Shmuel Yosef Agnon Czaczkes
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Hebrew: שמואל יוסף עגנון, July 17, 1888 - February 17, 1970) was a Nobel Prize laureate writer and was one of the central figures of modern Hebrew fiction. In Hebrew, he is known by the acronym Shai Agnon. In English, his works are published under the name S. Y. Agnon.
Agnon was born in Galicia, later immigrated to the British mandate of Palestine, and died in Jerusalem. His works deal with the conflict between the traditional Jewish life and language and the modern world. They also attempt to recapture the fading traditions of the European shtetl (village). In a wider context, he also contributed to broadening the characteristic conception of the narrator's role in literature. Agnon shared the Nobel Prize with the poet Nelly Sachs in 1966.
Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes in Buczacz, Galicia, now Ukraine. Officially, his date of birth on the Hebrew calendar was 18 Av 5648 (July 26), but he always said his birthday was on the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av. His father, Shalom Mordechai Halevy, was ordained as a rabbi, but worked in the fur trade. He did not attend school and was schooled by his parents.  At the age of eight, he began to write in Hebrew and Yiddish. At the age of 15, he published his first poem - a Yiddish poem about the Kabbalist Joseph della Reina. He continued to write poems and stories in Hebrew and Yiddish, which were published in Galicia.
In 1908, he immigrated to Jaffa. The first story he published there was "Agunot" ("Forsaken Wives"), which appeared that same year in the journal Ha`omer. He used the pen name "Agnon," derived from the title of the story, which he adopted as his official surname in 1924. In 1910, "Forsaken Wives" was translated into German. In 1912, at the urging of Yosef Haim Brenner, he published a novella, "Vehaya Ha'akov Lemishor" ("And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight").
In 1913, Agnon moved to Germany, where he met Esther Marx. They married in 1920 and had two children. In Germany he lived in Berlin and Bad Homburg vor der Höhe (1921-24). Salman Schocken, a businessman and later also publisher, became his literary patron and freed him from financial worries. From 1931 on, his work was published by Schocken Books, and his short stories appeared regularly in the newspaper Haaretz, also owned by the Schocken family. In Germany, he continued to write short stories and collaborated with Martin Buber on an anthology of Hasidic stories. Many of his early books appeared in Buber's Jüdischer Verlag (Berlin).
In 1924, a fire broke out in his home, destroying his manuscripts and rare book collection. This traumatic event crops up occasionally in his stories. Later that year, Agnon returned to Jerusalem and settled with his family in the neighborhood of Talpiot. In 1929, his library was destroyed again during anti-Jewish riots.
When his novel Hachnasat Kalla ("The Bridal Canopy") appeared in 1931 to great critical acclaim, Agnon's place in Hebrew literature was assured. In 1935, he published "Sippur Pashut" ("A Simple Story"), a novella set in Buczacz at the end of the 19th century. Another novel, "Tmol Shilshom" ("Yesteryear"), set in Eretz Yisrael of the early 20th century, appeared in 1945.
Awards and critical acclaim--
- Agnon won the Bialik Prize twice (1934 and 1950);
- He was also awarded the Israel Prize twice (1954 and 1958).
- In 1966, he shared the Nobel Prize in Literature with German Jewish author Nelly Sachs. In his speech at the award ceremony, Agnon introduced himself in Hebrew: "As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem." (Frenz 1969)
In later years, Agnon's fame was such that when he complained to the municipality that traffic noise near his home was disturbing his work, the city closed the street to cars and posted a sign that read: "No entry to all vehicles, writer at work!"
Literary themes and influences--
Agnon's writing has been the subject of extensive academic research. Many leading scholars of Hebrew literature have published books on his work, among them Baruch Kurzweil, Dov Sadan, Nitza Ben-Dov, and Dan Laor. Agnon writes about Jewish life, but with his own unique perspective and special touch. He was also influenced by German literature and culture, and European literature in general, which he read in German translation. The budding Hebrew literature also influenced his works.
The communities he passed through in his life are reflected in his works:
- Galicia: in the books The Bridal Canopy, A City and the Fullness Thereof, and A Guest for the Night.
- Germany: in the stories "Fernheim", "Thus Far", and "Between Two Cities".
- Jaffa: in the stories "Oath of Allegiance", "Tmol Shilshom", and "The Dune".
- Jerusalem: "Tehilla", "Tmol Shilshom", "Ido ve-Inam", and "Shira".
Some of his works, such as The Bridal Canopy, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, and The Doctor and His Ex-Wife, have been adapted for theater. A play based on Agnon's letters to his wife, "Esterlein Yekirati," was performed at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem.
Agnon's writing often used words and phrases that differed from what would become established modern Hebrew. His distinct language is based on traditional Jewish sources, such as the books of Moses and the Prophets, Midrashic literature, the Mishnah, and the rabbinic legends. Some examples include:
- bet kahava for modern bet kafe (coffee house / café)
- batei yadayim (lit. "hand-houses") for modern kfafot (gloves)
- yatzta (יצתה) rather than the modern conjugation yatz'a (יצאה) ("she went out")
Bar-Ilan University has made a computerized concordance of his works in order to study his language.
Death and commemoration--
Agnon died in Jerusalem on February 17, 1970. His daughter, Emuna Yaron, has continued to publish his work posthumously. Agnon's archive was transferred by the family to the National Library in Jerusalem. His home in Talpiot was turned into a museum, Beit Agnon, by his friend Shlomo Lipsky. The study where he wrote many of his works was preserved intact. Agnon's image has appeared on the 50 shekel bill since 1985, along with an excerpt from his speech upon accepting the Nobel Prize. The main street in Jerusalem's Givat Oranim neighborhood is called Sderot Shai Agnon.
- The Bridal Canopy (1931), an epic describing Galician Judaism at the start of the 19th century.
- Of Such and Of Such, a collection of stories, including "And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight", "Forsaken Wives", and "Belevav Yamim" ("In the Heart of the Seas").
- At the Handles of the Lock (1923), a collection of love stories, including "Bidmay Yameha" ("In the Prime of Her Life"), "A Simple Story", and "The Dune".
- Ore'ah Noteh Lalun ("A Guest for the Night") (1938), a novel about the decline of eastern European Jewery. The narrator visits his old hometown and discovers that great changes have occurred since World War I.
- Only Yesterday (1945), a novel set in the Second Aliyah period.
- Near and Apparent, a collection of stories, including "The Two Sages Who Were In Our City", "Between Two Cities", "The Lady and the Peddler", the collection "The Book of Deeds", the satire "Chapters of the National Manual", and "Introduction to the Kaddish: After the Funerals of Those Murdered in the Land of Israel".
- Thus Far, a collection of stories, including "Thus Far", "Prayer", "Oath of Allegiance", "The Garment", "Fernheim", and "Ido ve-Inam".
- The Fire and the Wood, a collection of stories including Hasidic tales, a semi-fictional account of Agnon's family history and other stories.
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