When Israel's Foremost Writer 'Took Up His Quill' and Wrote a Poem to the Young Dorit Beinisch

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In 1962, Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon responded to a letter from the literary editor of Maariv, David Lazar, who had passed along a missive written by a student called Dorit Werba. The young student had analyzed, over several pages, Agnon's 1943 novella "Betrothed."

"In the matter of Dorit Werba," Agnon wrote, "perhaps one of these days I may write her a few words, or perhaps this is none other than a poem of the future ... because I have reached a stage in life at which I am exempt from answering letters."

S.Y Agnon. He wrote a short poem to Dorit Beinisch.Credit: Dan Hadani / IPPA

Further along in his response to Lazar, Agnon in fact wrote a short poem to Werba. In it, he speaks of his hesitancy to "take up his quill" and respond to "the important young lady from Mefalsim Street," whom he discovers is "also among the detractors" of "a man of dust and ashes/because he wrote a book."

A few years later, young Dorit Werba married and changed her last name to Beinisch. She also became president of the Supreme Court, retiring in February, and on a recent visit to Agnon House in Jerusalem, she was presented with the two letters - hers and Agnon's.

The director of Agnon House, Eilat Lieber, found out about the letters from a colleague on the Supreme Court, Justice Esther Hayut. Hayut, who was helping organize a farewell party for Beinisch, had asked Lieber to invite Agnon scholars Ariel Hirschfeld and Bilha Ben-Eliyahu.

"I was happy to be asked to help, but I did not understand the connection between the event and Agnon," Lieber said. Hayut then told Lieber of Beinisch's lifelong affinity for Agnon and the letter she had written to Lazar.

After much searching, the head of the Agnon archive at the National Library, Rafi Weiser, found both the Werba letter and the Nobel laureate's response.

"In keeping with my pledge to read Agnon's story, I hastened to read 'Betrothed' immediately after I arrived home," the letter to Lazar reads. "The truth is that not only a promise obliged me to read it, but when dealing with Agnon, one cannot be released from a pledge, once made sincerely and with all one's heart."

Beinisch writes that she read the story without intending to analyze it, but that she could not help doing so. She then proceeds to discuss various issues, including the existence of a "double life" - meaning "a life of the truth in the heart" and "external life" that is forced upon one.

"I have gone long and perhaps I have gone too far, because I do not know whether this was your intent in receiving 'my report,'" Beinisch wrote Lazar. "However, the reason is simply my interest in the subject, for which I have affection and, for some reason, the framework I was in for some time distanced me from it."

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