Elchanan Poupko

Isaac Bashevis and Shai Agnon, national writers

Agnon's home library. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Stories are the heart and soul of who were are as a people. From the stories of Creation, Noah, and the flood, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, slavery and exodus from Egypt, and so much more, stories stand at the heart and soul of who we are as a people. As scholars point out, while stories continue to be recorded until the end of the era of the first temple and the beginning of the second, there is an abrupt end to the era of story writing in the history of our people. For two thousand years, stories have stopped being written. It was as if there was nothing worthy of writing about. There was nothing natural about the state of our people that was worth preserving. Nothing to share, nothing to transmit, nothing to give testimony to. 

When historians want to write about Jewish history, they often turn to the halachic responsa literature or communal Pinkas–record. There was nowhere else worthy of sharing what was happening.

The Torah obliges us to tell the story of our people. Yet the rabbis forbade the reading and writing of books such as Ben Sira, which existed for vain reasons. The great poets of Spain and Ashkenaz, such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, began writing poetry–one of praise for the Almighty or mourning loss. So came about the Kinot, Akdamot, and other texts, all of which had a religious meaning, yet still, they were not stories. 

As printing and publishing became more accessible, what began breaking this trend were books of Meshalim–parables. These ideas would explain ideas about the Parsha and the Torah. 

The first to fully break with this tradition of writing was Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, whose student rabbi Natan published his sipurey Ma’asiyot. This was not just about the textual break. Still, it was also part of the more significant Hassidic movement, which began engaging in telling the stories about Tzadikim and Hasidic masters in a more deliberate and detailed way. 

It is on the heels of this that we find Jewish authors in the 20th Century beginning to suddenly engage in a world that was so much part of their ancient world, yet such an extraordinary break from their tradition. These writers tried to make sense of the world they grew up in with tools from outside their community. It reminds you of people who grow up in the Hasidic and Orthodox world today and then go out and make a movie about what that life is like. These attempts are sometimes received well by the Orthodox community and sometimes resented. Yet it is hard to judge someone using the tools of the world they belong to now to make sense of the world they grew up in. 

Stories can have the role of trying to bring about a better future and inspire change; like Marx and others, they can be used as an ideological critique, like the book animal farm, but they can also be used to try and preserve a world lest it is gone. 

To understand a lot of Yiddish writing and to understand both Agnon, Bashevis and the posthumous popularity of people like Shalom Aleichem, we need to understand what the Shtetl meant to us. 

The Shtetl was the way of life for millions of Jews for many hundreds of years. Sure, there were Jews in the big cities. Yet, the stories of the Shtetl are also the stories of those living in the big cities. 

The synagogue as the center of life, the role of the rabbi, the chazan, the gvir, the askan, the melamed, the kabtzan (beggar), the Meiser, the water carrier, the Magid, the Poritz, the antisemites, the balabos–all could not just disappear. The role of romance, money, piety, status, family, and much more remains ever the most relevant. These themes cross borders and continents. Many of them remain true regardless of Century, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, young or old. Many of these themes capture ideas and dilemmas that capture minds and hearts across cultures. 

It is why shows like Shtisel, the new black, Fiddler on the Roof, and other plays about the closed Orthodox world, fascinate so many audiences in so many languages. 

As Jews became emancipated and began moving to cities, as three million Jews moved to America between 1880-1920, there was a need to make sense of it all. To make sure it didn’t all just disappear. There was a need to make sure that even though we were not living in those environments, to remember of what was and what was lost and to make sense of what made us who we are. This is where Yiddish writers stepped in. 

Anyone visiting Yad Vashem or the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, will see the vast resources and scholarship studying the destruction the Nazis brought on our people. Yet today, especially in Israel, there is growing attention given to memorializing what was lost. The Six Million are obviously the most heartbreaking and greatest loss. Yet with them, we lost Jewish communities that existed for hundreds, and in some cases for over a thousand years. 

We will see that both Agnon and Bashevis saw their post-Holocaust role as a sacred role to memorialize and give testimony to the life that once was. Each did it to their respective audience, each in their own way. Agnon in Hebrew and an Israeli audience of Kibbutzniks, Jews who came from Arab countries, members of the old Yishuv, and German Jews who may have not seen that world before. Bashevis in Yiddish to a Jewish and non-Jewish American audience who may have rejected that world for a modern America. 

