Gentlemen and Scholars

A collection of letters between S.Y. Agnon and the historian S.D. Goitein offers a rare opportunity to peer into the warm relationship between two of the 20th century's great Jewish intellects.

"'Do you want to see Agnon on television?' Theresa yelled from upstairs, and my heart froze," writes Shelomo Dov Goitein in an aerogram addressed to Shmuel Yosef Agnon, dated October 21, 1966. In the letter, Goitein reenacts his wife's response to the news that the Israeli author was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Then he adds: "There are times when joy hits a person like a shock, and vice versa. What can we say?"

If this sort of thing were to happen now, Goitein would pick up the cordless phone and dial the phone number of Agnon's home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, or would perhaps sit down at his computer and send off his congratulations via e-mail, a message that presumably would sink quickly into the abyss of the forgotten.

"Between Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Shelomo Dov Goitein" is a compilation of 66 letters and postcards the two men exchanged, excerpts from Goitein's diary that relate to Agnon, and a batch of columns and lectures by Goitein about Agnon. The editor of this slender volume is Ayala Gordon, Goitein's daughter and the former director of the youth wing of the Israel Museum.

The compilation offers readers a chance to eavesdrop on the dialogue between "two sages who were in our town," as Agnon titled a story he wrote in 1946. On one side was Agnon, the famous writer, whose every penned line still enchants us, and on the other was Goitein, one of the 20th century's most celebrated Orientalists, the great scholar of the Cairo Genizah, and the individual whose numerous publications led, among other things, to the dramatic revelation of the history of Jews in the Islamic world of the Middle Ages.

Goitein began his friendship with Agnon by way of the writer's wife, Esther, having served as her private Arabic teacher while she was still a student at the University of Frankfurt. The sheaf of letters that appears here begins with two postcards Esther mailed to her beloved teacher, Fritz Goitein, from Starnberg, Germany - near the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where she studied between 1919 and 1920. Goitein was close to Esther's family, and had apparently gained the trust of her father, the banker Georg Marx, who vehemently opposed her marriage to Agnon.

In a 1959 letter to Agnon, Goitein very belatedly offered details on an encounter of 40 years earlier, in which Marx asked him for his opinion of the future son-in-law. "My daughter, whom you presumably know, has become engaged to a certain Hebrew writer," Marx said in German. "Is he a good writer?"

Goitein, who for whatever reason was reminded of Marx's question four decades later, nevertheless could not recall what his own response had been: "I simply cannot remember what my answer was. I only felt, and still feel, the immense mortification that such a respectable person could have posed such a question to such an insignificant creature as myself, and this concerning a writer whom I already admired as a [writer]."

Thus it was Esther, a woman whom Goitein both loved and respected, but who was now in the sole possession of Agnon, who paved the way for the rich correspondence the two men were to begin.

Goitein immigrated to Palestine in 1923 to teach at the Reali School in Haifa, and in 1927 moved to Jerusalem, after receiving an appointment as an instructor of Arabic and Islam at the recently founded Hebrew University. From then on, Goitein was a charter member of a small, select fraternity called "The Sages of Jerusalem," with which Agnon was closely affiliated. Agnon found he shared a common language with Goitein and his like, more so than with his writer counterparts, most of whom, incidentally, lived in Tel Aviv.

An intimate friendship developed between the two men. Agnon even served as a witness to the modest wedding ceremony of Goitein and Theresa Gottlieb, in 1929. In its initial stages, at least, the close relationship between the two men was to some extent nurtured by the literary ambitions of Goitein himself, who wished to become a playwright and saw Agnon as an astute adviser on this matter.

Agnon evidently helped smarten up the 1927 play "Pulcellina," which is set in the Middle Ages - and this experience, it seems to me, helped inspire the character of Manfred Herbst, the hero of Agnon's novel "Shira" (published posthumously in 1971?), who finds refuge from the dreariness of the academic world in the writing of a tragedy that is also rooted in the reality to which he was introduced as part of his professional expertise.

