By: Tzlil Reich


Who is Shmuel Yoseph Agnon and what where major themes in his works?


I chose Shmuel Yoseph Agnon as the subject for my bagrut project because Agnon has always been an inspiration in my house, starting with a Biblical discourse on Shabbat meals and finishing off with a bed time story my dad used to read to me before I went to sleep. As a child I had no interest and no understanding in the magic of Agnon's words, the simplicity of his ideas, and the genius behind his writing. Over the years, on school field trips, I went to Agnon's house in Jerusalem and I heard about all the tragedies and disappointments he went through throughout his life. I guess I just wanted to learn more about the man whose literature affected so many people and who was awarded for writing stories in our language, Hebrew, in his house in Jerusalem.

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Shmuel Yoseph Agnon

Shmuel Yoseph Agnon was born on July 17, 1988. He was one of the greatest Jewish/Israeli novelists and short story writers. Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. Irony, religious storytelling, surrealism and personal life story are some of the characterization in Agnon's writing. Agnon explored the experiences of the Jews in Eastern Europe throughout history. His writing is a blend of classic and rabbinic, Hebrew and Yiddish, mixed with spoken Hebrew.

Agnon was born in Buczacz, Galicia. His father received a traditional education so he provided the same education for his son. Agnon obtained a deep knowledge of rabbinical texts, due to the studies of scripture that were at the center of the Jewish community. At the early age of eight Agnon wrote his first works in both Hebrew and Yiddish. His first poems, both in Yiddish and Hebrew, were published in a newspaper at the age of 15. Once Agnon left his home in Buczacz he did not write in Yiddish again.

In 1907 Agnon moved to Jaffa, Israel (then called Palestine) where he worked in clerical jobs. Agnon took his name from the title of his story "Agunot" which became his legal surname in 1924. In 1912 Agnon went to Berlin where he continued his literature studies. His first book, published in 1912 was, "And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight". Agnon was in Germany during World War I where he helped establish the Journal "Der Jude" (The Jew). During this period of time Agnon met Salman Schocken who became his patron and publisher, and his wife, Esther Marx. Agnon returned to Jerusalem in 1924 and remained there for the rest of his life.

During the early 1930s Agnon's writing was published in Germany, but when the Nazis closed the Schocken publishing house, the company moved to Tel-Aviv, which brought Agnon's works to new readers. In the late 1950s, Edmund Wilson, a critic on literary works, submitted Agnon's name to receive a Nobel Prize and in 1962 the city of Jerusalem made him an honorary citizen. Agnon died of a heart attack on Febuary 17, 1970. He was buried on the Mount of Olives.

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The story of Tehila is a story about a woman who has lived her life, filled with regrets, for a mistake made when she was younger. Now, years later, she decides to make amends for this mistake and write an apology to the man whose heart she broke.
The narrator of the story is an "omniscient narrator". Agnon wants to introduce Tehila to the reader through the eyes of the other characters in the plot. Parallel to this, he keeps Tehila's thoughts a bit mysterious so the reader does not know all of her thoughts and can imagine how the plot is going to develop. "The globe of the eye is limited", says Agnon in his story. This is how he gains the reader's confidence and obtains his trust. The reader feels that Agnon is going to reveal all the story's mysteries.

The plot is written in a mythical way. The moral of the story, that everyone and everything has a reason behind it and every meeting is a plan from above, is revealed to the reader from the start and it is clear what the plot is based on. The story is realistic because it is written in a non-fictional way and it occurs in Jerusalem, a city that we all know and love. Tehila has mysterious powers that the reader becomes aware of throughout the story, For example, when Tehila goes to the "Kotel"
(Wailing Wall), with a single piercing look she convinces a British soldier to give her a stool to sit on. Another example is the fact that she knows the exact day of her passing. All this and more show us a great deal of power that is hidden in her strong character.

There is a contradicting analogy throughout the story between Tehila, the main character, and other significant characters in the plot. For example, Tehila meets the narrator and is interested in his life yet, when the narrator meets the rabbi, he is not interested in him and is so preoccupied in his studies that he doesn’t even pay attention to the narrator. Tehila appreciates the new generation and its development yet she still chooses to live her life simply. She is kind and gentle despite all the hardships she has been through, being reduced from prominence to deprivation.

Tehila had two sons and a daughter; both of her sons pass away before they turn 13, and although it is not mentioned explicitly, the reader assumes that her daughter converted to Christianity. This broke her heart. Tehila's husband dies on his journey to look for their beloved daughter. Tehila's life is filled with tragedy. She is convinced that tragedies are haunting her because of her original mistake. In writing the apology letter she hopes to "come clean" so that she may obtain forgiveness before she dies.