Isaac Bashevis Singer is to Yiddish what Israeli author Shai Agnon is to Hebrew; both embodied the languages they spoke, both brought those languages into the 20th Century, and both made a language that seemed to have declining relevance to a growing audience. While Agnon embodied the return of an empowered Jewish people to their homeland and a revival of their ancient language, Bashevis embodied the perpetuation of the Jew in exile with all of his wit, culture, humor, sarcasm, and even powerlessness. 

The life of Bashevis is the life of helping transplant the Yiddish of a vanishing European Jewry to the shores of the Golden Medina–the golden land of America. While Agnon, throughout his life, drifted towards tradition, Bashevis, like many other Yiddish-speaking Jews, drifted away from tradition. 

So who was Isaac Bashevis Singer, and why is he so important to 20th-century Jewry?

Bashevis was born in 1902 or 1904 in a small town in Poland and later grew up in a poor quarter in Warsaw. While he was born Isaac Singer, he named himself Bashevis to honor his mother, Batsheva, who was murdered by the nazis in the Holocaust. Taking a name after one’s own mother was not uncommon among European Jews, which is how names like Chaikin, Rivkin, Ruchamkin, Shprintzak, Chankin, and others came into place. 

Like most Jews of his age, Isaac grew up in a very religious home. His mother, Bathsheba was the daughter of the rabbi of Biłgoray (not to be confused with the Belzer Rebbes father, who I am told is not the same person). Isaac’s father was a rabbi and a Rosh Yeshiva. He later wrote that his home was a house of study, a judicial court, and house for communal meetings, and much more.  

Like many religious Jews, Isaac did not read any non-Jewish literature until the age of twelve, but then as he grew more and more curious, Isaac began reading more and more science and philosophy-related writings. 

At the age of 16, due to the heavy poverty and hunger in Warsaw, Isaac moved with his mother to his grandparents in Bilogrei. In the meantime, Isaac’s siblings, Yisrael and Yehoshua, left Jewish observance and became Yiddishists. While Isaac is the one who ended up far more famous, most of Isaac’s life was following and entering the doors opened to him by his older brother Yehoshua. Yehoshua drew him into the world of Jewish writers, sponsored his arrival in America, and a job at the Forward. 

At the age of 20, Isaac returned to Warsaw on an invitation from his older brother Yisrael who was now a well-known Author. Yisrael also advised Israel to raze off his traditional pe’ot on the sides of his head and abandon his traditional Jewish look. 

Very quickly, Isaac entered the world of Warsaw’s Jewish Maskilim and Epikorsim, those who considered themselves agnostic or atheists and were detached and even rebellious towards the Jewish faith. These Yiddishists aspired to hedonism (despite the very poor conditions in Warsaw) and prided themselves on atheism or agnostics. 

His sister Esther Kreitman, who was a writer and had a significant influence on him, had an arranged marriage in 1912 and moved to Antwerp following her husband, who was a diamond cutter. They then moved to London, which probably saved her life from the Holocaust. Her unhappy marriage, and his own, led Bashevis to write a lot about the conflict between love and practicality. 

In 1935 Bashevis, fearing the Nazis moved to America, where he joined his brother, leaving his wife and son Yisrael Zamir alone. They later fled to Soviet Russia and from there to Palestine. Bashevis never showed great interest in his son, who later became the translator of some of his books and the protector of Bashevis’ legacy. 

In America, Bashevis began writing for the Yiddish-speaking newspaper Forvorts, where he also began writing in English. 

In New York, he met Alma Wassermann, who was a German Jewish refugee who left her husband and children to marry him. While the two hardly had anything in common, and she barely spoke Yiddish, his relationship with her allowed him to do much of his work. Despite Bashevis’s lack of religious observance, his writing and imagination were greatly impacted by the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbala. 

It is important to note that Bashevis was both capturing the Shtetl, and criticizing it. He reminisces over so much of what it was, yet he highlights the hypocrisy of fake piety and double standards in religious observance. Bashevis does not hide from you which side he is on. He loves the simplicity and wholesomeness of the Shtetl and resents the hypocrisy and injustices it harbored. 

