S.Y. Agnon & the Orthodox Reader

A City in Its Fullness
By S.Y. Agnon, edited by Alan Mintz and Jeffrey Saks
The Toby Press
New York, 2016
617 pages

A Review of A City in Its Fullness by Sarah Rindner

 The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.

This may in part be due to the fact that Agnon’s writing, like the work of other great modern authors, is complex and often ambiguous. He winks at the reader through the use of irony and the interplay of multiple perspectives. Even the name Agnon is a construct, a reference to his first published story, “Agunot.” He was born Shmuel Yosef HaLevi Czaczkes in 1888. Agnon is a master of self-invention and it is often difficult to pin him down to specific positions, theological or otherwise. Yet his writing communicates an overarching message about Judaism and religious life in the modern world that transcends mere agnostic relativism. Indeed, the careful Orthodox reader of Agnon will relate to his elusive and slippery, yet incredibly fruitful project of both depicting the complexities of the human condition and situating these human stories within the tapestry of mesorah and Jewish tradition.

Agnon did not maintain a consistent level of religious observance throughout his life. As a newcomer to Eretz Yisrael in 1908, he joined the literary community of the Second Aliyah and broke with his Orthodox upbringing. He then moved to Germany from 1913 to 1924, where he forged relationships with well-known Jewish intellectuals such as Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber. Upon his return to Eretz Yisrael, however, he restored his yarmulke to his head and observed halachah for the rest of his life. When Agnon traveled to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize, the ceremony was scheduled to begin during the day on Shabbat Chanukah. Agnon famously refused to leave his hotel for the ceremony until he had spotted three stars in the sky, prayed a long and hearty Maariv and Havdalah, and lit Chanukah candles for himself in his hotel room. Agnon saw himself as a representative of the Jewish people and Judaism for him was not an ambiguous cultural entity but rather actual observance of the commandments and fluency in the traditional texts.

An even greater obstacle in the way of American Orthodox appreciation for Agnon’s work may be a matter of linguistic accessibility. Over the past decades, selections of Agnon’s work have been translated into English. However, nothing has approximated the ambitious recent project of The Toby Press division of Koren Publishers, spearheaded by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, to make nearly all of Agnon’s writing available and accessible in annotated translation. The nature of this project has additionally served to frame Agnon as not only the domain of academics or literature buffs, but as required reading on a Modern Orthodox bookshelf alongside other Koren classics. By making many of Agnon’s later stories available to English readers, The Toby Press invites a new generation to consider the relevance of Agnon to their own religious Jewish lives.

This is especially fitting for Agnon’s vast homage to his hometown, A City in Its Fullness (Ha’Ir U’Meloah), which was published in Hebrew in 1973, three years after Agnon’s death. It is Agnon’s most ambitious attempt to capture the fullness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before World War II. He does this through an elaborate story cycle spanning 400 years of history in Buczacz. The stories touch on all sorts of Jewish themes and topics: Torah study, synagogue worship, Shabbat, just about every Jewish holiday, life cycle rituals and so on. Agnon also introduces us to a vast range of colorful personalities who inhabit this framework, a minority of whom are recognizable historical figures like the sixteenth-century Rabbi David HaLevi Segal (known as the “Turei Zahav”), or Emanuel Ringelblum—the historian and chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto. The newly released Toby Press version of A City in Its Fullness is edited by Saks and Professor Alan Mintz, z”l, a formidable scholar of Jewish literature who passed away earlier this year. In his insightful introduction to the volume, Mintz describes the book as Agnon’s attempt to conjure a time when an ordinary Jew would unselfconsciously understand that the Torah and his or her community had authority over all aspects of his or her existence. In Mintz’s words, “what [Agnon] saw in this ‘classic’ period was not a dour allegiance to Rabbinic discipline but rather a variegated vitality bubbling up from an organically Jewish life.”

For a deeper understanding of Agnon’s project here, it is helpful to examine the story “The Sign” (“HaSiman”), which Agnon published in 1962 and is placed at the beginning of the Toby Press edition of A City in Its Fullness. “The Sign” is set on a gorgeous Shavuot eve in Talpiyot, Jerusalem in 1943. Agnon writes:

See how the holiday on which we received the Torah and commandments is happier and easier than all the other holidays. On Passover we can’t eat whatever we want; on Sukkot we can’t eat wherever we want. But on Shavuot we can eat anything we want, wherever we want to eat it.

The world is also glad and rejoices with us. The lids of the skies are as bright as the sun, and glory and beauty cover the earth.

Nevertheless, the story’s narrator is an emotional wreck. Days before Shavuot, he received news of the final liquidation of his hometown by the Germans and their Ukrainian accomplices.

For the narrator of the fictional story, who is loosely interchangeable with Agnon himself, the knowledge of the news about his town and his religious obligation to observe Shavuot present a conflict. The predicament recalls a story recounted by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man. One Sabbath, the Vilna Gaon learned that his brother passed away. As it is halachically forbidden to mourn on the Sabbath, the great sage didn’t display any outward signs of grief until the close of the Sabbath when he burst into tears. Agnon’s narrator also resolutely tries to defer his grief in order to properly observe the holiday:

I made no lament for my city and I did not call for tears or for mourning over the congregation of God whom the enemy had wiped out. The day when we heard the news of the city and its dead was the afternoon before Shavuot, so I put aside my mourning for the dead because of the joy of the season when our Torah was given.

And yet, it is impossible for the narrator to set aside his devastation over his city and his people. His goal consequently becomes one of finding a way to remember the vibrant Jewish community of Buczacz in a manner that is appropriate for the holiday of Shavuot, and more broadly, in a way that is continuous with the Jewish tradition. The resolution involves a magical nighttime visit from the medieval poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol and the inauguration of a narrative enterprise: to translate his memories of Buczacz into enduring works of religious art.