I think we can all learn from Tehila and her remarkable personality. She is a woman that recognizes her mistakes and commits her whole life to making amends for her "original sin". I think Agnon has created a character in such a way that leaves the reader no choice but to fall in love with her, her mysterious ways and her amazing way of life.

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"And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight"

Sometimes in life we take paths that lead us nowhere but around in circles. We wonder why we keep ending back in the same predictable place we were not so long ago, but the saying is true, "if nothing is changed in reference to one's character, then one can expect the same, with a dash of seven times worse this time." Nothing and no one can change you, but you with persistence in wanting better in life, and going after what you feel is the best for you, you can change yourself.

"And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight" is strictly about taking paths less taken by others. Menashe Haim is a man who had it all, a shop that provided a good income, a loving wife and the support of his community. One day a man from their community decided he had an interest in their shop. He did everything in his power to cause Menashe and his wife Kreindel Tsharni to lose their shop, and with that their income.

Poverty was new to the two, and now that they had no income they had to find a different way to support themselves. Menashe Haim becomes a beggar and leaves his hometown and his wife so he can collect money and come back to his wife proud and wealthy, but things don’t turn out the way he planned. He is not successful as a beggar. Menashe Haim decides to sell his "beggar form" and come back home.

On the way home Menashe decides to stop at a bar and celebrate his home coming, but it ends up differently and Menashe looses his money and gets kicked out of the bar. He comes back to his home town and finds out Kreindel is married to another man and has a child by him, a child that they have always wanted together but they had believed she was a childless women. Full of grief and suffering he goes to the nearby graveyard and lays in an open grave. Eventually, Menashe dies in that grave and is buried in it.

I think the story, "And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight" is one of Agno'ns darkest and most lonely novels. It tells a story of desperation and loneliness but still shows faith and a never ending love between a couple that had everything going against them. However, they still had faith and love between them. Kreindel was a sign of hope and good, and even when Menashe Haim got as low as he could go, he thought of coming back to her, Kreindel Tsharni, his beloved wife.

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A Memory of Jerusalem

When I was a young girl every trip to Jerusalem was an amazing experience.
At the age of 4 my parents decided to go and live in LA and support the American Jewish community we lived in LA for two and a half years but in the middle of that time it was my brothers Bar- Mitzvah and my parents were debating about what the family should do, because my brother grew up in Israel and was a proud Israeli Jew they had to decide if we will come to Israel to celebrate his Bar- Mitzvah or stay in America and that way all of his new friends would be able to come as well.

My brother had a hard time making a decision just like my parents so our whole family sat and brought up the reasons we should go to Israel or stay in LA. I was a little girl that admired her country and its beauty so once I heard the dilemma I had no question about the answer that must be given.

While we were sitting together in the living room I went to my room and got a picture of my mom holding me as a baby next to the Western Wall (The Kotel) that is in Jerusalem. The moment my family saw the picture it was clear as a diamond that the Bar – Mitzvah had to be in Israel close to our home and are beloved country and all of this happened only because of one picture that had a huge impact over my family, a picture of Jerusalem.


Shmuel Yoseph Agnon was an inspiration for Jews all over the world and his works are still studied in all of the schools in Israel. Agnon knew how to take the Hebrew language and make an art out of it. It’s an art that a lot have tried to accomplish yet very few seemed to succeed.

I learned from this work that if you have faith you can achieve all that you dream about. Agnon, who was born in Buczacz, Galicia, a Jewish community in Poland that did not have a lot to offer a boy with a dream, but Agnon loved writing and wanted to write no matter what the conditions were. So, he began writing for a public paper and grew from there into an amazing writer.

I believe that if people really study and learn Agnon's art in depth they will find inspiration to succeed in everything. By doing this project I learned that even a novelist like Shmuel Yoseph Agnon had to conquer his fears and face all the criticism out there until his dream could become his life.


Jewish Virtual Library:
The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise , "Shmuel Yosef Agnon." jewish virtual library. 1998.
18 Apr 2007

Noble Prize:
Agnon, Shmuel Yosef. "Samuel Agnon's speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm." Nobel Prize. 16 March 2007. 18 Apr 2007

Shmuel Yosef Agnon in the Hebrew-language Wikipedia. Retrieved. 5, January, 2005, "Shmuel Yosef Agnon." 17 April 2007. wikipedia. 18 Apr 2007
Shmuel Yoseph Agnon, Author and Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature. October 21st 1966. 18 Apr 2007