Bashevis Singer’s Nobel speech is very much a masterclass in who Bashevis is all about. It is also extremely important in understanding the unique character of Yiddish. Interestingly, much of what Bashevis says in this speech about Yiddish is also true for Pennsylvania, Dutch, spoken by Amish people worldwide. It is also required reading when coming to understand much of the Hasidic community and the aspiration for self-governance in the orthodox community. 

Here is what he said: 

“The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews.”

“The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than studying man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Kabala. The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline, and in humanism. 

“As such, it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it. I was brought up among those people. My father’s home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets. 

As a child, I had heard from my older brother and master, I. J. Singer, who later wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi, all the arguments that the rationalists from Spinoza to Max Nordau brought out against religion. I have heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes, the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism, I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, and their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation.

 To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience, and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, and each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command, but it muddles through, sneaks by, and smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.

“There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries, but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Kabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

So similar, yet so very different, from Bashevis was another Jewish literature Nobel Laureate–Shai Agnon. 

As the differences between science and fiction, poetry and jazz, comedy, and eulogies, so are the differences between Agnon and Bashevis. Sure, both are literary giants, but of a very different kind. Where Bashevis was cynical, Agnon was serious; where Bashevis was questioning or even agnostic, Agnon was of deep faith; while Bashevis questioned man’s intentions, Agnon had deep faith in the sanctity of man’s actions. Agnon was to rabbinic literature what Eliezer Ben Yehuda was to ancient Hebrew. Agnon revived rabbinic literature and made it part of modern Hebrew. Agnon turned Halacha and the sanctity of everyday actions into part of Israeli culture. Agnon created literature that was both secular and deeply religious, both fictional and realistic, synthesizing what was sacred in the Shtetl and renewed in the land of Israel. So who was Shai Agnon?

Shai Agnon was born in the town of Butchach, near Leviv, at that time, a part of Austo-Hungarian Galicia. His wit and style of Talmud and Midrashic discourse very much echo the witty style of Galicia Torah scholars. 

Agnon grew up in a traditional Jewish home; his father was an ordained rabbi who ran a successful business for a living. At a young age, Agnon began writing in Hebrew, composing poems and stories. He also helped edit a local Yiddish newspaper. 

In 1908, Agnon parted with his family and community and moved to Israel alone. On his way to Israel, Agnon visited Vienna, where his uncle tried to dissuade him from moving. Agnon did not listen. He arrived in Israel and moved to the city of Jaffa, which was a center for writers and publishers. From then on, Agnon insisted on writing in Hebrew only. In Jaffa, he worked for local publications and met someone who would become his lifelong friend, the legendary author Chaim Nachman Bialik.  

In 1912, Arthur Rupin, a leading Zionist figure, offered Agnon to accompany him on a visit to Germany, a visit that would change his life. Agnon decided to remain in Germany, where he made a living from tutoring in Hebrew. In Berlin, Agnon met leading Jewish writers and influential creators, yet one connection he made in Germany would change his life forever–Shlomo Zalman Shoken. In addition to being very wealthy and beginning to support Agnon financially, Shoken would eventually buy a publishing house in Germany and would go on to found Israel’s leading newspaper and publishing house. This would give Agnon a convenient path to having his works published and recognized. 

When WWI broke out, Agnon injured himself so as not to serve in the German army and was hospitalized for five months, something that would hurt his long-term health.  

In 1924 when living in a suburb of Frankfurt, Agnon’s home caught fire, and his beloved library and many of his most precious manuscripts caught fire. Heartbroken by this loss, his friend 

Franz Rosenzweig tells him fire does not erase; only death erases. It is now for him to recreate what he has already written. 

The fire shook Agnon’s consciousness, and he moved back to Israel. Despite there being few authors and cultural leaders in Jerusalem, Agnon moved to Jerusalem and started wearing a Kippa. From then on, Jerusalem, its sanctity, and faith would be central to Agnon’s writing. Despite many authors asking him to move to Tel Aviv, Agnon insisted on living in Jerusalem. When his old friend from Germany, Zalman Shoken, bought the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Agnon started publishing in Ha’aretz. 

Agnon’s writing inspires many young Israeli authors, such as Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua. Agnon did not leave his home often and dedicated himself completely to writing. At this point, Shoken begins lobbying for Agnon to get a Nobel in Stockholm.  

