Page 38 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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by trains. Their work was a record of migration, the embarka-
tion points, what boats, books, ideas, trains, bird-wings, and
passports were available, what pogroms kicked them out, what
borders barred their welcome, a record familiar as the ground we
walk on.
On this trip, paid or not, the bridge builder served as teacher,
moral guide, and entertainer for the trip, speaking with em-
battled decency, whether seriously or in black humor. Peretz
served the Polish Jewish community as a cemetery official. Sholem
Aleichem worked as a “Russian” rabbi. Before his welcome rally
at Cooper Union, he proclaimed, “I reach the United States for
the second time. On my first arrival, in 1905, the Crimean War
broke out. Now has broken out a World War. God help the
universe should I ever reach this country again!” The black am-
bassador, as it were, presented his credentials. Bialik, in Tel
Aviv, weekly led his own Oneg Shabbat. A practiced cantor, his
singing and introductions helped shape the local culture, like a
Temple service in America.
Such a role is alien to Agnon. His temperament is more private.
In 1924 he settled in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. For years, he has
received a stipend from the Schocken Press, like a medieval poet
from a princely patron. When asked why he never learned Eng-
lish, his reported reply was, never to have to give a lecture tour.
The Nobel Prize drew him to Stockholm. Only that could bring
him to New York. His colleagues tumble into the modern sea;
Agnon still lives in his shtetl.
Agnon is closer to those solitary literary aristocrats before
Bialik, so isolated they might marvel, like Lear to Cordelia:
. . . so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk of them too,
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
God’s spies, those early Haskalah masters, like the medieval kab-
balists, were detached from mass culture, with no precise geog-
raphy, their Czar and Grand Rabbi blurred into Pharaoh and
Moses. But whereas many of them choked in a fury of frustration,
writing catalogues of self-excoriation, Agnon enjoys his isolation,
and would not change it. He daily studies the Midrash, the an-
cient Biblical commentary, and then writes. He reads a book
only if someone he trusts forces it in his hand. He lives in an
Orthodox shtetl, not a housing unit, or a notch of history. His
wayward temperament still shows all its sharp points and edges.