He Cast a Giant Shadow


Mor Altshuler

Modern Hebrew writing is deeply rooted in earlier literature, especially Agnon.

"Ve-hi tehilatekha" by Nitza Ben-Dov, Schocken Publishing, 336 pages

Nitza Ben-Dov's book resembles an ancient mythological novel about a legendary grandfather, mysterious and powerful, revered and indifferent, whose grandchildren have never rebelled against him. Many years after his death they dared to break away, only to discover that he has left some of his power with them, and that with their help he continues to reinvent the world each day. The grandchildren are A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, of the generation of Israeli authors that began to flourish during the 1960s and 1970s. The mythological grandfather is, of course, S.Y. Agnon, who sheds his light - or perhaps casts his shadow - over their writing today.

Yehoshua, according to the book, has said: "Dostoevsky once claimed that all Russian literature emerged from under Gogol's "The Cloak." Following his example, Amos Oz has said that Israeli literature was born out of S.Y. Agnon's wonderful novella 'In the Prime of Her Life.'" Oz himself, in the memoir "A Tale of Love and Darkness," uses the word "shadow" to describe Agnon as he remembers him from his childhood, when Oz and his parents used to visit the author's house in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood: "a man swaying in the half-light, with three or four separate shadows around him as he walked, in front of him, to his right, behind him, above him, or beneath his feet" (from the English translation by Nicholas de Lange, Harvest Books).

A figure surrounded by shadows brings to mind such legendary heroes as the biblical patriarch Jacob or the Baal Shem-Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, both of whom are said to have walked flanked by angels and demons. A shadow is also an image for death, and "to cast a long shadow" means to establish an illustrious legacy that sometimes paralyzes those who inherit it and sometimes challenges them, enhancing their abilities.

Soft glow
This is what happened to the two Israeli novelists that have shaped the country's literary climate from the 1960s on. Ben-Dov, a literary scholar from the University of Haifa, describes how Oz and Yehoshua abandoned the realist fiction of the 1948 generation, a fiction set outdoors and bathed in brilliant light, and opted instead for the soft, gentle glow of Agnon's stories - that is, for the fantasy and dreams that only awaken in the twilight zone between the conscious and the unconscious. They turned away from the rural landscapes favored by the previous generation of Hebrew writers and returned to the urban arena of Agnon's stories; and they left behind the band of young warriors about whom S. Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky), Moshe Shamir, Hanoch Bartov, Aharon Megged and their friends had written and returned to burrow into the relationships of the nuclear family, which is also the heart of Agnon's tales. In the novella "In the Prime of Her Life," the mother dies, and the daughter, Tirtza, marries the mother's aging beau in order to soothe her own nostalgic longings. The symbolic incest becomes actual incest in Yehoshua's fiction; in "The Liberated Bride," it is the daughter who sleeps with her father.

The deep structure of "The Liberated Bride" conjures up a number of Agnon's works: His Tehila (Glory - heroine of an Agnon novella by the same name), that old woman whose youth conceals a dark secret, becomes in Yehoshua's novel a young Tehila, voracious and acquisitive. She runs an inn not far from Agnon's house in Talpiot, and when she tries to seduce Prof. Rivlin, the result is an analogy between herself and the gentile innkeeper who seduces the Jewish guest in Agnon's "The Lady and the Peddler."

Tili-Tehlia is the older sister of Galia, Rivlin's former daughter-in-law, and her forbidden relationship with her dead father is the dark secret that lies hidden in the basement of the inn. This secret exerts a strong pull on Rivlin, who is hiding in the basement from the wrath of his wife the judge, like Adam hiding in the Garden of Eden from the wrath of God.

Amos Oz, too, is nourished by Agnon in more than one way: In "A Tale of Love and Darkness," life (Oz's) imitates art (Agnon's). In this autobiographical novel, Oz exposes the wound in his own life, his mother's suicide, in a way that supposedly eschews any literary masks. In fact, however, his account of the suicide follows the mother's death in Agnon's "In the Prime of Her Life."

The symbolic incest between mother and son brings to mind Tirtza's desire to be united with her mother's lover - that is, with her father. This is no coincidence, since the relationship with Agnon is one of the emotional centers of Oz's life - Agnon to him is not only a beloved author, but a childhood hero. "A Tale of Love and Darkness" is suffused with the celebrated author, who was a neighbor of Oz's great-uncle, Prof. Joseph Klausner. The desire of young Amos to write stories is also a desire to be like Agnon, whom all the adults, even Prof. Klausner, idolize.

