The Jewish Genius of S.Y. Agnon

A Five-Part Exploration of His Greatest Works

Join one of the world’s leading scholars of S.Y. Agnon, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks,  for a wide-ranging exploration of this modern master of Hebrew letters.


Streaming live on Thursdays at 12:30 PM ET:
Jan. 13 | Jan. 20 | Jan. 27 | Feb. 3 | Feb. 10

Registrants will be emailed a link to each live lecture on the day of each session, with an additional reminder sent shortly before the stream begins. Every lecture will also be recorded and sent to registrants within 36 hours of each lecture’s conclusion.

A modern literary master, Shmuel Yosef Agnon helped bring about the revival of Hebrew literature, both in the land of Israel and throughout the world. His short stories, novels, and anthologies drew from and in turn strengthened the national spirit of the Jewish people in the age of Zionism, the Shoah, and the founding of the State of Israel. He is the first and, so far, only Hebrew writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he was awarded in 1966.

This January, read outstanding selections of Agnon’s fiction with Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, editor of the journal Tradition, series editor of the S.Y. Agnon Library at The Toby Press, and the director of research at the Agnon House in Jerusalem. Readings will include novels like The Bridal Canopy and A Guest for the Night as well as numerous pieces of shorter fiction. And discussions will focus on Agnon’s extensive use of allusions to and quotations of traditional Jewish texts, his conscious effort to reawaken the Hebrew language, and the tensions that characterize modern Jewish life, including those between tradition and modernity, and the Diaspora and the land of Israel.

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the Editor of the journal Tradition, Series Editor of The S.Y. Agnon Library at The Toby Press, and Director of Research at the Agnon House in Jerusalem. He is the founding director of ATID-The Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jewish Education, in Jerusalem, and its program. A three-time graduate of Yeshiva University (B.A., M.A., Rabbinic Ordination), Saks has lived in Israel for over 25 years and has published widely on Jewish thought, education, and literature.


1. Introduction: “Out of the Historic Catastrophe…”

Thursday, January 13, 2022 | 12:30 PM ET

In this opening lecture, we will look at an overview of Agnon’s life and writing, survey the major themes of his work, and explore this modern Hebrew master’s long road from his hometown Buczacz to the Nobel Prize.



2. Between the Old World and Eretz Yisrael: “The Fable of the Goat”

Thursday, January 20, 2022 | 12:30 PM ET

This classic story presents itself as a retelling of a hasidic folktale, but, when properly unpacked, it is revealed as an extremely modern parable about transitions in Jewish life, the rise of modern Zionism, generation gaps, and the return to the Land of Israel.



3. The Challenge of Faith: The Bridal Canopy

Thursday, January 27, 2022 | 12:30 PM ET

The Bridal Canopy, Agnon’s 1930 epic novel, is an elaborate frame story encompassing dozens of “mock” hasidic tales. The narrative is decisively double-edged: naive, in the manner of classic folktales, as well as sophisticated and artful, as a modern work. The Bridal Canopy parodies the hasidic folktale, but does so very delicately; it censures without acrimony, always maintaining an air of reverence for the Old World. Unlike some other depictions of Eastern European Jewry’s shtetl life, the story is sufficiently subtle to support divergent readings – and that is clearly part of Agnon’s accomplishment.


4. Nostalgia—The Pull and Pain of the Past: A Guest for the Night

Thursday, February 3, 2022 | 12:30 PM ET

Singled out by the Nobel committee as Agnon’s greatest achievement, his 1939 novel, A Guest for the Night, is something of an eerie and ghoulish premonition of what would befall his Galician hometown—and the rest of European Jewry—the 1940s. It depicts the nostalgic homecoming of a “guest” back to the world he left behind upon “ascending” to the Land of Israel (the autobiographical layer is heavy in this novel). The guest experiences a nightmarish shock in the discovery that the world left behind has collapsed: spiritually, socially, economically, and morally. At every turn, the evocative smells and experiences of his youth, like Proust’s madeleines, pull on his memory, emphasizing how Agnon’s tale, too, is one of a “search for lost time.”


5. Nightmare—The Shock of the Modern: “The Book of Deeds”

Thursday, February 10, 2022 | 12:30 PM ET

Agnon’s collection of twenty short stories comprising “The Book of Deeds” (Sefer HaMa’asim) draws his readers into the thicket of challenges posed by modernity. In fact, it was with the arrival of these stories mid-career that Agnon was finally understood to be at once deeply traditionalist and distinctly modern. In Gershon Shaked’s felicitous phrase, Agnon was revealed as a “revolutionary traditionalist.” These short stories are almost all marked by perturbed and ambiguous or frustrated endings. While all of the stories in the cycle share introspection as the predominant point of view, their thematic range includes: the spiritual sickness and the search for its cure; the need for self-purification; self-incrimination; the loss of home and personal identity; social alienation; the terrors of the bureaucratic society; and the simple shock of being unmoored from tradition.


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