production in the Land vs. Diaspora. Thoughts?

    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Noam,


    Well, actually, since it’s Agnon, it’s a bit more complicated…you read my essay on Agnon, so you know some of this already. Agnon, as far as anyone can tell since he played his actual opinions so close to the vest, was a committed Zionist who truly believed that rebuilding the land was necessary for rebuilding the people, and also believed that cultural life in the Diaspora, flourishing though it was at the outset of his career, was at best stagnant, at worst doomed (although it’s worth noting that while he was among the first wave of the second aliyah, he left in fairly short order for a very long stint in Berlin, where with Schocken as his patron he produced much of his most significant work).

    The best thing to read for a more mature Agnon’s take on the dynamic is Temol Shilshom, the Great Jerusalem Novel, which is quite lengthy and in some ways a hyper-modernist novel before its time (much of the story is told through the eyes of a dog who, well, I’ll try not to spoil, is rapidly losing his grip on reality). I’m sure you can manage it in Hebrew, you’d probably get more out of the Hebrew than I did since you’re much better than I at picking up Talmudic and Biblical allusions, although there’s also a fairly decent English translation by the Harshavs (“Only Yesterday”). A lot of Agnon’s stories take place either in a fictional version of his hometown or in Palestine, and the main characters tend to be, to varying degrees, versions of himself (Ben-Uri is sort of his stand-in in “Agunot,” although that story being constructed as sort of a dreamy fable, it’s a bit more nebulous). And what’s implicitly stated in “Agunot” and more emphatically stated in Temol Shilshom is that what’s on Agnon’s mind is not creative production in the Land vs. Diaspora per se, but in the Land vs. Jerusalem, which he conceives, not without justification, as a sort of hyper-Diaspora.

    It’s important to note that not only was Agnon there to see this firsthand as a young man, but he was essentially right – the Zionist experiment was flourishing in Jaffa and then in Tel Aviv and in the agricultural settlements. Jerusalem was considered a backwater by just about everyone (the Zionist immigrants, the Palestinians, the Turkish authorities), and the Jewish community there was, for the most part, some combination of elderly, fiercely religious and viciously opposed to Zionism. As a corollary, that’s one of the reasons Ben-Yehuda gets far, far too much credit for “the revival of the Hebrew language” (it should be called a “revernacularization,” but that’s another rant) – he removed himself to Jerusalem, which to the Zionists in Gush Dan and the Galilee may as well have been Mars. The “revival” really happened in Jaffa/TLV and especially in the insular farming communities, which is where committed Zionists were most highly concentrated (and having children), and they weren’t reading Ben-Yehuda’s newsletters (they had no interest in anything coming from Jerusalem, which was perceived as, well, everything the secular Zionists were trying to get away from). There’s a great book (a collection of two very lengthy essays) called Language in the Time of Revolution by (there he is again) Benjamin Harshav, and the second essay goes into great detail about how the Hebrew revival actually took place. Agnon’s stand-in in Temol Shilshom, Yitzchak Kumer, starts his journey in Jaffa, and when he realizes he’s not suited for farming, falls into a career as a house painter, in which he’s actually quite satisfied – what Agnon seems to be saying is that even someone of limited talents like Yitzchak can find creative fulfillment (Yitzchak really enjoys painting houses, and he’s good at it) just by being part of the national redemption, just by being in the right place at the right time. The problems start when Yitzchak, who’s something of a spiritual seeker, heads off to Jerusalem, and everything slowly falls apart – because he’s removed himself from the national redemption and put himself, for all intents and purposes, back into Diaspora (except it’s even worse than Diaspora, because it’s Jerusalem).

    But to tie it back to “Agunot” – of course, “Agunot” isn’t precisely realistic, and if pressed at best you can say that it takes place “at some point during the Old Yishuv,” but really it’s timeless – we see, as you have said, that the Land allows for creative production, in fact the most fruitful creative production, as in the supernaturally prodigious works of Ben-Uri, but Jerusalem and the Diasporic spirit it represents stymie that potential at every turn. There is no place for the artist (that is, Agnon and his ilk) in either Jerusalem or, by extension, within religious Judaism in its then-present form – the struggle of Agnon, of course, is that he disagrees, and believes that the artist’s spirit and his faith can be reconciled (it’s not a coincidence he names the artist in Agunot after Betzalel ben-Uri – how much text does the Torah lovingly devote to exactly how that ben-Uri carried out his creative task?). For Agnon, Judaism has always had a place for the artist, but contemporary Judaism has turned cancerous and stymied the potential for art (or love, or earthly progress, which are also themes in “Agunot”) in favor of rote learning and excess piety and patiently waiting for the Messiah while everything crumbles. What frustrates Agnon as well is that, that being the case, his place as an artist is among the Zionists, but they are openly scornful of Judaism (as opposed to Jewishness) and want to dispose of it entirely, and Agnon has no interest in that (in fact, he views it as a tragedy – it’s hard to tell how religious Agnon was, but one can at least confidently say that he had a great deal of affection for traditional Judaism). It’s a rock and a hard place he finds himself between again and again in his stories, and it’s impressive that it’s a quandary so eloquently expressed in his first major story, which after all he wrote as a teenager.

    If you don’t want to tackle Temol Shilshom right now (and tackle really is the right word) and want a further introduction to Agnon, might I recommend a lovely little novella called Sippur Pashut? It’s one of the “hometown” stories, and it deals with another one of Agnon’s obsessions (which also crops up, as mentioned, in “Agunot”), which is love vs. tradition (and Agnon being Agnon, it’s hard to tell which side he ultimately comes down on). The Hebrew version is in the collection `Al Kapot ha-Man`ul, and there’s an able English translation (“A Simple Story”) by Hillel Halkin, although with Agnon it always pays to read the Hebrew if you can. For what it’s worth, you can almost always find older editions of Agnon’s works on eBay usually for no more than a few dollars.

    Anyway, I’m very glad someone’s getting something out of this. Stay tuned!

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