In the Heart of the Seas

by Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730


*Jerusalem. Holy Land city that is the holiest place on earth to the Hasidic travelers of the novel, as well as the final destination of their arduous journey. Jerusalem is both a real and a divine place to them. The novel describes the travelers’ religious beliefs about the mythical powers of the city in the same tone of voice in which it describes the city’s physical and architectural details, implicitly inviting readers to share these beliefs.

The history of Jerusalem and its religious importance have a strong emotional impact on the protagonists. Arriving at Jerusalem on the eve of the Sabbath, the travelers kiss its walls and tear their clothes in memory of the destruction of the last Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in the second century. The travelers are invited to stay at the House of Study of the Hasidic Jews in the city; on the Sabbath they wash themselves in a bath house before finally praying at the Wailing Wall, which is all that remains of the original Jerusalem Temple. Later, they rent a house with a view of the wall, and, with few exceptions, decide to settle in Jerusalem to remain in a place where they can feel God’s presence in an especially powerful way.


*Israel. At the time in which the novel is set, the Ottoman Empire of the Turks ruled over what the Jewish voyagers of the novel call the Land of Israel—the Middle Eastern land that became a British Mandate Territory after World War I. Both the novel’s characters and its author implicitly use the biblical boundaries of the Land of Israel when thinking of the place, which corresponds only roughly to what became the modern State of Israel in 1948. Landing on Israel’s shores at Jaffa (now Tel Aviv), they are welcomed in the Courtyard of the Jews, the traditional reception center for Jewish visitors. As they continue inland, by donkey, on the road to Jerusalem, the desolate condition of the country, which is described in sad detail, reminds them of the loss of their homeland since Roman days. This sense of loss upon viewing the place is juxtaposed with their hope that God may restore this holy place to them.


*Buczacz (BEW-chahch; also spelled Buchach). Polish city, which is now in the Ukraine, that is hometown to both the Jewish voyagers of the novel and its author, who includes himself among them. At the time they begin their journey, Buczacz was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ceased to exist in 1918. Buczacz lies to the east of the Carpathian Mountains, on a hill overlooking the Stypa River, and is part of the old district of Galicia. The town and its large Jewish population are described in lively, vivid, and lovingly recalled detail.

Before writing the novel, Shmuel Yosef Agnon revisited Buczacz and was saddened by its spiritual and economic decay under Polish rule. His descriptions thus carry a nostalgic tone remembering a better past. During World War II, German troops occupying the town murdered nine thousand of its ten thousand Jewish inhabitants. Only four hundred Jews returned to the city described in such loving terms in the novel.


*Yaslovitz (yah-SLOH-vihtz; now Jazlovicz, Ukraine). First major town to the south of Buczacz. Yaslovitz serves as an example for hostility among neighbors. Until the arrival of the voyagers, the members of Yaslovitz’s Jewish community loathe Buczacz’s Jews for having abducted their rabbi to minister to them.

*Eastern Europe

*Eastern Europe. On their way to the Holy Land, the travelers pass through a variety of Eastern European cities before taking ship in Istanbul, Turkey. Their travels give Agnon opportunities to describe the different character of each town and comment on the conditions of the towns’ Jewish inhabitants. However, these places are only way stations on the journey to Israel.

*Mediterranean Sea

*Mediterranean Sea. The final obstacle between the travelers and the Holy Land is the eastern Mediterranean. Their sea voyage tests their faith and resolve when a storm threatens their lives and sends them back to port in Istanbul, from where they departed. While at sea, the travelers experience repeated sightings of Hananiah, a holy member of their group, who is seen sitting on the waters of the sea. Although Hananiah misses the ship’s departure in Istanbul, he reaches Israel before all the others.


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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218

Alter, Robert. “S. Y. Agnon: The Alphabet of Holiness.” In After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing. New York: Dutton, 1969. Insightful evaluation of themes and motifs that have preoccupied Agnon. Traces much of the originality of Agnon’s art to his painstaking care with words.

Band, Arnold J. Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A detailed, chronological study of Agnon that illuminates the context and content of his work. Analysis of In the Heart of the Seas emphasizes its humor and fantastical qualities.

Fisch, Harold. S. Y. Agnon. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. A brief introduction to Agnon. Argues that Agnon, an endlessly inventive storyteller, attempts to comprehend Jewish history.

Hochman, Baruch. The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970. Positing Agnon’s gift as more lyrical than novelistic, Hochman determines yearning to be the dominant mode of Agnon’s fiction. Describes the ambivalence in Agnon’s work.

Ribalow, Menachem. “Samuel Joseph Agnon, Major Novelist of Yesterday and Today.” In The Flowering of Modern Hebrew Literature: A Volume of Literary Evaluation, edited and translated by Judah Nadich. New York: Twayne, 1959. A sympathetic look at Agnon’s achievement by a leader of the Hebrew movement in America. Identifies the influences in Agnon’s work.

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