A Letter to Agnon

Translated by Adam PragerWritten by Asher Barash, of blessed memory,
and published in HaAretz, celebrating Agnon's 50thbirthday

You have, thank God, reached your jubilee year [age 50] sound in both mind and body, and fortunate in having so many admirers who are celebrating this day in honor of you and of all the spiritual wealth you have bestowed upon them. I would like to speak briefly of the bounty I have witnessed from the day I first heard of you until this time. I offer you these words as a portrait of sorts, given to you on your birthday by the painter himself. Please do not pay too much attention to superficial facial defects, for painters delve into the soul of their subject.

I first heard of you about 32 years ago as S. Y. Czaczkes, a young man of Buczacz, a writer and poet in two tongues who published frequently in HaMitspe of Krakow, in the Togblat of Lvov, and in various other Galician periodicals. The poems were written in a popular Hebrew in the Ashkenazic poetical style of Hebrew poems in the Letteris Galician tradition. This verse was not particularly exact as regards meter and rhyme, yet it sounded pleasant and the content was moving. The poems dealt with Jewish traditions, reminding one of folk ballads. The stories were for the most part written in Yiddish. These were short tales in the style of Perets, abounding with tenderness and humor, with limited dialog, the author's voice dominating the story, and tending to a story-within-a-story structure (which you developed later on a wider scale in The Bridal Canopy).

We were young readers and writers who wrote in secret in the Jewish towns; we saw you as a small rising star in the skies of our land. We were sheltered in the country of the Emperor [Austria-Hungary], warm and comfortable in our respectable poverty. And if our fellow Jews in Galicia complained of hardships and deprivation, this was minor compared to what resounded from the lands of malicious rule (Russia and Romania). And Zionist aspirations in Galicia were nothing but a means of pleasing the great leaders, the famous heroes whose love for Israel burned in their hearts and mouths, especially after the death of the truly admired leader, Dr. Herzl of blessed memory. We did not expect truly great literary figures to emerge in Galicia, for in years past Galicia had none. The opposite was true of our brothers beyond the border, the forceful Jews of Russia, whose misfortunes were as great as their formidable achievements.

The arrival of a few refugees from Russia who knew Hebrew was like a rude awakening for us. Shaken out of our stupor, we realized how narrow-minded we were and decided that something had to be done concerning our spiritual and intellectual enrichment. You were among the first to decide to turn the dream of the Return to Zion into reality. After the death of the Lion, we observed the foxes, his heirs, and we somewhat scorned them. We found it difficult to live among them, and wanted to flee from them and their followers. Then, on your way to Erets-Yisrael, you came to Lvov, where I first met you.

Surely you still remember that singular evening at the home of our friend, A. M. Lipshits, who spoke Hebrew in a heavy manner with a Sefardic pronunciation and was a source of encouragement to Hebrew speakers in our town. We were a small group, six or seven Hebraists, writers or teachers, and you were the young man from Buczacz on his way to the literary rostrum, the guest who was truly emigrating to Erets-Yisrael. Why? One did not need to ask. Each one of us was ready to emigrate to Erets-Yisrael and to subsist there on a pitta and two or three olives a day. We were prepared for a life of poverty, but a pure life, based on the principles of true nationalism and practical morality, engaging in agriculture, guard duty, or any task we knew of from the Mishna or from Hapoel Hatsair [The Young Worker]. However, there were still some delays. A. M. Lipshits, who was always eager to meet stimulating people, spoke that evening. As always, he ranged widely on a variety of subjects in an eloquent and humorous manner. At one point he turned to you and asked you read from your writings, and while doing so he discussed your work as well as that of great Jewish and gentile writers. You started to blush and your lips expressed both willingness and resistance; your dense hair pressed upon your worried-looking brow; your head was heavy and your back was slightly hunched over like that of a man who spends many hours reading. But, nonetheless, you walked over to your coat, a coat of a young man from a small town, searched through the pockets and also through a briefcase. You held a handful of small and large sheets, some in order and others turned upside down. You started leafing through them in a somewhat embarrassed manner, sifting and selecting until finally reading to us one story or poem after another, mainly in Yiddish, which lends itself to oral delivery. You read with a melodious voice with subtle emphasis and intonation. At one point you did not want to read anymore and intended to stop, but Lipshits urged you on. The rest of us were laughing and enjoying ourselves immensely, but your face constantly changed colors as you blushed. During an interval, things quieted down and refreshments were served. Our host once again spoke, comparing Jewish and gentile writers. He ventured to advise you somewhat obliquely and the rest of us added encouraging remarks. Once again our host urged you on, “I know you have written more. Let us hear.” You blushed yet again and insisted it was not a good idea and that really you had no more suitable items for reading aloud. Nonetheless, you once again went over to your coat and briefcase, pulled out a smaller packet than the previous one, and read us several short pieces of criticism. Written in an unconventional way, these were bold and sarcastic observations on several Jewish writers. I still recall that phrase of yours: “fingers inspecting a decomposed lung,” which you used in discussing Brenner's writings with mingled praise and censure.

You suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and refused to read further. All our pleadings were to no avail. It was as if you had locked your mouth and thrown away the key. We sat and spoke while you gazed at us as if a bit frightened and a bit curious, your eyes filled with a faraway sorrow or a dream of a foreign land with different skies. When it came close to midnight, we accompanied you to the Vienna Station. Outside there was a scent of cool spring, almost like a drizzling autumn. We stood there, five or six people with raised coat collars, while you bade us farewell. With a youthful Galician voice, you promised to write us from the Holy Land. We saw you set out into a night which would lead to a dawn of sun, mountains and fields. We returned somewhat sorrowfully to our dormant town and parted in a warmer fashion than usual.

For several months I heard no word of you. Then one day there arrived from Jaffa an issue of HaOmer in which I found your first outstanding story "Agunot " [Abandoned Wives]. At first I didn't know whether you, Czaczkes, were the author, because to "S.Y." was added the unknown and somewhat strange name "Agnon." I suspected it was you, but did not know for sure until I heard from A.M. Lipshits. He spoke of you proudly and lovingly, as if it were his own son who had become famous in that far-off land (later he proved his love in an elegant pamphlet). My heart instantly succumbed to that scented blossom of a tale evolving around a wondrous Jewish theme. I was deeply moved by the succinct but multi-layered description of the Holy Ark falling backwards out of the window into the garden. All eyes focused on your work and many congratulated you, saying "Yishar koakh" [Well done!] as they would to a young man who had read the Haftarah [Torah reading from Neviim (Prophets)] nicely. We were proud of our successful friend, a rising star who might very well become a great one.

Then came "Tishri", "Be'era Shel Mayim, "and "Akhot" [Sister], as well as other marvelous poetic and reflective Hebrew-Scandinavian-Agnonian stories. We have since come to see you as one clothed in rich silk garb, turning secular into sacred, reality into fantasy. You have joined our literary hall of fame beside such figures as Perets, Berditshevski and other masters. The last story, at the time, "VeHaya he-Akov le-Mishor" [And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight] was to us an ancient talisman you had polished and made to shine anew. It was a perfectly constructed epic tale in which the hidden-that-is-revealed more than balanced its emotional and rhetorical qualities. Even though we knew the story plot, your adaptation was woven anew with divine craftsmanship. We greatly supported Brenner's decision to become your publisher.

When, in Nissan 1914, I was fortunate enough to reach Erets-Yisrael, you were in Germany, I found several "fans" of yours who would speak of the young romantic lover of eccentricities and indulgences, loved by all and well acknowledged by writers. Shazar saw him as a friend, Sh. Ben-Tsion as a student and Brenner as a doer of wonders. Stories were told of you as if they had been taken out of a book of legends – all out of affection and faith in your future.

