Jun 172014

Sure, it’s been a month since my last installment, but in the interim, I’ve noticed a lot of new and random search hits from people searching for English translations of “Tehilla,” which I assume means it was assigned somewhere, and there are a lot of people looking to escape the trouble of actually, y’know, reading a Hebrew text for their Hebrew class. And fuck that, I say. Do your homework. Learn some words. I recommend the dictionary. I’d hardly even call it one of Agnon’s harder texts. Anyway, I feel an appropriate amount of time has passed, so here’s some more as we approach the denouement:


I dipped the quill into the ink and readied the paper and waited for Tehilla to tell me what to write. She was wrapped in her thoughts and paid me no mind. I sat and peered at her and took in my with eyes every wrinkle and crevice in her face. How many adventures she’d had. She often said she’d seen good things and things even better. As I heard it, the things weren’t so good. As the scholar had said about her, the righteous bear their their sorrow in their hearts and their joy on their faces. She took notice of me and turned her head towards me and said, have you begun? I said, you still haven’t told me what I should write. She said, the way things should start you already know, you start with the praises of the Omnipresent and you write “be-ezras Hashem yisbareikh.” I smoothed the paper and raised the quill and wrote “be-ezras Hashem yisbareikh.” She straightened herself and looked at the text and said, lovely, lovely. And now what should you write? Write here the Holy City Jersalem may it be rebuilt and restored speedily and in our days, amen. When I’m speaking, I say Jerusalem without any kind of embellishment. In a letter, though, you need to mention the holiness of Jerusalem and add a request that she be rebuilt, so the reader might take Jerusalem to heart and know how much she’s in need of mercy and pray for her. Now, my son, write the date and the weekly parshah and the year.

After I’d written the date, she went on and said, now, my son, raise your hand and write write a prominent lamed — have you written? I showed her how it had come out. You couldn’t say it wasn’t fitting. But at any rate, you could say one could emphasize its serif. Now, my son, add to it a kaf, and after the kaf write a beit, and then a vav. A vav I’ve said, and now comes the dalet. Show me how the word “likhvod” came out. Wonderful, wonderful. Now write, “the famed rabbi.” What, you’ve already written it? Your hand is faster than my thoughts. By the time I’ve organized my thoughts you’ve already committed them to paper. Your father, may G-d shine his light upon his peace, didn’t waste a penny on your education. Forgive me, my son, I find myself tired. We’ll defer the writing of the letter to another day. When might you be able to come? I said to her, tomorrow? — Tomorrow? You want to come tomorrow? What day is tomorrow? Rosh Chodesh eve. Rosh Chodesh eve is perfect for the task. And so if tomorrow, then tomorrow.

I saw that a gloom had come over her. I thought in my heart, Rosh Chodesh eve, a day when one adds prayers and supplications, a day when one goes to the grave of Rachel, a day she surely won’t be free to work on her letter. I said to her, if you aren’t free tomorrow, I’ll come another day. — And why not tomorrow? I told her, isn’t tomorrow Rosh Chodesh? She said, my son, you’ve reminded me of my sorrows, tomorrow’s Rosh Chodesh and I can’t go to visit Rachel our mother. — Why? — Why? Because my legs won’t bear me. I said, aren’t there carriages, aren’t there buses? Tehilla said, when I came to Jerusalem, there weren’t any busing, nor carriages, and we would go on foot. And since I’ve been used all my days to go on foot, there’s no point in changing my ways. What did you say, you said you’d come tomorrow. If Hashem wants to fulfill my desires, he’ll keep my soul going another day. I took my leave and went and returned in the morning.

I don’t know if I needed to hurry to get there. It seems that even if I’d delayed the matter she might have found a way to extend her days.

When I came in I saw that some change had come over her. Every day her face shone, and this day it shone double. And as it was with her face, so too it was with her room. The floor tiles were gleaming, and so too were her housewares. And a white sheet was spread over her tiny bed off to the side, and the walls were plastered in blue plaster, and upon the table stood the pitcher covered in paper and sealing wax and a candle laid beside it. When had she plastered the walls and when had she rinsed the floor and when had she polished her housewares? If angels hadn’t done it, she’d worked the whole night through.

