Some cultivated Israelis I know have a problem. No doubt all Israelis have problems, private and public—among the latter being the country’s relations with its neighbors, the religious and ethnic divisions within it, and the despoliation of land and water resources which has accompanied its extraordinary economic growth over the last two or three decades. In comparison with these, the problem I have in mind is bound to appear trivial; however, in various intricate and not so subterranean ways it is connected with the larger issues just mentioned.

The problem is this. Many Israelis are convinced that the revived Hebrew language has produced in S.Y. Agnon a novelist whose work bears comparison with that of any of the acknowledged masters of twentieth-century fiction. (Thomas Mann, say, or Borges, or—to name the one with whom Agnon has been most insistently compared—Kafka.) However, very few people outside Israel appear to share this view; or at any rate very few who are not teachers in university departments of Hebrew and Jewish studies. Few readers of Mann, Borges, and Kafka—as I have established by the nonscientific process of asking around—have heard of Agnon; and even among those Jewish readers who have heard of him, and who might be thought to make up his natural “constituency,” it seems that relatively few, again, have read any of his fiction. To ask such people about contemporary Israeli novelists like Amos Oz or Aharon Appelfeld is one thing; to ask them about Agnon quite another. It is true that international recognition of a striking kind was conferred on him in 1966, when he shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with the German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. But he was not the first nor will he be the last writer from a “minor” linguistic group to be awarded this honor, to receive a great deal of publicity for a few weeks thereafter, and then to be forgotten in the rest of the world. (Of course, the same fate, though usually over a longer period, has befallen laureates from “major” languages too.)

Israelis are wounded that a novelist who means so much to them has no effective existence outside their own country: certainly not in the English-speaking world. Collections of his stories and some of his novels were published in English translation before he won the Nobel Prize; others appeared subsequently; none of them seems to have found a significant readership for him. The anthologies of devotional, liturgical, and folkloristic writings which he edited and compiled are a separate case; translations of these have, I suspect, acquired a fairly steady barmitzvah-present kind of sale in the United States and elsewhere. But it is precisely not as a reassuringly pious and traditional figure that his Israeli admirers see him, or wish us to see him, or as he (at any rate in some of his guises) saw himself. Quite the contrary. It is Agnon the modernist, the subversive, the provoker of disquiet and alarm, that they value so highly.

Are we really missing out on something? And if so, whose fault is it? Ours? Agnon’s? History’s? And is the appearance of an English translation of Only Yesterday, his longest and most highly regarded novel, together with a collection of admiring commentaries by Amos Oz on his work in general, likely to change this state of affairs?*

Only Yesterday was first published in 1945. It tells the story of Isaac Kumer, a young man born in Polish Galicia and brought up in an intensely Orthodox home, whose attachment to the Zionist cause leads him to emigrate to Palestine in the first decade of the last century. (In these respects Isaac closely resembles his creator, who arrived in Palestine in 1908 at the age of twenty, having already acquired a reputation as a promising writer in Yiddish and Hebrew.) In effect Isaac rejects the religion of his fathers and the political quietism which went with it, and joins the second wave or ripple of Zionist-inspired immigration which was eventually to become known to Israelis as the Second Aliya, and which was to be politically and socially in-fluential out of all proportion to its numbers.

Like most members of the group, Isaac intends to become a tiller of the soil: his aim is to rebuild himself by rebuilding the land, as the slogan of the movement went, and in so doing to contribute to the regeneration of the entire people. His notions of what he will find in Palestine, and of what he and his fellows might accomplish there, are all of a fanciful kind; his avowed secularity notwithstanding, they are inevitably steeped in the language and imagery of the Scriptures on which he has been reared. “Its villages,” Isaac fantasizes,

[are] hidden in the shade of vineyards and olive groves, the fields enveloped in grains and the orchard trees crowned with fruit, the valleys yielding flowers and the forest trees swaying…. By day they plow and sow and plant and reap…, and at eventide they sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree.

What he finds is of course utterly unlike his dreams. The land is savagely hot, hostile, sandy, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, fly-bitten. It is plentifully endowed (among the secular immigrants) with defeated, jobless, solitary men and women living in hovels and pining for the culture and opportunities of Europe, fakers, dreamers, scoundrels, petty bourgeois shopkeepers; and (among the religious Jews) with closed, superstitious, mutually abusive factions living shamelessly off the charity of their brethren in Europe. The other inhabitants of the country (Arabs chiefly, and groups of proselytizing German and English missionaries) are incomprehensible, inimical, and generally to be avoided; its Turkish overlords are remote to the point of invisibility.


