Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories have changed our country and the world.
Name: Shai Agnon (born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes)
Date of Birth: 17th July 1888, Buczacz, Poland (now Buchach, Ukraine)
Date of Death: 17th February 1970, Jerusalem, Israel
Claim to Fame: Nobel Laureate for Literature
In 1970… Shai Agnon passed away
Born in Buczacz (Buchach) to a religious businessman, Shai Agnon was home-schooled by his parents in Yiddish and German. He studied traditional Jewish texts as well as the Haskalah, and began writing aged eight, publishing his first poem at age 15.
In 1908, Agnon moved to Jaffa in Ottoman Palestine where his first published pieces appeared in a journal. He relocated to Germany in 1913, where he married and had two children. He published short stories in Israeli and German newspapers and co-authored a book of Hasidic stories.
Agnon was a keen collector of rare manuscripts, and in 1924, a fire destroyed his collection and all his personal papers. He moved back to Palestine and settled in Talpiot, Jerusalem. He continued writing, with stories set in all the places he lived. Despite another fire, he remained in Israel, the place he loved most.
So close, in fact, was Agnon’s connection to Jerusalem that when accepted his Nobel Prize, he said: “I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But I always regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.” His pain over the Jews’ exile was so acute that he said that his birthday was on the ninth of Av (the fast day commemorating and mourning the loss of the Temple).
Agnon often cited the Bible as his chief source of inspiration and often wrote about Judaism. He wove events from his own remarkable life into the fabric of his stories. As an early Hebrew writer, his language sometimes differs from the Hebrew used today, but is similar to biblical language. His work also deals with the conflicts between traditional religion and the modern world. It is the subject of extensive academic research.
Shai Agnon is probably the most celebrated Jewish writer to ever have lived. He received both the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize for literature twice (1934 & 1950 and 1954 & 1958, respectively). Agnon won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, for his “profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people”.
After Agnon’s death, his daughter continued publishing his work. The family also transferred his archive to the Jerusalem’s National Library, where it remains as one of Israel’s proudest collections. Agnon’s Jerusalem home is now a museum, and his study is preserved intact. Several roads and a synagogue bear his name. His childhood home in Buchach is preserved on what is now called “Agnon Street”.
As a celebrated writer, Agnon lives on through his work. He penned countless novels and novellas, as well as short stories, anthologies, and a collection of essays. Additionally, an iconic Jerusalem restaurant is named for one of his most famous works, Tmol Shilshom.
Agnon rests in the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem.
Previously: 1969: Golda Meir
Up next: 1971: Chaim Topol