Agnon’s stories were gentle and wholesome and captures complex and even violent situations, such as the conflict of Israel with its neighbors, in poetic and noble terms. One of his stories titled “from an enemy to a friend” (Me’oyev le’ohev) tells the tale of someone trying to build a home in Jerusalem, and the wind taking it down every time, speaking of the tale of Jews trying to rebuild their lives in Israel. 

Yet, perhaps more than his own writings, nothing captures Agnon’s traditionalism as much as his Nobel speech. There, on the most prestigious world stage, Agnon spoke of the rabbinic literature, the sanctity, and the Jewish traditions that inspired him. Here is what he said:” 

“Our sages of blessed memory have said that we must not enjoy any pleasure in this world without reciting a blessing. If we eat any food, or drink any beverage, we must recite a blessing over them before and after. If we breathe the scent of goodly grass, the fragrance of spices, the aroma of good fruits, we pronounce a blessing over the pleasure. 

It happened when the Swedish Chargé d’Affaires came and brought me the news that the Swedish Academy had bestowed the Nobel Prize upon me. Then I recited in full the blessing that is enjoined upon one that hears good tidings for himself or others: «Blessed be He, that is good and doeth good. in that the good God put it into the hearts of the sages of the illustrious Academy to bestow that great and esteemed Prize upon an author who writes in the sacred tongue; «that doeth good », in that He favored me by causing them to choose me. And now that I have come so far, I will recite one blessing more, as enjoined upon him who beholds a monarch: «Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who hast given of Thy glory to a king of flesh and blood. Over you, too, distinguished sages of the Academy, I say the prescribed blessing: «Blessed be He, that has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood. »

It is said in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 23a): In Jerusalem, the men of discrimination did not sit down to dine in company until they knew who their companions were to be»; so I will now tell you who am I, whom you have agreed to have at your table.

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.

(Out of respect for the time, the rest of my words will be read in translation only.)

I belong to the Tribe of Levi; my forebears and I are of the minstrels that were in the Temple, and there is a tradition in my father’s family that we are of the lineage of the Prophet Samuel, whose name I bear.

I was five years old when I wrote my first song. It was out of longing for my father that I wrote it. It happened that my father, of blessed memory, went away on business. I was overcome with longing for him and I made a song. After that I made many songs, but nothing has remained of them all. My father’s house, where I left a roomful of writings, was burned down in the First World War and all I had left there was burned with it. The young artisans, tailors, and shoemakers, who used to sing my songs at their work, were killed in the First World War and of those who were not killed in the war, some were buried alive with their sisters in the pits they dug for themselves by order of the enemy, and most were burned in the crematories of Auschwitz with their sisters, who had adorned our town with their beauty and sung my songs with their sweet voices.

The fate of the singers who, like my songs, went up in flame was also the fate of the books which I later wrote. All of them went up in flame to Heaven in a fire which broke out one night at my home in Bad Homburg as I lay ill in a hospital. Among the books that were burned was a large novel of some seven hundred pages, the first part of which the publisher had announced he was about to bring out. Together with this novel, called Eternal Life, was burned everything I had written since the day I had gone into exile from the Land of Israel, including a book I had written with Martin Buber as well as four thousand Hebrew books, most of which had come down to me from my forebears and some of which I had bought with money set aside for my daily bread.

I said, «since the day I had gone from the Land of Israel», but I have not yet related that I had dwelt in the Land of Israel. Of this I will now speak.

At the age of nineteen and a half, I went to the Land of Israel to till its soil and live by the labour of my hands. As I did not find work, I sought my livelihood elsewhere. I was appointed Secretary of the 

Before concluding, I would say a brief prayer: He who giveth wisdom unto the wise and salvation unto kings, may He increase your wisdom beyond measure and exalt your sovereign. In his days and in ours, may Judah be redeemed and Israel dwell in safety. May a redeemer come to Zion, may the earth be filled with knowledge and eternal joy for all who dwell therein, and may they enjoy much peace. May all this be God’s will. Amen.”

Both Agnon and Bashevis gave life to the Shtetl, to a world that was lost, and to what it would mean to be a Jew in this new world in which Jews find themselves. They helped a traumatized and born-again people grapple with some of the most difficult questions they had, to reconnect to where they came from, and march forward to the world they were creating. May their memories be a blessing. 

(The article is based on my notes for my lecture series “Jews of the Nobel” given in Park East Synagogue, New York).

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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