She raised herself up with a certain heaviness and said in a whisper, how wonderful you’ve come. I was thinking you’d perhaps forgotten and wanted to go about my business. I said, if you need to go, go, and I’ll come back afterwards. She said, I needed to go validate the contract, but since you’ve come, sit down and we’ll write and after that I’ll go tend to the contract.

She stood and set the letter before me and brought the ink and quill. I took up the quill and dipped it in the ink and waited for her to tell me what to write. She said, are you ready? I am too. And when she said “I’m ready” her face lit up with the radiance of blessing and sweet laughter ringed her lips. I dipped the quill once again and gazed at her. She took notice and said, where did we end, for the famed rabbi, et cetera. Now write his name. I dipped the quill once more and waited for her to tell me the name. She whispered, Shraga is his name. Have you written it? I had. She pressed her eyelids together as if drowsy. Afterwards she stood up from her chair and peered at the writing and whispered again, Shraga is his name, Shraga is his name. She returned to her seat and fell silent. Finally she stirred and said, I’ll tell you soon what to write. She paused for a time and pressed her eyelids together and said, I see that I’ll need to tell the whole affair from the beginning, so in the process you’ll gain an understanding of things and know what to write. A long-ago affair it was, something that happened a great many years ago. Three years and ninety years ago. She took up her cane and leaned her head against it. Then she raised her head and gazed out for a short time as if dazed. Like someone who imagined himself sitting alone and looked up to find a strange man. All her serenity fled her and her face took on a mantle of sorrow and wrath. She poked about with the cane and laid it down and picked it up again and propped herself upon it and passed her hand over her brow, spreading out its wrinkles. She said again, if I tell the whole story it should make the writing easier on you. His name you’ve already written. His name is Shraga. Now I’ll tell you the whole thing from the beginning.

She raised her eyes and looked to and fro. Seeing there was no one to hear besides us, she began and said, I was about eleven years old at this point. And how do I know how old I was? Because father, may his memory be for a blessing, would write in his chumash every child born to him, and even the births of daughters he would record. Take the chumash and see for yourself. When I came up to Jerusalem my brothers, peace be upon them, left behind father’s chumash and gave it to me. What am I saying, ancient things they are. Things that happened ninety and three years ago. But I remember them well. I’ll tell and you’ll understand piece by piece. If you’ll listen I’ll tell you. I nodded my head to her and said, tell me.

She said again, I was about eleven years old. One night after the evening prayer, father, peace be upon him, came back from the synagogue with some of our relatives, and among them was Petachyah Mordechai, Shraga’s father. As they came in, mother, peace be upon her, called to me and told me to wash my face and put on my Shabbos dress, and she too put on her Shabbos dress and tied a silk scarf around her head and took me by the hands and came in with me to the main room where father and his guests awaited. Shraga’s father looked me over and said, not an unlovely girl. Father caressed my cheeks and said, Tehilla, do you know with whom you’re speaking? You’re speaking with your groom’s father. Mazal tov, my daughter, as of tonight you’re engaged and to be a bride. Immediately all the guests blessed me mazal tov and called me “bride.” Mother took hold of me and took me back to her room to ward off the evil eye and kissed me and said, from hereon you’re Shraga’s fiancée, and G-d willing, in another year, when the groom reaches the age when he lays tefillin, we’ll have your chuppah.

I knew Shraga, since we’d used to play marbles and hide-and-seek, until he’d grown older and started to learn Gemara. After we were engaged, I would see him every Shabbos, as he’d come to my father and review with him all he’d learned during the week, and mother would give me sweets and I’d bring them out, and father would caress my cheeks and smile brightly at my intended.

  One Response to “S.Y. Agnon, “Tehilla,” Part 7”

  1. Just for the record, I did read Tehilla in the original Hebrew in college. Obviously there was no internet then, and we did all our studying the ‘hard’ way. I have been living in Israel for over 40 years [yikes!] and have been doing charity work for the past 20. I kept thinking of how literature has affected my life and wanted to re-read Tehilla, but this time, in my native English ( I do read Hebrew but not as efficiently as I used to…). You can’t imagine how excited I was to find your translation [so far] tonight! Thank you!

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