Beyond Masada From the Desk (And the Rest of the House) of S.Y. Agnon

In the heart of a posh residential neighborhood of Jerusalem sits the well-preserved final home of one of the greatest writers in modern Hebrew history, Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

Jacob Solomon
Jacob Solomon

Not many first-time visitors to Jerusalem follow the Number 7 bus route south to the posh and highly-desirable Arnona district, although the trip can be easily combined with a visit to the free archeological site at nearby Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, where remains from biblical periods have been found.

But maybe they should. Perhaps better known as the Talpiot, this Jerusalem district is home to the last house of Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970), the writer who single-handedly elevated the Hebrew language to Nobel Prize status (1966), and whose image, bespectacled and kippah-wearing, adorns every 50-shekel Israeli banknote.

Literary cognoscenti, look up! In London you call in to Charles Dickens’ house, in Paris it is Victor Hugo’s house, and a visit to Russia many make the pilgrimage to the woods of Yasnaya Polyana and the burial place of Leo Tolstoy. But in Jerusalem, the bibliophile should remember to call upon the quite modest but distinctive Agnon house, tucked neatly into English country lane-like Klausner Steet, at number 16.

Arnona, by the way, was not so named after the identical Hebrew word signifying the high city-council taxes imposed on its residents, but because of the view it affords over the Dead Sea toward the biblically-recorded Arnon Valley (Numbers 21:14), located in what is today Jordan. The parents of the first child born in the district wanted to celebrate the fact, but as the baby was female she took the feminine version Arnona. In due course, her name spread to include the locality. I believe she is now living in a senior-citizen’s home somewhere in the area, but I have not yet managed to locate her.

Despite the 1929 Arab attacks and the primitive conditions in those early years of the district, Agnon was sufficiently enchanted by the view to choose its then virgin territory to build his own home in the Bauhaus style. For him, the crucial view was not the Dead Sea to the east, but the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, a 45-minute walk to the north. As he writes in his short story "From Foe to Friend":

“I built for myself a house and I planted a garden in this place, from which the enemy sought to drive me out. I built my home facing the site of the Temple, in order to inscribe on the chambers of my heart the House of our desires that was destroyed.”

He got that observation-point in time, before the apartments housing Jerusalem’s fast-expanding population cropped up and blocked the view.

Unlike two of his first three homes, which burned along with his manuscripts, Agnon's final dwelling has been maintained for visitors. It is also the site of a series of literary-based evenings: call ahead to ensure your spot. Allow a leisurely hour for (NIS 20) the headphone-guided visit. Enter through the modest parlor where he received guests, with his trademark hat, walking stick, and suitcase directly behind you. Go upstairs and see his library stacked from floor to ceiling with a breathtaking and decidedly yellowing collection of the classics of Judaism and the Jewish experience – the very essence of his being, as well as some works in German.

There are also a few items in English, a language he himself did not understand, but his wife translated for him.

This large book-lined room overlooking the garden was his study and his dwelling, the place where he composed many of the works which became classics in Modern Hebrew literature, including "A Simple Story," "A Guest for the Night," "Only Yesterday" and "Shira." Thus at his fingertips were the three elements that he claimed inspired the nature and the language of his work: the sacred scriptures, the teachings of the medieval Jewish sages, and the wonders of nature.

Indeed, the first two found him in disagreement with Ben Yehuda’s linguistic innovations, preferring “automobile” for a car rather than the standard “mechonit,” which Agnon saw as stretching the biblical word for trolley beyond what was congruent with the holy roots of the language.

Complete your visit with the video on his life and work. If Hebrew isn’t your thing, ask the staff to put on the English subtitles.

Agnon's spirit continues to permeate the neighborhood half a century on. The synagogue around the corner from his home is known as the Agnon synagogue, but in fact he never prayed there – it opened three years after his death. The foundations of the synagogue he did attend remain, under the table-tennis table in the nearby play area.

An interesting footnote on Agnon. His teenage granddaughter’s high-school literature class was required to write a commentary on an extract from his work. The girl telephoned her grandfather who duly told her what he had in mind when he wrote the passage. The teacher only awarded the commentary eight marks out of 10, dismissing it having insufficient depth. When challenged, the reply was: “It’s not what Agnon says Agnon means, it’s what I say Agnon means that counts…”

Call (02) 671 6498 to check opening hours.


The parlor in Agnon's home.Credit: Jacob Solomon
S.Y. Agnon.Credit: Government Press Office

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