And you did not disappoint your followers: after the war appeared in succession Agadat HaSofer, HaNidakh[The Solitary],Maalot uMoradot [Ups and Downs] and the list goes on. Also given to us was HaOr Haneerav [The Evening Light] and, indeed, your light shines before you everywhere you go. And we also received Bi-Ne'areynu u-vi-Zekeneynu, a satire whose thin needles are buried in a wool fluff of humor and beautiful lyricism. For us, your fellow countrymen who were acquainted with the plot background, the enjoyment was twofold: that of art lovers and that of “accomplices.” Later appeared Bi-Demi Yameha [In the Prime of Life] in which western winds already blow, German culture leaving its mark. Yet your own wondrous weaving is present in every line. We were happy that you returned once again to the essence of literature: to life and reality. You were like the doe whose horns fan out as they grow. We understood your path in literature: you sought to reveal the light within the Jewish soul, heroism and spiritual devotion, love of the Torah and the yearning for Zion. Many of your stories praise Jerusalem, hasidim, people of action, and refined persons, and they denounce the ignorant, the assimilationists, the hypocrites and the misanthropes who help neither individuals nor community. In the new Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community in Erets-Yisrael], you loved the sons who were pleasing to God and nation, those who toiled to build the land while their souls aspired to the hidden light [haOr haGanuz 'saved seven days' light' for future tsadikim (Khagiga 12). Like a loving father who is engrossed in studying the Torah and communicates with his sons by signs, you tried to sing their song by allegory, exegesis, exposition and suggestion. And we witnessed how your language has been hewn from the marble quarry of our ancient and later literature, how you prefer the simple to the high-flown, how you revive words out of long-forgotten books. And we saw how you restore to public use words that people formerly would not dare to utter. You phrase your words clearly and rhythmically; you present ideas in a beautifully picturesque way that is always true to the sources. (We knew that you could not keep away from old books and parchment scrolls, and that you had become a great expert in finding all you needed.) We saw you, and I am not exaggerating, as a polisher of precious stones who chooses, polishes, and places his gems. We admired your work, although we knew of those who said that you over-embellished and sought to grow rich from mining old sources. These critics demanded that you speak like an ordinary human being so that they could plainly fathom who you were (M.Y. Berditshevski and others). For a time I too leaned towards this view and made a similar demand while referring to bi-Demi Yameha in an issue of Hedim. However, once I came to know your work as a whole and understood your style of writing (which has become second nature to you), I realized that no one may criticize you for what you lack. On the contrary, one should rejoice in the gifts that God has given you, gifts that enrich the human soul. Your oeuvre is plentiful; anyone may come and indulge in this literary plentitude. I also knew that no one should judge you for the few stories you wrote without divine inspiration (for who has not done so?) and for those which, though well-spiced, lacked the primary ingredients. But these are few compared to the many others that represent the essence of your work and that constantly reveal the vitality of your creative soul.

After perceiving the nature of your stories and how much you invested in them, I realized that all the praise you have won is well deserved. You, however, tended to underestimate your own work. I noted the exceptional way in which you compose your stories, for you do not aim to develop interest by plot alone. Rather, you try to reach the imaginative reader through serious substance that provokes thought. You use beautiful descriptions in epic style, portraying not by colors but by colorful dialogue. Your pen creates wonders as you concisely introduce traditional and sacred symbols in the language of scholars and believers [leshon khakhamim vekhasidim veyereim]. This vivid style is also seen in the Scandinavian Hamsun, the Frenchman Anatol France, the Jewish Yosef Perl and Glikl Hamlen, and in the works of the Bratslaver, Franz Kafka and other masters of mystery in the realm of literature. Your way of borrowing from old texts is as important as creating anew, for you take a bronze coin and return a gold one. I recall a passage in one of your short stories "Al Even Akhat" [Of One Stone]:“If we have entered this world in order to set right what previous generations have left undone, I can say that in certain respects I have succeeded in doing so.” I believe this passage describes an essential element of your work and its value. In this matter I refer especially to your bookPolin [Poland], first published by Hedim. Its beginnings go back to the book you edited in German during the war that beautifully portrayed the Jewish people in our native Poland. You found such a lovely motto for it in the Slikhot [supplicatory prayers recited before Rosh HaShana]: “Gentle Poland was destined to be kind to Torah and its practice from before the time the Jewish Commonwealth split into two (since Ephraim left Judah)." [see Isaiah 7:17]. The most beautiful sections are: "Maase HaEz" [Story of the Goat], and" Maase HaMeshulakh MeErets HaKodesh" [Story of the Emissary from the Holy Land," in which Poland and the Land of Israel are intertwined and where you reveal the way that leads from the one to the other.