In the meantime, Goitein's acquaintanceship with Esther was shunted aside. Goitein was scrupulous about not mentioning her in his letter, aside from the general joint salutation "Honored Friends," with which he customarily began many of the letters, perhaps out of fear that Agnon would be insulted that he wasn?t addressing him first. Agnon also kept his references to his wife to a minimum, using the formulaic "and best wishes from my wife, may she live and be well." Gordon offers the following comment: "Without doubt, Goitein was concerned for the well-being of Esther, toward whom he harbored a sense of responsibility, due to their longstanding friendship," the editor writes. "There was recurring tension between Esther and Agnon, and a feeling that Agnon degraded her and that she was repressed."

The ultimate middleman

While the initial letters between Goitein and Agnon were dispatched on various occasions in the late 1930s and early ?40s, the lion's share of the correspondence dates from the mid-?50s and onwards, after Goitein had in effect left Israel and taken up residence in the United States, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey - where he carried out his research on the Cairo Genizah, compiled most of his publications and earned an international reputation in his field.

Goitein's letters provide us with some exceedingly thought-provoking, real-time responses to Agnon's published works. One example is his reaction to the appearance of "Days of Awe," an anthology of "Jewish wisdom" for the High Holy Days. In a letter dated Rosh Hashanah Eve, 1938, Goitein writes: "I honor you for having completed this composition, on which you worked so hard and which has now become a great source of light. At a time that appreciation for religion and for learning is at a nadir, you have now made it possible for even schoolchildren to know that which was until now unknown to even the great scholars."

Goitein knows what he's talking about; he was a teacher and educator for years, and much of his writing and philosophy in Israel was devoted to matters of education. In his outlook, he was close to such figures as educator Ernst Simon and critic Baruch Kurzweil, and like them he expressed anxiety at the disconnection of Israeli youth from Jewish sources.

The answer to this problem was Agnon, for Goitein considered him the ultimate middleman between the Jewish culture of the past and the secular world of the present, especially for the younger reading audience. In the concluding remarks to his well-known 1931 article in the Davar magazine supplement about Agnon's "The Bridal Canopy," Goitein writes: "I am familiar with many of our young people who are searching for a path, a route by which they may inherit our great spirit, but who are hard-pressed to find it. What tools do they possess to do so? ?The Book of Legends'? ... ?Duties of the Heart? or ?Path of the Just? and the like?" And Goitein?s answer: "?The Bridal Canopy? is a story, a treasure replete with paternal inheritance, not of disengaged and often contradictory excerpts, but of an entire world that was realized in the history of a single person."

If God steadied my hand

These letters have unique value as a means for the reader to acquire a more profound understanding of the latter stage of Agnon's writing, by virtue of the fact that the pace of correspondence accelerated in the late 1950s and the 60's. Along with the constant references to Agnon's published works, which Goitein read with eagerness and to which he reacts one by one, there is frequent mention (mostly in Agnon's letters) of the writer?s work regimen. "To my dismay, I have put aside the three books of 'Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law? [a book of Jewish commentaries selected by Agnon], and I shall publish only the first book, about the giving of the Torah," Agnon writes to Goitein in 1957. He adds: "And that, too, is inadequate, as I do not have the strength to deal with it and the publisher is pushing me."

Regarding his work on the book that would come to be known as "A City and the Fullness Thereof," Agnon writes: "I am troubled more than my body and soul can bear ... great and small stories are in my possession, wishing to be completed, but there are many distractions, and I do not have a chance to hammer away at them. Now I am busy with a large book, 'A City and the Fullness Thereof,' but ever since immersing myself in it, innumerable good and bad interruptions have cropped up, be it for days or be it for hours."

And after he'd already published what would be his final book, "The Fire and the Wood" ?(1962?), under pressure from the publisher, Agnon writes to Goitein: "If God would only give me a little rest, I would be able to assemble one more volume of my writings, including several stories that are ready and waiting to be printed but still need to be hammered out." In another letter, written a few months later, Agnon makes the following confession: "We are getting older and our strength is growing more frail. I sit alone in my house and when the many visitors are not interrupting me, I am doing as much as I am able. I haven?t written a single whole thing, because I lack the strength to bring anything to completion. If God would steady my hand and give me life, I would complete a few of the things that need to be finished and I would write them."

