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Midrash Agnon

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Rabbi Jeffrey Saks

Midrash Agnon

Sunday 7:30PM
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Course Description








Join us for a 5-part series on S.Y Agnon, Nobel Prize Laureate for Modern Hebrew literature. We will enjoy Agnon's stories from a literary perspective, while unraveling the "intertexts" of classical Jewish sources from which Agnon builds his stories and explore the resonances between text and mastertext. Stories will be read in English translation, with references to the original Hebrew text - but Hebrew fluency is not required to participate.

Agnon's writing explores an array of questions to sensitive readers - theological, cultural, spiritual - such as: the viability of Judaism in the Diaspora, the continuity of tradition in the face of modernity, the challenge and meaning of the return to Eretz Yisrael.

Participate in the course live in Agnon's own house in Talpiot, Jerusalem, or via the simultaneous, interactive, online broadcast via WebYeshiva.org (sessions will be recorded and archived for those unable to join in "real time"). We recommend buying A Book That Was Lost: Thirty-Five Stories by S.Y. Agnon (The Toby Press), available for online purchase here.

5 Sundays at 7:30 PM Jerusalem time, February 6-March 6, 2010

About Rabbi Jeffrey Saks
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the founding Director of ATID―The Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jewish Education, in Jerusalem. An editorial board member of the journal Tradition, Rabbi Saks authored Spiritualizing Halakhic Education (Mandel Foundation) and edited Wisdom From All My Teachers: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education (Urim). He is a graduate of Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Smicha) and participated in the Jerusalem Fellows program for senior Jewish educators at the Mandel Institute. He has taught at the Yeshiva University High School for Girls and Yeshivat Hamivtar.

Class Resources & Information

Can't watch the Webex archive files? Click Here
February 6, 2011 7:30PM - 8:30PM
Agnon's Etrog

For our first session we'll read Agnon's (very) short story "Etrogo shel Oto Tzaddik" (translated as "That Tzaddik's Etrog"). If you are able, please read it in advance - at least in translation. (See links in this note to download the scans.) We will also compare it to his other short story "HaEtrog" (my partial translation linked here - don't worry if you're unable to read whole story in original.)

The 2004 film "Ushpizin" was a form of "midrash" on Agnon's story - see these clips  youtube.com/user/agnonsetrog which particularly echo elements in the story.

Each week we will read one Agnon story, and it is hoped you'll be able to read it in advance of the session - whether you're joining us live at Agnon's house, or participating online. We will upload scans of the stories, but they will all come from the English anthology A Book That Was Lost (Toby Press), and strongly recommend you buy the book (available at Amazon and elsewhere, including lots of Jewish book stores; in Israel at Steimatsky).

I have also uploaded some other files which are useful for the entire course - here marked as BACKGROUND. Feel free to reach me at jeffreysaks@gmail.com (or Skype or Google Chat: jeffreysaks) with any questions or comments.


The readings for the following weeks will be as follows (page #s refer to A Book That Was Lost): 
Feb 13: "The Kerchief" (pp. 61-73)
Feb 20: "The Sense of Smell" (pp. 149-156)
Feb 27: "The Sign" (pp. 397-429)
March 6: "Pisces" (pp. 255-300)
pdfThat Tzaddik's Etrog
pdfBACKGROUND: Agnon Chronology
docBACKGROUND: Bibliography
pdfBACKGROUND: Index to "Book That Was Lost"
pdfBACKGROUND: Gershom Scholem on Agnon
mp4BACKGROUND: Agnon Pictures
plainHaEtrog - Partial Translation
pdfAgnon's Etrog - Sources
February 13, 2011 7:30PM - 8:30PM
Agnon's Messiah

For next week's session (Feb 13) we will read Agnon's tale of his Bar Mitzvah, the short story "HaMitpachat" - translated as "The Kerchief" (pp. 61-73 in A Book That Was Lost).

 The primary "intertext" for this story is the Talmud Sanhedrin 98a and its description of the Messiah sitting at the gate of Rome among the paupers and lepers. The text (original plus translation) is included in these uploads for those that may want to review it in advance. 

pdfThe Kerchief
pdfSanhedrin 98a
plainKerchief - Sources
February 20, 2011 7:30PM - 8:30PM
Agnon's Hebrew

The exploration of the uniqueness of the Hebrew language, and the role of modern Hebrew literature and its authors, in Agnon's story "Chush HaRei'ach" - translated as "The Sense of Smell" (in A Book That Was Lost, pp. 149-56).

Additional reading for your own pleasure: The attached essay by Hillel Halkin is a heartfelt description of the current state of Hebrew (and the paradoxes of reading in translation). For those that can handle reading a short essay in Hebrew, the attached recent piece in Haaretz gives some background to the culture wars over Hebrew in the early 20th century (epitomized as a debate between Ben-Yehuda and Bialik)

pdfThe Sense of Smell
pdfHalkin on Hebrew Translation
plainThe Sense of Smell - Sources
pdfBialik vs. Ben-Yehuda (Hebrew)
February 27, 2011 7:30PM - 8:30PM
Agnon's Shoah

Examining Agnon's task of constructing a vessel for memory after the destruction of Buczacz in his story "HaSiman" - translated as "The Sign" (in A Book That Was Lost, pp. 327-429). The main "intertexts" for this story are two piyutim (medieval religious poetry) by Shlomo Ibn Gabirol - uploaded here in original and translation. Click here for a musical rendering of Shahar Avakeskha.

Click here to watch a documentary about Buczacz during the Holocaust (4 parts on YouTube).



Ynet, the website of Israeli newspaper Yediot, called this series a "glimmer of hope" in a Jewish world where the study and appreciation of literature is sadly on the decline.

IBA Israel Radio interview about the course.

pdfThe Sign
plainHaSiman - Sources
March 6, 2011 6:30PM - 8:30PM
Agnon's "Fishy Luck"

An hour before our final session on Sunday, March 6th, we'll have an online "virtual" tour of the Agnon House, starting at 6:30 PM (Jerusalem time). Login the regular way to the  session. Click here for more information on Beit Agnon.

For our final session (starting at 7:30 PM Jerusalem time): The satirical story "Mazal Dagim" (translated as "Pisces") from Agnon's chronicle of Buczacz, Ir uMelo'ah. Appears in A Book That Was Lost, pp. 255-300. (Remember this fishy story?)

Attached as well: Some sources on fish and Judaism - take a look at these first, then consider how they echo in the story.

Some background details to this story: 1. The historical 1864 case which was the germ for the story is documented in the Responsa of Buczacz's rabbi, Avraham Teumim in the Hesed LeAvraham II O.C. 26 - uploaded here; 2. Tefillin straps must be black; 3. It is customary to fast for the day if ones tefillin fall to the floor; 4. It is forbidden to speak between affixing the arm tefillin and the head tefillin; 5. Jews like to eat; 6. Jews like to eat fish.

pdfSome fishy sources...
imageFishl Karp

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