The oldest of five children, Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in the small village of Buczacz in Eastern Galicia (a small East European province that has belonged alternately to Poland and to Austria). His father, Shalom Mordecai, an ordained rabbi, earned his livelihood as a fur merchant. Religiously, the family was traditionally observant; economically, it was strongly bourgeois; culturally, it was erudite in Jewish literature. Agnon received a traditional and liberal education, studying the Talmud, Midrash, Jewish medieval philosophers, and Hasidic and rabbinic lore as well as the early Galician enlightened writers, modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and German literature. His broad education developed in him two loves, which became his modus vivendi: his love for literature and for Zion.
In his Nobel Prize speech, Agnon claimed that he wrote his first poem at the age of five as a tribute to his father, who was away on a business trip, because he missed him. His early interest in writing was no doubt generated by a desire to emulate both his father, who wrote poetry and scholarly articles, and his cousin, Hayim Czaczkes, a writer whose works were often published in the Galician press. He was fortunate that his family was well-off and did not need his help in its support, and he was encouraged to pursue his own interests. At fifteen, he published his first poem in the Kraków Hebrew weekly. By the time he was eighteen, he was considered a promising young writer.
Agnon, a strong Zionist, left for Palestine in 1907, and although he returned to Buczacz twice, in 1913 and in 1930, he could stay only for short periods. His journey to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, was a difficult one, requiring a train trip to Trieste and then a sea voyage to Jaffa. Agnon’s short novel In the Heart of the Seas records this hazardous trip. Upon entering Palestine, he settled in Jaffa, the scene of a number of his stories, including his first published tale in 1908, titled “Agunot” (“Deserted Wives”). Following a trend adopted by earlier Hebrew writers, such as Mendele Mokher Sefarim (pseudonym for Shalom Jacob Abramovich) and Sholom Aleichem (pseudonym for Sholom Rabinowitz), young Shmuel Yoseph Czaczkes signed this tale with the name of “Agnon,” adopting it officially as his family name in 1924.
It is significant that he chose this particular name, for it would seem to indicate his own relationship to the world. In Jewish law, the agunah, or deserted woman, is not free to remarry, because she has not been divorced. She is anchored in a relationship...
(The entire section is 1070 words.)