Israelis You Should Know: Shai Agnon
The Fellowship | February 17, 2017
Lived: July 17, 1888 – February 17, 1970
Known for: An important Hebrew novelist and Nobel laureate writer
Why you should know him: Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born in what is now Buchach, Ukraine. While his official birthdate was the eighteenth of the Jewish month of Av, Agnon always said his birthday was on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish fast day on the ninth of Av. He was schooled by his parents – his father was an ordained rabbi – and was writing in Hebrew and Yiddish by the age of eight, and published his first poem at fifteen.
Agnon made aliyah (immigrated to the Holy Land) in 1908, moving to Jaffa, where he continued to publish his writing. After moving to Germany five years later, Agnon met his wife Esther to whom he would be married for fifty years until his death. After a fire destroyed their house in 1924, destroying Agnon’s manuscripts and rare books, the couple returned to the Jerusalem, where they would remain.
Agnon’s writings were mostly influenced by Bible stories, and dealt with Jewish life from his own unique perspective. Many of the words and phrases he made up have become part of the modern Hebrew language.
He is to this day studied and beloved in Israel, and his work was also lauded during his lifetime – he won the Bialik Prize for Literature in 1934 and 1950, along with the Israel Prize in 1954 and 1958. In 1966, Agnon received the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.” In his Nobel acceptance speech, this artist who represented the Jewish people and Jewish state commented on the gift from God he was able to use during his long and prolific career:
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. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing…