Creating Jewishness in a post-religious age: Leon Uris’ Exodus and S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday paint Israel’s history in broad and fine strokes
The biblical diction of that sentence is a key to Only Yesterday. Barbara Harshav works hard to render the echoes of biblical and rabbinical Hebrew in the modern Hebrew of Agnon’s novel. But this can’t really be done in English, which is one reason why the novel’s texture ends up feeling thin: The plot and characterization are forced to bear much of the weight that, in Hebrew, must be borne by the language itself. Still, enough of these antique resonances come across to show how the language of Only Yesterday embodies its theme, which is the vertigo that results when a 20th-century Jew returns to the land his ancestors left 2,000 years earlier.
What Isaac discovers is that Zionism yields an unending series of paradoxes. As he talks to various fellow-immigrants—much of the novel is made up of anecdotes and conversations—he hears tales of frustration and bewilderment. There is Reb Alter, a pious old Jew who broke his leg stepping off the ship in Palestine; as a result, even though he lives in Jerusalem, he’s never been able to walk the few blocks to pray at the Western Wall. There is Hemdat, the poet, who “doesn’t have anything to do and doesn’t do anything. As long as he was Outside the Land and his heart was in the Land of Israel, he composed poems; now that he lives in the Land of Israel, what shall he do? Would he compose poems about the longings he once had?” Then there is Rabinovitch, another would-be farmer, who ended up as a storekeeper—and found himself so successful that he decided to leave Palestine to expand his business in Europe. “All his years he lived in his hometown he made the shop secondary and the Land of Israel the essential,” Agnon writes. “When he went to work in a shop in the Land of Israel, once again he made the shop the essential.”
All these pilgrims are thwarted by the paradox of longing, which can only remain longing while it has a goal to strive toward. When you get what you wish for, you are left wondering why you wished for it so strongly in the first place. The only solution to this dilemma, Agnon hints, is to restore to Zionism the eternal, unsatisfiable longing that it did away with on ideological grounds—the longing for God.
Thus Isaac starts out his life in Palestine in coastal, mercantile Jaffa, but he ends the novel in mountainous, pious Jerusalem, where he regrows his beard and returns to Orthodoxy. The same trajectory is paralleled in his romantic life. In Jaffa, he has a very modern love affair with Sonya, a liberated woman who refuses to commit; in Jerusalem, he marries the pious, innocent Shifra, the daughter of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. In this way alone can he overcome his old Diaspora “rootlessness.” “In the end,” Agnon writes, “he became a tree with many roots, and even if all the winds in the world came upon it, they couldn’t move it from its place.”
Yet Agnon is too modern a writer to be able to share or simply endorse Isaac’s piety. That is why, as if in spite of itself, Only Yesterday turns repeatedly in its second half to the story of Balak the dog, which is one of the great retellings of the Job story in modern literature. Balak is an ordinary Jerusalem street dog, minding his own business, when one day Isaac, acting on a perverse whim, paints the words “Crazy Dog” on his side. This leads the people of Jerusalem to believe that he has rabies, with predictable results: He is shunned, feared, and hated, driven from place to place, bombarded with stones.
When Agnon channels Balak’s inner voice, complete with “Arf Arf,” he makes a terrible comic pathos out of the dog’s suffering. It is impossible not to see this story as some kind of parable. Yet as Agnon teasingly writes, just what the parable means is hard to say: “The people of Jaffa, who are all intelligent, applied their intelligence to that. … This one says, There’s something to this; and that one says, We have to derive the implicit from the explicit. But what is explicit here no one explained.” Is Balak mankind, doomed by a careless God to a life of suffering? Or is he the Jewish people, once beloved of God, then ruthlessly cast into Exile? At moments, Balak even seems like a Zionist, longing to return to the Jerusalem of his origins: “But let me hear why you want to go to Meah Shearim of all places,” other dogs ask him, and he replies, “Why? Because I want a meaningful life.”
But finally there is no clear meaning behind Balak’s story, and it is this ignorance—this doggish inability to understand the fate literally inscribed on his body—that makes Balak so movingly human:
At that moment, all his suffering was naught compared to the search for truth. And once again he turned his head back to see what were those signs and what was that truth. But all his pains were in vain because he couldn’t read. He was amazed and stunned. Everyone who sees me knows the truth about me, and I, who possess the truth itself, I don’t know what it is. He shouted loud and long, Arf Arf Arf, this truth, what is it?
What makes Only Yesterday such a disquieting novel about Zionism is not anything so simple as hostility to the Zionist ideal or for that matter the Zionist achievement. Even as it follows Isaac Kumer and Balak on their paths of unfulfillment in the Land, the novel repeatedly acknowledges how much the Second Aliyah achieved, against enormous odds. “There were those who heard the call and came,” Agnon writes. “And if some of them went back, some did settle in the Land. And if the times betrayed them, they did not betray the Land. … Because of them, the first immigrants began to raise their head, and because of them, all who came after them could stand tall.”
It’s easy to imagine Leon Uris nodding in agreement. In Exodus, however, “standing tall” marks the ultimate in human ambition; a life spent proving one’s toughness is what Balak would call “a meaningful life.” This is a view of Zionism, and of life, that is only tenable from a distance, by a writer or reader who fails to engage with the central questions of modern literature—the very questions Balak’s story raises so acutely. What, really, is the meaning of being Jewish, of being alive, of Being? Zionism, Agnon suggests, is only a provisional answer to this question—one of the endless number of provisional answers that we invent to fill the void where a final answer ought to be.
Until the widow of Yiddish writer Chaim Grade died last year, his archive was kept locked away in their stuffed apartment. Now it’s up for grabs.