Relations between famous author S.Y. Agnon and his neighbor up the street, eminent historian Josef Klausner, were strained at best.
Indeed, in his autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, Klausner’s nephew Amos Oz writes: “A polite but Arctic chill fell momentarily on the little road if the two of them ever happened to meet…They would raise their hats an inch or so, give a slight bow, and probably each wished the other from the depths of his heart to be consigned for all eternity to the deepest hell of oblivion.”
Thus after Klausner departed this world, and the street that they lived on was renamed in his honor, Agnon – not known for his modesty — complained to a neighbor: Can you believe me living on Klausner Street?!” To which the neighbor replied, “Would you rather Klausner was living on Agnon Street?”
Fifty years ago this month, S.Y. (pronounced Shay) Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first Israeli to win a Nobel Prize in any field, and the only Hebrew author ever to win a Nobel Prize for literature. This was a major coup for the brand-new State of Israel and, for Agnon, proof that Hebrew had been recognized as the language of Jewish life and culture.
This is the perfect time to visit Beit Agnon in the shady Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot and to learn more about the great man. Designed by renowned architect Fritz Kornberg, who lived directly across the street, the house was built in International (Bauhaus) style in 1931. This was Agnon’s second Talpiot dwelling; the first one was severely damaged during the 1929 Arab riots.
Perhaps that’s why this home looks somewhat like a fortress: At the time there were few other houses in the area, and danger lurked nearby. There were major advantages to the frontier location, however: since all around him were empty fields, he had an unobstructed view of both the Temple Mount and the Dead Sea.
After Agnon’s passing in 1970, his children sold the house to the Municipality, which purchased it in order to prevent its destruction. But years passed, and the house began to deteriorate. In 2007, the Agnon House Association in Jerusalem began renovations, even returning it to its original colors (which Agnon hated, by the way). Agnon House was reopened in 2009.
In addition to the colors, there was a lot that Agnon did not like about his house. He complained about its narrow windows and felt the house was too dark.
Nevertheless, he remained friendly with the architect, whose wife had turned part of their house into guest lodgings. It is said that when Agnon wanted to make a phone call, he would cross the street to the guesthouse to do so. Why? Because it was cheaper.
Tours of the house begin with Agnon’s umbrella stand, then you visit the parlor.
The furniture and dishes are modest, for Agnon had lost his beautiful furnishings in the riots and there didn’t seem much sense in replacing them. Shrapnel holes from Jordanian mortars shot during the 1948 Independence War are visible on the balcony.
Agnon wrote while standing at a lectern still on view in the house; he would scribble something memorable, walk away and return. His scrawl was so bad that his wife Esther had to clarify what he had written. She typed his manuscripts, gave them back for editing, and typed them again (and again and again).
Unquestionably the world’s leading Hebrew storyteller of his time, Agnon also made up tales about himself. Indeed, although born in the summer of 1887 he altered his birth date to August 8, 1888 to coincide with Tisha Ba’av (9th of Av when both Temples fell and the day the Messiah is scheduled to appear). Unfortunately, 8.8.1888 did not fall on Tisha Ba’av – a slight miscalculation.
He also changed his name. Upon publication of his first short story, Agunot (Forsaken Wives), he and his editor decided that Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes just didn’t have the right ring. From that time on, Czaczkes became Agnon.
Talpiot was established in 1922 as a garden suburb, which explains the wide streets and massive foliage in the older sections. Song of Songs (4:4) contains a verse with the word talpiot which means turrets, and probably was the inspiration for the neighborhood’s name. Very few of the original houses are left, most of these are on Korei HaDorot Street. And one of them features an actual turret.
The shack in which Agnon and others in the neighborhood held weekday and Sabbath prayers has been replaced by Talpiot’s Sephardic synagogue. And an apartment building stands, today, where Klausner once lived, while the Talpiot home of celebrated artist Abel Pann was demolished a few years after his death in 1963.
Neverthless, there are still a few historic buildings in the neighborhood. Kornberg, who designed his own house as well as that of Agnon, also created the splendid amphitheater on Mount Scopus and restored the elegant Ticho House in downtown Jerusalem. And his house still stands.
So does the Talpiot home built by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. While Ben-Yehuda passed away in 1922 before he was able to move in, his family lived there until 1952. Afterwards, finding the neighborhood lonely and isolated, the family suggested donating the house to the Municipality, which in turn offered them a dwelling in a better location.
But the house stood empty – for the next 20 years. Vandals ransacked the place, burned Ben-Yehuda’s papers to have a fire for their barbecues, smashed the windows, left garbage everywhere and totally destroyed the place.
Grandson Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (yes, a namesake), who visited from America from time to time, ran into a member of the German non-profit called Action for Reconciliation and Service for Peace in Israel in 1971. Practically in tears, he related what he had found at the house.
The non-profit was, at the time, looking for new permanent lodgings in Israel and offered to take it over. The Municipality agreed, and the house underwent massive renovations – including the construction of foundations for the building, which had none!
Since then, the building has served as headquarters for the non-profit group, whose volunteers visit Holocaust survivors, volunteer at Yad Vashem, and work in women’s shelters, schools for disabled children and a myriad of other social institutions. As well, the amuta operates as an educational and cultural center, offers a Hebrew ulpan, and runs a seminar house.
Whatever was left of Ben-Yehuda’s belongings are found, today, at the Academy of Hebrew Language in the National Library on Givat Ram. However, the entrance to Ben Yehuda House is filled with pictures and other memorabilia.
Another historic building is Tiferet Yisrael S.Y. Agnon Synagogue, the neighborhood’s Ashkenazic house of worship. Its cornerstone was laid by Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in 1924 but, despite the name, Agnon never prayed there.
Although meant to double as a community center, the neighbors couldn’t afford to get the synagogue up and running. The British confiscated the building during World War II and used it as an ammunition depot. After the British left the country, it was transformed into a warehouse for the Hebrew University.
Furious that they were praying in a little shed while their synagogue was being used as a storeroom, Agnon and other Talpiot residents went to court and won the suit. Unfortunately, although the synagogue was returned to the residents, renovation was completed only after Agnon’s death. But at least he has his name above the door.
Visitors to Talpiot are always surprised to find a well-maintained cemetery in the middle of the neighborhood. It belongs to the British and dates back to the beginning of the Mandate Period. The cemetery features two large memorial stones and holds the common graves of Indian troops who fell fighting with the British army in World War I. Muslims are buried in one section, while Hindus and Sikhs lie at peace in the second.
Certainly deserving of mention, although only dating back a very few years, is the modern complex in Talpiot which many Jerusalemites hoped in vain would become the American Embassy. Every recent American presidential candidate promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem. To date, the complex has operated solely as an American Consulate. His campaign chairman says that President-elect Trump, however, is planning to make good on the promise.
For up to date information on visiting Beit Agnon, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
A very special thanks to Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, who teaches Agnon’s writings at WebYeshiva.org/Agnon, and to tour guide Nicole Strassman for their help on preparing this article.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.