Israel’s First Nobel Laureate Was Asked Not to Mess Up the Library

When Shmuel Yosef Agnon was evacuated to the Jerusalem home of the famed kabbalist Gershom Scholem during the War of Independence, he found a letter that would make every Airbnb host proud.

Writer S. Y. Agnon.
National Library of Israel

During the 1948 War of Independence Shmuel Yosef Agnon, one of the greatest Hebrew writers, was forced to leave his home, which was too close to the fighting in Jerusalem, and move temporarily to the home of his friend, the famous kabbala scholar Gershom Scholem, in the Rehavia neighborhood.

Scholem, who was on a sabbatical in the United States at the time, willingly put his home at his friend’s disposal, but left him a list of instructions, of the kind that tenants who stay in Airbnb homes receive today. The amusing letter, which is kept in the archive of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, was taken out this week on the 50th anniversary of Agnon’s receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature, a date to be marked next week in a series of events in the National Library.

The letter that Scholem left for Agnon began, as expected, with a warm welcome in his unique style. “May you live in our home in peace, and may you derive enjoyment from living there,” wrote the professor. “Write stories and books – sefer, sofer and sippur [a book, a writer and a story] – all belong to the root of your soul, and especially we know what the Baal Shem Tov said, that all a person’s household items, his home and his surroundings are full of sparks of his soul and are waiting to be elevated, and it seems clear because you are entering that many of your sparks are here whose repair you have to take care of, and that’s the secret of a man’s journeys, as everyone knows.”

But after the greetings came the part of the requests. “But I beg of you not to take all the animals [a Hebrew pun also meaning “vitality”] from the household items so that I won’t come back and find them dead for lack of vitality [or animals], God forbid,” wrote Scholem.

A more important request, apparently, was to maintain the integrity of Scholem’s library, which contained about 25,000 books and is also preserved today in the National Library. Scholem asked Agnon not to loan out his books and not to mix up his own books with Agnon’s.

“There’s a double advantage to your living here: Not only will you enjoy the books, but I won’t bother you with some nervous movement. A scholar like you will know how to benefit from what comes into his hands. And I am only making a major and specific request of you not to loan out any of my books, not to anyone and without exception, if my friends and acquaintances whom you know want to peruse a book in the room itself and you have nothing against that – they (and you) are welcome, but it won’t move from here,” wrote Scholem.

Scholem even cleared space for Agnon in the library so that he could bring his own books there. “I made room for you in the corner of the Sabbatean heresy for your own books (if you have any) and if you place them on those shelves there’s no danger that the jurisdictions and the boundaries will be confused,” he wrote.

“I hope that we will meet in peace, and meanwhile great blessings and friendship to you and your family, from your friend Gershom Scholem,” concludes the letter.

Agnon continued with his literary work in his new residence, where he spent most of 1949. While staying there he wrote a story called “Edo and Enam,” which describes a writer who goes to live in the home of acquaintances in order to keep an eye on it while they are abroad.

On December 10, 1966 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he shared – a rare occurrence – with another laureate, Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. Agnon was the first Israeli to receive the prize. A quotation from his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony appeared on the 50-shekel banknote that bore his photograph, before it was replaced two years ago by a banknote with the picture of Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky.

On Tuesday, December 6, starting at 5 P.M. the National Library will hold a series of events open to the public in honor of Agnon, on the 50th anniversary of his Nobel Prize. The general public will also be able to see a selection of rare items from his archive. Additional events to mark the anniversary will be held from December 9-15 in the Cymbalista Jewish Heritage Center at Tel Aviv University.