There is no industry to speak of; few schools, other than Talmudic yeshivas in Jerusalem, and no institutions of higher learning; those Jewish settlers of a previous generation who have managed to establish themselves in a handful of agricultural villages have become colons, in effect, and prefer to employ cheap Arab labor rather than to take on soft-handed, ideology-driven newcomers like Isaac. Afteronly a few days he begins to realize that the ideas he had brought from Europe are about as appropriate to his new surroundings as the heavy, European-style clothes and shoes lovingly bought for him by his father before his departure.

Historians estimate that more than 80 percent of those who arrived in Palestine with the Second Aliya eventually threw in the towel and either returned to Europe or went further afield, chiefly to the United States. Agnon himself, having worked in Jaffa and Jerusalem as a teacher and clerk, was among those who went back to Europe; shortly before the outbreak of World War I, he settled in Germany, where he remained for some eleven years. In 1924 he sailed once again to Palestine and this time made his home permanently in Jerusalem. By then he had acquired a wealthy patron in Salman Schocken (a name today most closely associated with the publishing houses established by him in Berlin, Jerusalem, and New York) and had published three collections of stories. It is a curiously symbolical and yet starkly biographical fact that Agnon, who was a collector as well as a writer of books—and two of whose most admired stories, “Edo and Enam” and “Forevermore,” deal with imaginary, effaced civilizations—suffered the destruction of his residence and its contents on two occasions: once by fire in Germany and again in 1929, during extensive Arab riots against the Jews of Jerusalem.

Unlike Agnon, the hero of Only Yesterday remains in Palestine; indeed he dies in Jerusalem after a very few years and in horrible circumstances—from the bite of a rabid dog. He never fulfills his dream of tilling the land; instead, after various misadventures, he becomes a painter of houses, furniture, shop signs, and anything else that comes his way, including the lettering on tombstones. He moves from Jaffa to Jerusalem, and the reader soon senses that these two cities are being used to represent two antipathetic modes of Jewish existence in Palestine. The Jews of Jaffa (and later Tel Aviv, the first, hesitant beginnings of which are celebrated in the novel) are secular, political, committed to the aim of bringing about a revolutionary change in the condition of the Jewish people; those of the long-established Jewish communities in Jerusalem’s Old City are Orthodox, pacific, hostile to the Zionist newcomers, and prepared to wait patiently for a redemption which will come only with the arrival of the Messiah. (Both groups, on the evidence of this novel, appear to have chosen to avert their eyes, so far as this was possible, from the Arabs who lived everywhere around them.)

In each of these cities Isaac meets a woman with whom he falls in love. In Jaffa there is the fickle, sophisticated Sonya, who is answerable to no one but herself and whose dress “taps on her limbs” and “gambols on her, as if it too were alive”; in Jerusalem his friend is the pious, dutiful Shifra, daughter of Reb Fayesh, a fanatically Orthodox excommunicator of all Jews who do not live and worship exactly as he believes they should. As a visitor to his house, let alone as a suitor to his daughter, the beardless, hatless, Zionistic Isaac is anathema to him; by the end of the novel, however, Reb Fayesh is too ill to protest against Isaac’s presence, his wife and daughter are too dependent on Isaac’s help to do without him, and Isaac himself is in the process of becoming a baal tshuvah—a term the novel itself does not use—that is, one who returns to the faith. (Complete with hat and beard; but with some version of his Zionism, so far as I can make out, still in place). He and Shifra get married but he is fated to die within weeks of the wedding.


That is the story, essentially. It sounds simple enough; and though the book does contain some startlingly phantasmagoric elements, to which I shall return shortly, its events and moods are easier to follow and sympathize with than those in many of Agnon’s other fictions, where quasi-allegorical mystifications and inscrutable moralizings abound (“Edo and Enam” and “Forevermore” included). Nevertheless it takes some perseverance on the part of the reader to discover the novel’s merits—the humor, pain, trenchancy, and sustained imaginative boldness of many passages in it, as well as the depth of historical insight it reveals. Barbara Harshav’s translation resembles Amos Oz’s critical study in being plainly a labor of love; but I suspect that potential readers are more likely to be intimidated than encouraged by the presence of a ten-page, double-column, small-print glossary of Hebrew words and acronyms at the end of Only Yesterday. It may well confirm them in their hunch that Agnon’s novel is too stubbornly singular—private even—to be worth pursuing.

