S.Y. Agnon’s works get the English-language treatment

After five years, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks and Toby Press complete translation of the Nobel laureate’s novels and short stories

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Scraps from Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon's masterpiece “Shira” at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Scraps from Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon's masterpiece “Shira” at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

It’s been five years since Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, an educator and lover of S.Y. Agnon, began brushing up and, in some cases, writing from scratch English translations of the complete works of the renowned Nobel Prize-winning author.

The 15th and final book, “The Outcast,” is about to be published by Toby Press.

“It’s been an immersion project,” said Saks, sitting in Agnon House, the author’s former home on Klausner Street in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, where his neighbor was historian Yosef Klausner, with whom Agnon famously did not get along.

Saks likened the long-term project to “The Julie/Julia Project,” the blog-turned-book-turned-movie by Julie Powell (the movie was “Julie & Julia”), a young New Yorker who meticulously worked her way through each of the 524 recipes in the Julia Child’s landmark cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, a self-taught S.Y. Agnon expert, helped in the translation and compilation of Agnon’s works into English (Courtesy Jeffrey Saks)

Rather than blogging, however, Saks first immersed himself in the original Hebrew writings of Agnon, eventually taking on the task of revising original translations and doing some of his own.

“It’s kind of like a lens on yourself,” he said.

The translation project was conceived by Toby publisher Matthew Miller, who didn’t initially think of it as “such a big project,” said Saks. “It kind of grew.”

Saks, who established the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions with Rabbi Chaim Brovender, and later launched WebYeshiva, an interactive online Torah learning platform, eventually joined the project at Toby Press, doing some of the translations himself and revising and refreshing other existing translations of Agnon’s many short stories, now anthologized into several new volumes.

Other translators were commissioned to do the full-length novels.

It was, for Saks, 48, the culmination of a literary journey he began when he was a 17-year-old high school student in Roselle, New Jersey. He was raised in a secular Jewish family, but with a culturally sophisticated grandmother who gave Saks his first Agnon volume, “21 Stories.”

“I’m pretty sure I had never heard of Agnon before then,” he said.

But as a teenager starting to think about religion and belief, he appreciated the tension between tradition and modernity in Agnon’s writing.

“I understood he was saying something very profound,” said Saks, “even if I didn’t get everything he was saying.”

Agnon, considered one of the central figures of modern Hebrew literature, was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in the Galician town of Buczacz (in today’s western Ukraine), and arrived in 1908 in Jaffa, where he adopted the pen name Agnon.

He later spent 12 years in Germany, returning to pre-state Palestine when a fire destroyed his home library and unpublished manuscripts. He moved to Talpiot in southern Jerusalem, now with a wife and two children, where he lived for the rest of his life.

S.Y. Agnon, the Nobel laureate, is still relevant and popular in Israeli schools and literary circles (Courtesy Toby Press)

His works, said Saks, deal with the conflict between traditional Jewish life and language and the modern world, and constitute a distillation of millennia of Jewish writing – from the Bible through the rabbinic codes to Hasidic storytelling – recast in the mold of modern literature.

Saks, who was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, immigrated to Israel in 1994 and bought his first Hebrew volume of Agnon at Tmol Shilshom, the venerable Jerusalem bookstore and cafe named for one of Agnon’s most famous works.

The used copy was missing 50 pages in the middle, and Saks, who was still working on his Hebrew, couldn’t quite tackle the literary language of the book at that point.

But he came back to it years later, eventually reading all of Agnon’s works in Hebrew. He then took time to audit a course about Agnon given by Ariel Hirschfeld at Hebrew University, reading much of the secondary literature about Agnon and his writings. He became something of an expert on the writer and later joined the faculty at Agnon House.

Not many of Agnon’s writings were available in English at the time.

There had been sporadic translations of Agnon’s works, some dating back to the 1930s, when American Hebraicists and rabbis tried their hands at it, said Saks, and published it in local Jewish newspapers.

“Some are excellent, and some are so bad,” said Saks.

The new series of Toby Press translations seeks to address that, and includes annotations offering commentary that explains mundane yet interesting details.

For instance, potato pancakes, known as latkes, would only have been served with applesauce in Agnon’s time because they were traditionally fried in fat, schmaltz, back in Galicia. The pairing of latkes and sour cream was an American invention, said Saks.

As with all things Agnon, the stories and books were written describing the locations, concepts and constructs of his upbringing in Galicia, his adult life in Israel and the time he spent in Germany.

Agnon’s ‘In Mr. Lublin’s Store,’ will be discussed on Monday, January 8, 2018 at the Tmol Shilshom bookstore (Courtesy Toby Press)

“Agnon wrote in Hebrew but thought in Yiddish, and you have to read between the lines,” said Saks. “He exposes our sense of Jewish culture, he takes it and distills it and pours it into the mold of modern literature with brutal honesty.”

Agnon’s tales are still taught in Israeli schools, but teachers often miss his messages, said Saks, because “he’s subversive. He’s always integrating ambiguity into his tales.”

The writer, who died in 1970, lives on in his Jerusalem home, now a museum, where school groups and adult guests visit frequently.

The museum has a new permanent exhibit on its first floor, a facsimile of Agnon’s bookshelves, with drawers and cabinets displaying his works in many languages, as well as documents and photos of Agnon and his family. A wall of video images shows where Agnon grew up in Buczacz, with pictures taken by a visiting Israeli photographer. His original library is upstairs.

The museum also runs conferences and literary tours to Galicia, offering the opportunity for Agnon fans to follow in the author’s own footsteps.

The author and Agnon expert Haim Be’er will speak with Jeffrey Saks about Jews and books in Agnon’s novel “In Mr. Lublin’s Shop,” at Tmol Shilshom, Monday, January 8, 7 p.m., NIS 40 per person.

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