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Celebrating S.Y. Agnon, Hebrew’s first literary workaholic

His daughter and his admirers recall the scholar, historian, linguist and Nobel laureate on the centennial of his first book

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Agnon's home library (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Agnon's home library (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, known as S.Y. Agnon, the famed writer, would probably have preferred to avoid the celebrations in honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of his first book, “And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight.”

An exacting, methodical workaholic, he tended to hole himself away in his home library, relying on his wife, Esther, to take care of the house and keep their two children, Emuna and Hemdat, quiet and occupied.

The house, built in 1931 in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, was a haven for Agnon, who had suffered through several fires, an earthquake and the 1929 riots in the city, before building the family’s home on a hill overlooking the Dead Sea.

Emuna Agnon, back in 2004 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Emuna Agnon Yaron in 2004 (photo credit: Flash 90)

“We used to see the full moon over the Dead Sea on Passover and Sukkot,” said Emuna Agnon Yaron, now 91, as she recently sat in her family’s garden, surrounded by 50 or so lovers of her father’s work.

The garden gathering was part of the launch of celebrations for “And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight,” written by Agnon over the course of four days when he was just 24. At the time, Agnon was living in Neveh Tzedek, surrounded by the intellectuals and writers of the Second Aliya. It wasn’t a time of great prosperity, and since Agnon lacked any money of his own the publishing of the book was funded by his friend, writer Yosef Haim Brenner, who sold his new leather suspenders in order to finance the project.

“He’s a legend,” said Haim Be’er, a professor of literature from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who read and spoke about Agnon’s first book at the recent celebration. “He’s an ongoing miracle and I say that after spending the last 50 years examining his work.”

Soon after “The Crooked” was published, Agnon’s fortunes took a turn for the better. He moved to Germany for several years, where he met his wife, Esther Marx, and where their two children were born. It was during that time that he met Jewish publisher Salman Shocken, who took Agnon under his wing and became his patron.

As a lifelong employee of Shocken, Agnon would ask Shocken for anything that he needed, from grocery money or to the installation of a telephone. A good thing, too, as unnecessary spending wasn’t Agnon’s wont. Even when he had his own phone, he would still go to his next-door neighbor to make a phone call because he didn’t want to spent the money.

He was a man who clung to his ideals, whether regarding his religious beliefs or the emerging state of Israel, his adopted homeland, and wrote them all into his work.

“[Philosopher] Gershom Scholem said Agnon was the culmination of Hebrew writing, and that after him, it would not continue,” said Michael Kramer, a Bar-Ilan University professor of literature who is currently completing the English translation of “The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight.”

“It was just in the way he was so expert in everything, the way he included everything that came before him,” continued Kramer. “It was a kind of culmination of bringing tradition into modern writing in a way that you can’t imagine somebody doing anymore. He took the intellectual world which was the core of his existence, the lens through which they saw everything, and told a story that more or less counters that every step of the way.”

Beit Agnon (Courtesy Beit Agnon)
Beit Agnon under construction (Courtesy Beit Agnon)

Agnon was also a pioneer of sorts as one of the first residents of the neighborhood of Talpiot, which was then situated on the edge of the border with Jordan, just below the hillside location of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, which held the line during the 1948 war. At the time Agnon began building in Talpiot there was a bus only four times a day, and if the neighbors needed to gather, one would blow on a shofar from the top of their house. As Agnon wrote in his story, “The Sign,” “And what would [the bus driver] do if he had to consult with the neighbors? Indeed there was no telephone. He would take the shofar, climb onto the roof of his house and blow it, and the neighbors would hear and come.”

The remoteness of the Agnons’ house, at a distance from neighbors and interruptions, meant Agnon could work for long stretches at a time, remembered Hemdat, now 90, who lives just several blocks away from his childhood home.

Agnon's well-thumbed and marked books (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg)
Agnon’s well-thumbed and marked books (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/The Times of Israel)

Agnon liked to stand at a lectern to write his stories (better for his back) and would squirrel them away in an iron safe in his second-floor library, after having suffered through two previous fires that ruined his work. If he needed to reference something, he reached for one of the many books in his library and tore off a bit of paper from the box of notepaper on his desk to mark the necessary page.

“He referenced everything,” said Kramer. “Talmud, Hassidic tales — he referenced the Talmud all the time and often in very ironic ways, which just shows he knew what he was doing.”

As translator for this book, Kramer found the experience to be awe-inspiring and much more complicated than he anticipated.

“It became very clear that I needed to do a lot more work in order to figure out what he was saying, not simply in the matter of words but what he intended to mean,” added Kramer. “That became a journey into his library, not literally, but into the ‘ark of Jewish books,'” which was always Agnon’s frame of reference.

Hemdat Agnon in his childhood home (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg)
Hemdat Agnon in his childhood home (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/The Times of Israel)

Agnon’s wife Esther typed all his work, and when she once fell sick during a furlough of Hemdat from his service in the Palmach (the elite fighting unit of the Haganah, the pre-state military organization), Agnon called Eliezer Golomb, a founder of the Palmach, to ask for an extended leave for Hemdat so that he could take his mother’s place and type his father’s words.

“He called it agricultural leave,” chuckled Hemdat, remembering that his father went all the way downtown to the offices of the Haaretz newspaper in order to make that call to Golomb. Once permission was granted, Hemdat spent the next week working from dawn until dusk with breaks to eat meals prepared by his father and to take walks up to the kibbutz. He typed 640 pages.

Agnon spent 40 years in his Talpiot home. It’s where he was living when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature and where he died in 1970, four years later. The house was nearly purchased by developers in 1972 before the government decided to hold onto it and turn it into Beit Agnon, or Agnon’s House, a museum and center for Hebrew literature, said Eilat Lieber, the museum’s curator.

Following a renovation, the museum was reopened to the public three years ago. It hosts a series of readings and events held in the downstairs lecture hall and outside garden.

“This was my bedroom,” said Hemdat during the evening in his father’s honor, pointing to one corner of the lecture hall, “and that was Emuna’s room over there. My mother slept in a room by that window.”

And your father?

“He liked to be near his books,” said Hemdat, smiling. “And we all liked to be near a window, to feel the Jerusalem breezes.”



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