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Shmuel Yosef Agnon(1888-1970)

The first Hebrew writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of the central figures in modern Hebrew fiction, his works deal with the conflict between traditional Jewish life and the modern world, and attempts to recapture the fading traditions of the European shtetl, or township.

Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes (Agnon's original name) was born in the Jewish shtetl of Buczacz, Galicia, where his father was a fur merchant and follower of the hasidic rebbe of Chortkov. Agnon did not go to school but received his education from his father who taught him aggadah, and from his mother who taught him German literature. When he was eight years old he began to write in Hebrew and Yiddish, and at 15 published his first Yiddish poem. In the following years he began to publish regularly and wrote 70 pieces in Hebrew and Yiddish within three years. As a young man, Agnon left his shtetl of Buczacz and emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, where he lived in Yafo (Jaffa) and adopted a secular way of life. Shortly afterwards, however, he returned to Jewish tradition and remained an observant Jew for the rest of his life.

His first short story Agunot ("Forsaken Wives") was published in Palestine in 1908 under the pen-name Agnon, which bears a resemblance to the title of the story, and which became his official family name thereafter.

In 1913, Agnon left Eretz Yisrael for Germany, where he remained for 11 years. Young Zionists liked his combination of traditional and modern style of writing. In Germany, Agnon met the wealthy businessman Salman Schocken, who became his admirer, supporter, and publisher. Free from financial worries Agnon lived comfortably, wrote much, and collected rare and valuable Hebrew books. This happy period ended on June 6th1924, when a fire swept his home and destroyed most of his books and manuscripts, which Agnon perceived as an omen. In the same year, Agnon returned to Eretz Yisrael, settling in Jerusalem, but his valuable library was destroyed once more - this time, when his home was plundered during the Arab riots of 1929.

In 1932, he became recognized as one of the central figures of modern Hebrew literature when he published the first edition of his collected works, including the folk-epic The Bridal Canopy, considered to be a cornerstone of modern Hebrew literature. Running through his stories is the ever-recurring conflict between old and new, and many of his stories have a nightmarish quality, as they leave the reader wondering what is real and what is fantasy. Characters talk to themselves in an attempt to understand themselves and their puzzling surroundings. In A Guest for the Night, an anonymous narrator visits his town in Galicia after an absence of many years and witnesses its desolation. The factual core of this story was Agnon's own visit to his native town of Buczacz in 1930. Although the novel mirrors the hopelessness of the Jewish world during this time, even in his youth Agnon had called Buczacz a "city of the dead." Temol Shilshom ("Yesterday and the Day Before"), is considered to be Agnon's greatest novel. It is a powerful description of Palestine in the days of the Second Aliyah, but its spirit reflects the period in which it was written, the years of the Holocaust.

In addition to his other works, Agnon published about half a dozen new short pieces every year, mostly in the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz. Many of his books are about Buczacz, while others are popular collections of rabbinic lore and hassidic tales. One of these collections is Days of Awe, "a treasury of traditions, legends, and learned commentaries concerning Rosh Ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between, culled from 300 volumes ancient and new." Another collection of stories, and the major novel Shira, were published posthumously.

Agnon received many awards, including the Israel Prize in 1954 and 1958. The crowning honor was the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, the first granted to a Hebrew writer.


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