These statements shed light on the "later Agnon" and particularly on the fragmentization that characterized his writing during the period that followed publication of the canonical 11-volume "Collected Stories of S.Y. Agnon" in 1953. On the one hand, the writer produced an inexhaustible bounty of creative work even toward the end, as indicated by his posthumously published volumes, but on the other hand, the later period was marked by a gradual deterioration of his ability to complete and publish his books.

?Come back to Jerusalem?

Goitein was among the few elect with whom Agnon corresponded as equals. Goitein?s inexhaustible admiration for Agnon?s writing - paired with his consultations with Agnon, whom he considered an authority on Judaism and Jewish sources - was balanced by the immense respect Agnon had for Goitein, given his significant scientific accomplishments and his astounding productivity, about which he reported in his letters with matter-of-fact humility. "The day before yesterday, I sent Volume II of my book 'A Mediterranean Society? [subtitled "The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza"] to the publisher,? writes Goitein. "1078 pages (without the index) ... Never before have so many new and interesting sources on public life in Israel been collected in one volume."

Nevertheless, Agnon had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that Goitein had left the country, and he also expressed unease at the notion that Goitein?s children had studied or worked abroad for many years, and that the dark shadow of leaving Israel hung over them as well. ?What will you do in the years to come?" Agnon writes to Goitein on the latter?s 60th birthday. ?First, come back to Jerusalem. There are two reasons for this. One, and this is the main one, I miss you. Aside from that, the university is constantly expanding and if you don?t return immediately, you could be like Honi Hame?agel [a kind of Talmudic Rip Van Winkle]."

On another occasion, when Goitein informed him of his daughter and son-in-law's continued stay abroad, Agnon writes: "What you wrote about Ayala and her husband - may they live long and happy lives - who are delaying their immigration to Israel, saddened me. These kind of people belong here, and it goes without saying they should come when they are young, when every day is more beautiful. You and your wife, as well. You, my friends, should make haste and return, before you are stricken with lines in your face and are bent over with age."

Agnon's patriotic sermonizing, in which we can almost hear the muffled moaning and groaning over his friend?s decision, was also attended by a critical barb regarding Goitein's choice of scientific discipline, in which he granted precedence to his study of Islam over that of Judaism. "Put down the Arabic studies and return wholeheartedly and willfully to the study of Hebrew," Agnon exhorts his friend. "Some very fine people gave all their might to gentiles. Whilst doing so the nations of the world arrived in our land and seized the art of Jacob with the weapons of Esau. But you began your scholarly pursuit with a devoid heart, and after all this you will tell us about the discoveries revealed to you by the Genizah."

Goitein, every bit as independent and knowledgeable as Agnon, did not heed his good friend's counsel. He continued to live in America, and when Agnon passed away, he delivered a commemorative address in his honor in Philadelphia. "Ever since the biblical period," Goitein said in that address, with a decisiveness reserved only for authorities on the study of the history and culture of Israel such as him, "there has not appeared in Hebrew a totality of stories of such intensity, respectability and significance as the works of Agnon. He has done for prose fiction that which Yehuda Halevy did in his religious poetry. Halevy's writing style is the spirit of the 12th century. Agnon expresses himself in the spirit of the 20th century, but both of them are the spokesmen of a deep-seated Judaism."

So he said, sharp and to the point. In the lecture, delivered at Dropsie College in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1970, Goitein took stock of the thoughts and deliberations of Agnon, with which he and his writing had been intrinsically connected for slightly more than 50 years. The insight Goitein expresses here is but one of the many assets of this modest volume, which as far as I am concerned is yet another lesson in how to read Agnon.

Prof. Dan Laor teaches Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, where he is the incumbent of the Jacob and Shoshana Schreiber Chair for Contemporary Jewish Culture. The English translation of his Agnon biography (1998, Schocken) is forthcoming from Holmes & Meier, New York.