A City in Its Fullness seems positioned to try and fulfill this ambitious project. As Agnon writes in his preamble to the volume:

This is the chronicle of the city of Buczacz, which I have written in my pain and anguish so that our descendants should know that our city was full of Torah, wisdom, love, piety, life, grace, kindness and charity from the time of its founding until the arrival of the blighted abomination and their befouled and deranged accomplices who wrought destruction upon it . . .

Agnon’s opinion of the Nazis and their helpers is clear. Yet he believes that Holocaust narratives are incomplete when they primarily dwell on destruction. A more appropriate and more authentically Jewish tribute to the lost Jewish communities of Europe is to instead explore them in their fullness before the arrival of the German abomination.

To that end, “In a Single Moment,” one of the sweetest stories in the volume, describes the pious and hardworking family of Sarah and Avraham David, and their remarkable only son, Menahem. Customarily in Buczacz, a fine young talmid chacham of Menahem’s ilk would be earmarked for a daughter of wealthy family. However, in a spontaneous moment of grace, Menahem chooses instead to marry an impoverished bride who has been abandoned at the altar by a different would-be husband. This episode ends up enacting the Talmudic adage that “one may win a place in eternity in a single moment.”

Despite superficial appearances, Agnon is not a starry-eyed romantic, and he does not imply that such events were commonplace in Buczacz. Yet the manner in which the townspeople coalesce around this small miracle, and the joy they feel at the eschewing of convention in the fulfillment of a deeper religious ideal, is truly moving. He sets the story of Menahem and his marriage, which is officiated over by the av beit din, against the backdrop of the month of “Menahem Av,” “the month that begins with mourning and ends with consolation.”

Still, darkening even the happier stories in A City in Its Fullness is a sense of what is to come, as we see in Agnon’s haunting conclusion:

Thus it was all the sons and grandsons of Menahem, son of Avraham David, were devoted to the study of Torah and obedient to the Torah, among them scholars of halakhah, well-known in the gates—until the enemy came and wiped them all out.

Even in the earlier Buczacz stories, the Jewish people must sacrifice as non-autonomous subjects of selfish and capricious gentile overlords. The poignant parable, “The Great Town Hall,” relays an imaginative history of the town hall of Buczacz, commissioned by the Polish Count Potocki and built by a talented Jewish craftsman named Theodor. Theodor pours his heart into the construction of the town hall, and the narrator hints that some of its more sublime qualities may have been inspired by Yom Kippur services. Potocki marvels at the beauty of Theodor’s construction, and as a “reward,” he locks him up in the town hall to die there, so that no one can ever again construct something to rival its beauty. The image of a town hall that is glorified through the talent of a Jew, and the way in which those walls close in to murder their creator, could not be more symbolically potent. Yet the wings that Theodor miraculously sprouts to escape his fate are also significant, and throughout Agnon’s stories there is a sense that the Jewish spirit cannot be crushed by the cruelty of its torturers.

Perhaps the most painful moments of the volume then, are those in which communal insecurity results in the Jewish townspeople of Buczacz oppressing their brethren. In the story “Disappeared,” a haunting revision of the Biblical Joseph story, a young man named Dan, the beloved only son of his poor widowed mother, is sent as a conscript to the Emperor Joseph’s army in order to fill a quota required of the Jewish community. More prominent Jewish men manage to avoid this fate, and the townspeople essentially sell off Dan into a kind of servitude. The Buczaczers, however, can’t escape their guilt over Dan’s treatment, who ends up faring somewhat decently in the Austrian army thanks to his natural charm (much like the Biblical Joseph and Daniel).

One might use this and other stories of Agnon as a pretext to explore subtle points of socioeconomic tension within the Jewish community. Yet, after Dan’s release from the army, his treatment by a psychotic Polish noblewoman is far more perverse than anything he endures from his Jewish brethren. Agnon even separates the story into two sections, because he literally does not want to “commingle her words” with those of the holy Jews of Buczacz. Internal criticism notwithstanding, Agnon’s stories make a case for Judaism and the Jewish people as a stay against the darker forces and inclinations of Western civilization.

While A City in Its Fullness celebrates the history of the Jewish communities of Galicia, it is filled with reminders of their precarious and provisional existence. Ultimately, the Jewish condition of exilic dependence is unsustainable. There is an abundance of fish imagery in the final stories of A City in Its Fullness, and particularly, of fish shortages in the waters of the river Strypa which borders the town. In many different literary traditions, fish signify fertility and abundance, and the drying up of the fish of the Strypa signals a kind of broader desiccation. As the gentiles squeeze the vitality out of their Jewish neighbors, they too lose their own prosperity. For Agnon, only in the Land of Israel may Jewish civilization be revitalized and reborn.

A City in Its Fullness implicitly points toward Zionism as the primary antidote to many of its malaises. But the book is also a tribute to a kind of Jewish life that is not easily found or recreated on Israeli soil. The Torah shines particularly brightly in Agnon’s Buczacz stories, perhaps because of its lowly exilic surroundings, or perhaps because it is rooted in so many years of history and tradition. Agnon is a broad enough thinker to sustain these contradictions.

Were he more of a Universalist, Agnon could have been a major modernist writer in the mode of James Joyce or William Faulkner. Instead he chose, through his extensive engagement with classical Jewish texts, and unwavering loyalty to his religion and nation, to ultimately remain within or at least alongside the tradition of his Jewish brethren. We are the readers Agnon needs for his fiction to be understood and appreciated, and we, in turn, will only be the richer for it.

Sarah Rindner teaches English literature at Lander College for Women. Her writings on Jewish and literary topics have appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, Mosaic Magazine and on her web site, The Book of Books. She lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with her family.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2017.