Secret vs. overt
In her opening essay Ben-Dov examines certain "distinctive keys" - intellectual, emotional and aesthetic - that Oz and Yehoshua took from Agnon: symbolically laden objects such as a handkerchief, a letter, a house or a key, a convoluted language that creates vagueness, ambiguity and irony, clues and riddles that remain unsolved to the end. These result in "a different reality that lies hidden from the eye," as Ben-Dov puts it - or in a "second truth," in Agnon's words. Ben-Dov stresses the similarity between, on the one hand, the secret - real or symbolic patricide, actual or imagined incest, an Oedipal marriage to the father-substitute - that hides beneath the overt plot in Agnon, Oz and Yehoshua and, on the other hand, the kinds of sins that biblical heroes conceal from the wrath of God: Adam in the Garden of Eden, Cain the killer, the incest between Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, or rape and revenge in the story of Shechem and Dinah.

Ben-Dov, then, shows that the choice to return to Agnon and the family is also a return to biblical tales of the nuclear family. Choosing Agnon's language of symbols likewise constitutes a brush with the symbols and images of the Bible, on which Agnon's literary world is based. Yehoshua describes in "The Liberated Bride" how Rivlin, the hero, hungers for the soft, non-kosher and forbidden crabmeat that Tehila feeds him. This description alludes to Agnon's novel "Shira," in which the vegetarian Herbst dines heartily on meat after his night of pleasure with Shira. Both descriptions are in turn based on the biblical analogy between gluttony and concupiscence, and between eating meat and indulging in carnal delights.

And so Ben-Dov's book is not only about Agnon's influence on Oz and Yehoshua's writing, but about the "second truth" that hides behind this influence: the way in which secular authors - whose stories do not explore questions of faith or God and do not depict a religious society abiding by the Jewish precepts - are powerfully drawn to the vast Jewish world that nourished Agnon's work. This world is rooted in the stories of the Bible and extended in the literature of midrash and aggadah (Jewish exegesis and homiletics), and in liturgy; those who turn back to Agnon return to it as well.

Ben-Dov emphasizes that the literary world of scripture, exegesis and prayer should not be considered synonymous with a religious lifestyle, since Agnon himself was averse to this linkage and believed that "it is not idolatry guided by the halakha (religious law) that will save us from our enemies, who are our own flesh and blood, but rather doing good and mercy."

One of the most powerful chapters of the book explores Agnon's chilling story "The Covering of the Blood." The narrator, Agnon's alter ego, meets a beggar with a prosthetic leg in Jerusalem and asks him, "From the Nazis?" "From the Jews," answers the man. To the astonishment of the narrator, the beggar goes on to explain that he had lost his leg while working as a butcher in the basement of Gitle (Yiddish for "Good"), a woman in New York, from whom all the devout Jews in the area bought kosher meat. The woman refused to give him a day off, even on the fast of the 17th of Tamuz, which commemorates the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans that had been caused by the sins of Jews toward other Jews. He was forced to wade about in the blood-filled basement all night. In the morning it turned out that his sock and shoe had become stuck to his leg, which the doctors then had to amputate. The beggar had also inherited a miniature circus - a music box, a parrot and a monkey - from his friend Adolf, a righteous Jew beaten to death by his "righteous" brethren in Jerusalem, after being suspected of feeding his unclean animals with non-kosher food on Passover.

Ben-Dov's book touches on the greater story of the new Hebrew literature: Secular Hebrew writing did not emerge from a void, and despite its identity crisis vis-à-vis the past, it is deeply rooted within it. Yehoshua has acknowledged that he borrowed external elements from Agnon, but he is probably not aware of the full extent of his debt. Clearly he would have written stories even without Agnon, but then, however, they would not have possessed certain of their features: their fantasy, their confrontation with the repressed, or their sense that it is legitimate to describe a morally flawed world.

The same holds for Oz. Unlike his philosophical essays, Oz's stories prove that the Hebrew authors that belonged to the "revival generation" did not abandon the old world of religious study and tradition, despite appearances to the contrary. They found roundabout ways to pass on the hard core of their legacy to the next generation, Oz's own, which sent out new shoots of its own.

This study appears at the right time. Israeli readers and authors have had enough of the artificial disconnect between Israeli and Jewish, and they are ripe to learn new ways of bringing the two together. Nitza Ben-Dov proves that the hidden continuum between the Israeli and the Jew already exists.

The End