In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of Only Yesterday is as large-scale and public as it could be. By that I mean the picture it presents of what the Zionists succeeded in making, and of what they inevitably failed to make, of their own improbable undertaking. No Israeli writer I know of conveys more vividly, in more gritty and humanly recognizable terms, the strangeness of the entire Zionist enterprise: the attempt, launched under the sanction of Scriptures which the Zionists themselves had largely discarded, to “redeem” a scattered and persecuted people, to make it “whole” and “normal,” by declaring its eternal “home” to be a piece of land which in its quotidian reality was utterly foreign to them. Virtually everyone who staked his life on the cause began anew in the “homeland” as a shocked, dislocated, homesick stranger—a stranger to himself as well as to his own people; let alone to the other, indigenous people who had been living there all along—while at the same time believing or struggling to believe that this place had always truly belonged to him and he to it. The same was to be largely true for the millions of Jewish refugees who would enter the country involuntarily in the decades that followed the Second Aliya. (Hence perhaps the warning of the book’s continuing relevance which is made all but explicit in its title.) The abyss between the idea and the actuality, between the averred experience and the felt experience, and the dubiety or clenched determination that would be its consequence are explored by Agnon with an unsparing intensity and also, at times, a strange hilarity.

His achievement in these respects is all the more striking for two reasons. First, the narrative voice adopted by the novelist is that of a teller of folk tales and fairy stories, of legends and midrashim, someone from an age more primitive, credulous, and leisurely than our own. Secondly, the leading characters in the book are not very interesting. The two women involved with Isaac are representatives of two contrasting ways of life rather than individuals with a capacity for overturning either the reader’s or for that matter the novelist’s expectations of them. Blue-eyed, secular Sonya is provincial yet worldly-wise, forlorn yet assertive; golden-eyed, religious Shifra is timid and anxious to please, obedient to her father’s bans and imprecations, yet drawn by curiosity and kindness toward the lonely newcomer. The glimpses we are given of their consciousness of themselves are stiff and inexpressive; their inner lives, so far as either can be said to have such a thing, remain occluded from our gaze. Isaac does manage to rouse more curiosity in the reader than either of his women friends, yet he too often gives the impression of being an indispensable but underimagined authorial convenience. Constantly led astray by the ideas in his head and the impulses of his heart, a man whose best efforts are indistinguishable from his worst, he comes across for the most part as a combination of familiar, overlapping literary types: everyman, simple soul, schlemiel, holy fool.

Unfortunately for Isaac, he is completely upstaged as a holy fool by what I have called “the narrative voice”—that of the storyteller himself, who never appears in his own person (the most he allows himself is an occasional, cautious “we”), who is agog at everything and surprised by nothing, and whose naive, digressive, nonstop, archaic, formulaic patter makes up the substance of the entire novel. (All 650 large pages of it.) That the naiveté is faux, and that the patter subverts itself at almost every turn, denying what it affirms and affirming what it denies, that it charms us in order to betray us and admits to betraying us only in order to charm and lull us again, is soon apparent. So is the fact that there are flashes of steely observation within it, as well as delight, sadness, disgust, hauteur, pity, cruelty, and a whole range of other such opposing yet confluent emotions and states of being. The trouble is, though, that this patter goes on for too long. It never stops. It always knows more about the characters than they do; it comes between us and them, surrounding and drowning them in its incessant, idiosyncratic flow; ultimately, and even more damagingly, for long stretches of the novel it sounds as if it is less interested in them than in itself.

Here, for example, is a fairly “neutral” passage, resembling countless others and ending in what seems to me an amusing joke. But how much of a show is Isaac actually given in it? What chance does he have against this narrator? And we have to ask these questions with double force if we are tempted to read the joke about the cakes “symbolically,” as a revelation of Isaac’s moral condition:

As he lay sleeping, a north wind blew and brought a good change to the air. And when he woke up, a clear and fine day was sparkling. The air was steeped with a fragrant moisture, and a wind wafted in the air like the smell of dew on flowers in the morning. Isaac forgot everything that had been done to him yesterday. It is a good quality they have in the Land of Israel that a good day makes you forget a bad day. Since he had gone to sleep without eating, he got up hungry. He stretched his bones and jumped out of bed, washed his face and hands and got dressed, and went down to the street to buy himself some food. The shops were already open and the day’s work had begun with happy faces and grumpy faces, depending on a person’s lot and the desire of his Creator. As he wanted to enter a shop, he saw a group of Georgians selling biscuits and cakes and wafers. As soon as he wanted to go to them, he saw a cook shop and went in.

Half of that cook shop is above ground and half is sunk in the ground, and a chimney rises above the door and smoke climbs from the chimney. You bend and go down and stand in the room whose length is equal to its width and its height is as tall as an average man. People sit there drinking tea and eating wafers. And anyone who has an extra penny orders himself a cup of cocoa or an egg or a piece of herring or a vegetable meal, all depending on his pocket and his belly.

Isaac ordered himself a cup of tea and two twin cakes, that have more puff than dough and more absence than presence.

