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Only Yesterday, S.Y. Agnon (1945)

With Israel’s Nobel Laureate, the personal was more than political: it was religious.

Adam Kirsch
September 17, 2013

Agnon, the only Israeli writer to win the Nobel Prize, wrote the definitive novel about pre-state Jewish Palestine in Only Yesterday. But this dreamy, philosophical book, full of ironies and parables, is no simple patriotic epic. Set in Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1908, the novel tells the story of Isaac Kumer, a Don Quixote-like pilgrim who comes to Palestine full of Zionist ideals, only to find them perpetually thwarted by reality. In addition to conjuring the texture of life in the Yishuv, Agnon explores the basic paradoxes of Zionism and the way life, even in the Promised Land, always turns out to be more complicated than our dreams.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.