Shmuel Yosef Agnon

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (July 17, 1888 – February 17, 1970) was a Hebrew 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.

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Israel (1998) 50 New Sheqalim (front) – Portrait of Shmuel Yosef Agnon

Agnon was born in Galicia, later immigrated as a Zionist to Ottoman 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 the narrator’s character in modern literature. Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize jointly with 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 claimed to have been born 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 fifteen, 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”).

Agnon moved to Germany, where he met Esther Marx. They married in 1920 and had two children. In Germany, Salman Schocken, a publisher and businessman, became his literary patron and freed him from financial worries. From that time 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.

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.

Agnon won the Bialik Prize twice (1934 and 1950) and 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)

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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!”
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, with the study where he wrote many of his works preserved intact.

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.

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