Bizarre though it may seem to say so, the one character who truly engages the sympathetic imagination of the author—by which I mean that he treats him with a respect that he is inclined to withhold from the humans in the book—is Balak the dog, who is introduced halfway through the novel and whose bite eventually destroys Isaac. (The narrative itself reminds us that the three consonants of the name are an inversion of the three Hebrew letters k-l-b, which together make up the word “dog.”) Balak even manages to provoke Isaac into an act of mischief or malice of which one would not have thought him to be capable. About to clean his brushes after finishing a painting job, he is approached by one of the strays who roam about the streets of Jerusalem. On an impulse he paints on its back the single word, “dog.” Instead of running away the dog wags its tail and “bark[s] entreatingly.” So Isaac adds the word “crazy” to what he has already inscribed there. The consequences are fatal for them both. With this message on its back the dog is treated as if it is in fact mad. Stoned, starved, and fled from by a panic-stricken populace, it eventually does run rabid; many months later it deliberately seeks out Isaac and revenges itself by biting him. From such a bite, at that time and in that place, there can be no recovery.

Discussing the scene in which Isaac paints the message on the dog’s back, Amos Oz convincingly suggests that it has a strong sexual charge, since Isaac is described as trembling with excitement as he does so. At the same time he warns us against what he calls “monovalent, ideological, and alle-gorical identification”—that is from thinking that Balak represents womankind, for example, or Isaac himself, or his thwarted lust and anger, or the world of Orthodox Jewry, or indeed the whole Second Aliya. (Apparently all these are interpretations of the event and its consequences advanced by various Israeli critics.) Oz suggests instead something more modest and yet more radically “deconstructive”: “Whoever reads the writing on Balak’s back knows more than Balak can know; whoever reads Only Yesterday understands a little more than Isaac himself can understand. And yet the menace and brutality of fate remain in darkness.”

And what of the author? Not surprisingly Agnon himself enters into the interpretative fun at a later stage of the novel. “The Ashkenazi[s]… said [Balak] was the reincarnation of that heretic who denied the entire Torah…. Some said he came for good, and some said that wasn’t the case, but that harsh persecutions were about to come down”—and so on and so forth. To an English-speaking reader, to this one anyway, the episode is curiously reminiscent of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” There too, in the mariner’s killing of the albatross, we have a gratuitous, unpremeditated act which disrupts the relations between a man and the natural world. The consequences in both the poem and the novel are disastrous to the creatures involved but electrifying to the works in which they appear.

Agnon overelaborates his commentary on Balak’s turmoils after the meeting with Isaac, and the novel suffers as a result. But his account of the dog’s bewilderment and rage at what is happening to him, his attempts to reason his way out of his plight, his wanderings from the Jewish areas of the city to the Christian and Muslim quarters (where no one can read the message he carries) and back to the Jews again, his few good dreams and his many bad ones, the physical discomfort he suffers and the prayers and curses he utters (in his mind only, for the only vocable he can ever produce is “Arf, Arf”)—all this, in its combination of pathos, menace, and savage comedy, is more sinister and, paradoxically, freer in feeling and more open in spirit than anything else in the novel.

Agnon spares us none of the protracted horrors Isaac endures before finally succumbing to the venom injected by Balak into his bloodstream. Even before he has gone, however, a tone of guilt and shock enters the narrative. (“And now, good friends, as we observe the adventures of Isaac, we are shaken and stunned. This Isaac who is no worse than any other person, why is he punished so harshly? Is it because he teased a dog? He meant it only as a joke.”) A little earlier there is a passage which describes how a pious neighbor, Reb Efraim the plasterer, overhears the women talking about Isaac’s illness, and exhorts them to silence and submission:

“Instead of asking why the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He did that to Isaac and Shifra, ask what are we and what are our merits…. The Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He knows what He’s doing and everything He does He does according to the law, and it’s not for us to ponder His judgment. And if we do ponder, what do we gain, this is stupidity and nothing.”

…Thus they wrestled with the issue that everyone who has ever come into the world has wrestled with from the day the world was created until now…. They didn’t find an answer to their questions and Efraim didn’t see that there was a question after his answers.

If there is a final word on the matter it comes only at the very moment when Isaac dies: “In the end, the muscles of his body and the muscles of his face became paralyzed. Finally, his pained soul passed away and he returned his spirit to the God of spirits for whom there is no joke and no frivolity.”

No joke and no frivolity? Surely we cannot forget that so self-subversive a fiction as this one is itself a kind of “joke;” and that it is not an anonymous “fate,” as Oz would have it, or “the God of spirits” but its author who is ultimately responsible for everything in it. Nor can we forget that the introduction of the mad, victimized, victimizing, bedaubed Balak has elicited from its author the most energetic and excited writing in the book. In the end, the true mystery that Only Yesterday leaves us with is not the “meaning” of Balak, which Agnon himself clearly cannot fathom, but the nature of the creative imagination.

This Issue

December 21, 2000