||Collection of stories on Polish Jewry with 16 sketches by Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970), Hebrew writer; Nobel Laureate in literature. One of the central figures in modern Hebrew fiction, his works deal with major contemporary spiritual concerns: the disintegration of traditional ways of life, the loss of faith, and the subsequent loss of identity. His many tales about pious Jews are an artistic attempt to recapture a waning tradition. He was born in Buczacz, Galicia, where his father, an erudite follower of the Hasidic rebbe of Chortkov, was a fur merchant. Rabbinic and Hasidic traditions as well as general European culture influenced the home. Agnon's education was mainly private and irregular. He studied the Talmud and the works of Maimonides with his father; read much of the literature of the Galician maskilim; and studied Hasidic literature in the synagogue of the Chortkov Hasidim. He learned German from Mendelssohn's translation of the Pentateuch (the Biur) as well as from a tutor and read books from his mother's small German library, where he also found German translations of Scandinavian writers. He began writing at the age of eight in Hebrew and in Yiddish. In 1903 he published his first work, a Yiddish poem on Joseph Della Reina and a rhymed "haskamah" (preface) in Hebrew to Zevi Judah Gelbard's Minhat Yehudah. In 1904 he began to publish regularly, first poetry and then prose, in Ha-Mizpeh, edited in Cracow by S.M. Laser, who continually encouraged him. In 1906 and 1907, he also contributed several poems and stories in Yiddish, primarily to Der Juedische Wecker, which appeared in his own town. Up to his departure from Buczacz he published some 70 pieces in both languages – poems, stories, essays, addresses, etc., that were occasionally signed Czaczkes but more often appeared under a pseudonym. His most comprehensive Yiddish work of that period, Toytn-Tants (1911), attests to the development of his literary talent and to a definite affinity with German neo-romanticism. But once he left Buczacz, he no longer wrote in Yiddish.
The first edition of Agnon's collected works in four volumes (1931) included selected stories published until mid-1929, as well as the second version of Hakhnasat Kallah (The Bridal Canopy, 1937), which had been lengthened to a novel. This folk-epic was recognized as one of the cornerstones of modern Hebrew literature, and the entire collection established Agnon as one of its central figures. The impression of Agnon as a pietistic writer was enhanced by the collection of stories Be-Shuvah va-Nahat (1935) and strengthened by two non-fiction collections: Yamim Noraim (1938; Days of Awe, 1948), an anthology of High Holiday traditions; and Sefer, Sofer ve-Sippur (1938), about books and writers. Even the novel Sippur Pashut (1935; A Simple Story, 1985), which is set at the close of the previous century and depicts the clash between the older and younger generations, did not openly convey to the readers the profound tension which underlies Agnon's "serenity." A cycle of five stories called Sefer ha-Ma'asim was published in 1932, followed a year later by Pat Shelemah (A Whole Loaf, 1956). Readers were astounded by the nightmarish environment of these short works of fiction which artistically articulated the confusion of the author standing on the threshold between the new world and the old. The eradication of boundaries between fantasy and reality, the inner monologue, and the perplexing environment exist also in "Panim Aherot"(1933), "Afar Erez Yisrael," and "Ba-Ya'ar u-va-Ir." These stories were collected only in 1941 in Ellu ve-Ellu. In addition, in the 1930s three narratives appeared which subsequently became the nucleus of Temol Shilshom ("Rabbi Geronim Yekum Purkan" in 1931; "Tehillato shel Yizhak" in 1934; "Balak" in 1935). In spite of this evidence of the darker side of Agnon, the critics and readers were not attuned to this new mode until the early 1940s. Agnon rose to a new level of artistic creativity in his book Ore'ah Natah Lalun, which was originally published in serial form in Haaretz (Oct. 18, 1938, to April 7, 1939) and then appeared in his collected works (1939; A Guest for the Night, 1968). In this novel an anonymous narrator visits his town in Galicia after an absence of many years and witnesses its desolation. Although the factual core of the story was Agnon's short visit to Buczacz in 1930, the novel mirrors the hopelessness and spiritual desolation of the Jewish world in that decade in Europe and in Palestine. A grotesquely nightmarish scene of the city is presented: its synagogues are empty; its people are shattered; and its society, generally, is moribund. Although Agnon was directly motivated to write this novel by the events of the 1930s, it is noteworthy that even in his youthful writings he envisioned his town as a "city of the dead." At times the narrative technique of Ore'ah Natah Lalun is similar to that of Sefer ha-Ma'asim where the despair is often recorded by shocking portrayals. Thus, at the onset of the 1940s, the readers learned to react not only to Agnon's story of the lives of the pious but also to a wide variety of subjects and narrative techniques. His greatest novel, Temol Shilshom, made its appearance in 1945 (Only Yesterday, 2000). The setting and time of this work are in Palestine in the days of the Second Aliyah, but its spirit parallels the period in which it was written, the years of the Holocaust. The novel focuses upon an unsophisticated pioneer, who returns to the ways of his forebears, but after being bitten by a mad dog, dies a meaningless death. The complex situations and interlocking motifs of his novel, as well as its moral concern, marked a new peak in Hebrew fiction.