We could not imagine greater courage and determination when we saw you working on an epic tale of the Jewish people. We were glad that the short version of The Bridal Canopy turned into a two-volume epic. Even though the seams are obvious in some places, we saw that you wonderfully combined all the materials into a homogeneous whole. You raised R' Yudl the Idler to new heights, turning him into a symbolic figure. You created a brother for Binyamin the 3rd and the rest of the idlers in the world who in their time were a gold mine for their owners. Even though the symbolic element in your idler is somewhat narrow, it is still richer and more complex than one sees at first glance. Due to his flimsy, weak, and almost wraithlike existence, you sentence him to bear many experiences, characters, fairytales, words of wisdom, Torah and anecdotes. Laden to the breaking point, he even carries the central character, R' Israel Shlomo Parnas, on his back without faltering. I only regret that you repeated a large part of the plot in a somewhat long and dry chorus.

Later on you added two more volumes to the four: one of them, A Simple Story,was completely new. However, title notwithstanding, the story is not simple, though it portrays simple Jews in everyday circumstances. Here you return to your wondrous weaving of human material, as can be seen in Be-Demi Yameha. Your fine filigree writing here shows acute perception of human nature. A single phrase brings the world to a standstill, a by-the-way remark illuminates a dark soul. One can find many fine picturesque and humorous passages. At one point, in the insanity episode, the story runs off track somewhat. Your cart wobbles for a while but finally arrives home safe and sound.

Your sixth volume (the last to date), Be-Shuva va-Nakhat,[In Return and in Rest – (see Isaiah 30:15)] – lives up to its name: legendary tales leisurely and tastefully told. It openswith Bilvav Yamim [In the Midst of the Seas – (see Jonah 2:4)] a tale on whose beauty many have commented. It is truly a fine hasidic story, a subtle work of art in praise of the first hasidim who emigrated to the Holy Land. It overflows with love for the Land of Israel; however, your magical pen does not transform all the miracles in the story into moving experiences – which miracles must be. This volume contains a number of legends of the greatest charm.

Web www.buchach.org

I have here surveyed almost your entire harvest, quickly examined your tools and implements at close hand, and I can say: May you be blessed for these bounteous gifts that so richly fill your granary: six handsome volumes, excellently edited and proofread, and bound in the best taste.

Whenever I take a volume of yours in hand and read any of its stories I immediately imagine you as I saw you that evening in Lvov. I see your blushing face and know what lies at the base of your work: your poetry originates from a youthful innocence of the soul. What blessing shall I wish you? I wish that that same gentle and sensitive soul who bursts forth from your writings will continue to do so in future volumes. You have been privileged to become a teller of tales in Israel; you have perfected your art uncompromisingly; your seal of originality is immediately detected. All those who try to imitate you are epigones. May you be blessed for many years to come.

I shall continue with my blessings and pray you find peace and solace with the Jewish people and in Erets-Yisrael. May our literature flourish like a fruitful garden. You will be placed among our greatest authors enjoying your art which in turn will bring joy to others. May our people be safe and sound and may they enjoy the teachings of their teachers. Amen.

My letter has become far too long and I have not even told you half of what is in my heart, but there will be time for that in future jubilees.

Yours truly, with love,

Asher Barash Ab, 1938