Agnon’s Ironic Spinning Top

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December 7, 2009
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Michal Govrin

Agnon’s sentences from Only Yesterday about the festival of Hannukah may be described as a human pyramid, the kind usually found in Chinese circuses where several acrobats stand on one another’s backs, so several voices and speakers are piggybacked here one on top of the other, until it is compelling to ask what is the import of that whole choir and not merely of one voice among them.

In order to lead the reader past the maze of voices, I reconstruct, briefly, my own process of discovery — a form of literary detective inquiry.  It all began with an e-mail from Sh’ma editor, Susan Berrin, asking that I respond to a short excerpt of an English translation from Only Yesterday that scourges the religious zealotry of Matityahu the Hasmonean. I read and was puzzled; had S.Y. Agnon actually turned so against Matityahu? With such graphic bluntness? Had he suddenly lent his voice to the ideological disputants and joined the cause of a searing anti-religious attack in the name of a universal, spiritual Judaism, California-style? Is this Agnon, the consummate ironist?

When I opened my Hebrew copy of the novel T’mol Shilshom and saw the quotation in its context, I realized that this was no ideological declaration on the part of Agnon, heaven preserve us, but rather remarks from the lips of a certain Malkhov, owner of a hostel in Jaffa, who is quoting the remarks of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, as published in his newspaper after the first Hanukkah ball at the art school Bezalel, where the founder, Boris Schatz, had erected a statue of Matityahu the Hasmonean, the very statue that had raised its sword against the revellers. As if that were not quite sufficient, among the interlocutors of Malkhov-Ben Yehudah-Boris Schatz-Matityahu, present in that same scene is Agnon himself in the figure of Hemdat, and none other than Yosef Haim Brenner, who, it would appear, bursts into such uproarious laughter that he has to grasp the table so as not to fall and finally apologizes for his vulgar laughter, a savage laugh.

I read it and my head spun from the whirlpool of voices, and in an effort to squeeze my head in among the characters, filled my desk to tottering with books, and embarked on a thrilling read of the visionary giants of generations past, most of them renounced zealots: From Matityahu the high priest, a descendant of Pinchas the zealot, and his impaling of sinners, through Ben Yehudah, whose zealotry for the Hebrew language sometimes verged on the ridiculous (one day when a scorpion crawled into his Jerusalem home toward his baby son and his frightened wife cried, literally, “scorpion,” Ben Yehudah refused to budge, for her shout had not been “in Hebrew”). I continued with the figure of the prophetic giant Brenner, the perennial controversy monger, and with the eccentric figure of Boris Schatz, and his statue of Matityahu raising his sword as a frightening old man, and could not decide if he was a kind of Michelangelo’s Moses risen to his feet, or a Santa Claus turned aggressive. But imagine my surprise to find that even Malkhov was not fiction, but fact — a follower of Chabad, a friend of Yosef Haim Brenner since their  yeshivah days. That same Malkhov had a guest house in Jaffa by the sea, and contributed to the renaissance of Israeli festivals and writing; the quoted sentences from Only Yesterday are taken almost verbatim from Malkhov’s eulogy of Ben Yehudah. And then I discovered that a relation of mine, the researcher Nurit Govrin, dedicated a detailed essay to Malkhov, and in that moment, in the dizziness between identity and fiction, a creeping anxiety found its way into my heart that perhaps it was to Nurit the researcher, and not to me the novelist, that the question was intended.

But the more I immersed myself in reading, the more I saw how many ideological shake-ups each of those figures went through in their turbulent lives, and how that whole period of the First Aliyah, and the Second, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, was paved with fierce debate over questions of identity and vision. Those subjects do not merely continue to preoccupy us to this day, as if not a thing has changed (starting from the tension between secular and religious, for instance, and ending in the question of Jewish settlement among Arabs), but rather the zealousness of the debate then lends our period, for all its divisions, rather a pale complexion.

There’s little space here to describe Boris Schatz and his statue, or Ben Yehudah’s internal conflicts, which led him to write what he did about the ball at Bezalel; or to debate the question of whether Brenner was a believer of sorts or anti-religious; or to delve into the relations between Brenner and the Hassid Malkhov. Nor will I get into the question of how it came about that secular Zionism renewed the festival of Hanukkah by emphasizing the heroic religious zealotry of Matityahu and his sons, but identified with their nationalism side by side with emphatically singing, almost as a hymn, the song “We Are Bearing Torches,” which includes the atheist lines: “We saw no miracle; we found no jar of oil.”

I will not address all that, rather the fact that these same anti-zealous sentences are a part of a paradoxical pyramid of voices. Perhaps Agnon tried to hint to us to avoid the sin of hubris (a Greek sin, perhaps involved in Hanukkah), the sin of the ideological ego: the single voice that pretends it holds truth (or perhaps God) by the beard. Perhaps thus he reminds us how much the Jewish drama, in all generations, is full of zealotry. But, then as now, we are all in one boat, and it has many paddles, and almost always they are not rowing together but each in his own direction. And how through a miracle, as in a circus show, the boat somehow manages to keep travelling forward, both in the days of the First and Second Aliyah, and in the 21st century, even between California and Jerusalem.

Perhaps thus, and in the savage laughter of Brenner, Agnon conveys with delicate and biting irony his anti-zealous message, a multivocal message. And perhaps it is the miracle of Hanukkah, which has not been emptied of its oil: the ability to laugh even at the shake-ups of belief and history. For they are like that very spinning top, which sometimes falls on “nun” for ness (miracle) and sometimes on “pei” for po (here), and if we play with the top not in Israel but in the Diaspora, it will fall on “shin” for sham (there). And everyone is merely a different face of one spinning top, a choir of voices and commentaries on one page. All part of one novel.

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Michal Govrin was born in Tel Aviv, the daughter of an Israeli pioneer father and a mother who survived the Holocaust. She is a novelist, poet, and theater director. Govrin has published nine books of poetry and fiction, including The Name, which received the Kugel Literary Prize and was nominated for the Koret Jewish Book Award in its English translation. Her book Snapshots was awarded the 2003 ACUM Prize for the best literary achievement. Govrin’s innovative book of prose poetry, laid out as a Talmud page, The Making of the Sea: a Chronicle of Interpretation, was published with etchings by Liliane Klapisch, while Body of Prayer was printed in New York under the co-authorship of Jacques Derrida and David Shapiro. Translated from the Hebrew, with editing by Atar Hadari, whose Songs from Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators Association Award.

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