Lessons of 'Only Yesterday'

There is no better introduction to Israel today than S.Y. Agnon's famous novel.

When I was in high school, my father lured me into reading S.Y. Agnon's novel "Only Yesterday." Like most Israeli students who were exposed to his works in literature classes, I too was put off by the Nobel laureate's archaic language and old-fashioned world. My father insisted: "This is the best novel ever written in Hebrew." I tasted of it and fell in love, like many others who leaped the hurdle and entered the writer's world.

Since then I have returned to "Only Yesterday" several times, and each time I have discover a new layer and have read it differently. A few years ago I realized that beyond its literary richness, the novel gives its readers a profound political insight into the essence of Zionism: Indeed, there is no better introduction than "Only Yesterday" to understanding Israel and its problems.

S. Y. Agnon.

Agnon precisely described the internal tension underlying the Jewish national movement, between the longing for the Western way of life and the preservation of religion and tradition. Though the great writer depicted events that occurred more than 100 years ago and his novel was written before the Holocaust and mostly before the rebirth of the Jewish nation, the book's revelations could just as well refer to the Israel of today.

Agnon's protagonist, Yitzhak Kummer (the surname means "sorrow," in German ), becomes a Zionist in his small town in Galicia in Eastern Europe and fulfills his Zionist dream during the second wave of immigration to Palestine. Like the author, who arrived in 1908, Kummer remains an outsider among the pioneers, who came mostly from Russia: "He did not join any sect and he did not enter any social group."

Kummer lives in Jaffa, works as a house painter and after a failed romance he moves to Jerusalem. In the holy city his story intertwines with that of the stray dog Balak, a secondary character. At one point Kummer tries to return to Jaffa and witnesses the early days of Tel Aviv, but again does not find his place there and returns to Mea She'arim, where the story reaches its tragic climax.

Agnon's Jaffa is reminiscent of our Tel Aviv: a city of young people who go to the beach and sit in cafes, fall in love and break up, read, write and ponder their future. Religion has no place in their world. "He didn't go to synagogue and didn't lay tefillin and didn't keep the Sabbath and he didn't honor the religious festivals," Agnon writes of Kummer, not because he was thinking too much about belief and religion, but because he lived among people who had concluded that religion is not important. Since they saw no need for religion, they saw no need for its directives.

As compared to hedonistic and secular Jaffa, Jerusalem is described as a religious and impoverished city where the walls are covered with placards proclaiming religious prohibitions, and Jews live off charitable distributions, make do with little and follow the exhortations of their leader, Rabbi Grunim Yakum Porkan.

"The nights are beautiful in Jerusalem but the days are tired," said Sonia, Kummer's beloved, who visited the city, walked along the Old City walls - and returned to the coastal plain. The sun burns like fire and the garbage stinks and sadness envelopes the city, she said, and at every corner there is either garbage and filth or a beard and earlocks. But Jaffa, she added, is full of gardens and groves and orchards, and has the sea and coffee houses, and young people with new faces every day.

This is how Israel is in 2011: Westward-facing Tel Aviv versus ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem where the rabbis are in control and the residents live on National Insurance. A state where politics are dictated primarily by attitudes toward religion. Agnon understood this when the Turks ruled here and the Jewish community numbered a few thousand. Meanwhile, generations passed, the British Mandate came and went, the Holocaust mowed down European Jewry and millions are now living in the independent Hebrew state - and yet nothing has changed in 100 years.

Zionism has come full circle and is back where it began, after having failed to implant Western secularism in Jerusalem (an attempt Agnon describes in "Shira" ). And like other secular movements in the Middle East - in Turkey, Iran and Arab countries - Zionism too is fighting for its future against the rising influence of devout religious groups and settlers in the territories. This is its main story, more than the conflict with the Arabs, who appear in Agnon's works only as vague background figures.

"Only Yesterday" culminates with a victory for religion, when Kummer goes back to reciting the prayers he learned in his father's house, is swallowed up by Jerusalem and dies there. And how will the latter-day struggle of Israeli society end?