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Last Translations: Gershom Scholem’s German Renditions of S. Y. Agnon’s Polish Tales

Tue, December 18, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 1 Ballroom

Abstract

In April 1924, S. Y. Agnon published two short stories in the German Jewish journal Der Jude, both translated by Gershom Scholem. One of the stories, “The Great Synagogue,” first appeared in 1920 in the journal Hatekufa, as part of the Polin legends collections; the other, “The Tale of Azriel Moshe, the Porter,” was collected in 1925 in Agnon’s Polin cycle, published already in Palestine. Appearing on the eve of Agnon’s departure from Germany and after Scholem himself had already immigrated to Palestine, these translations mark a time of transition in Jewish life on German soil. The stories themselves concern the inability of sustaining Jewish life and tradition in Eastern Europe and are suffused, in Scholem’s words, “with an atmosphere of immense sadness,” while also holding out “a promise of consolation.” The consolation at the end of each story is highly tenuous, however, occurring, in one case, in the afterlife, and, in the other, in a concealed synagogue/Temple that has been dug out of the earth while its “eternal flame” is about to be extinguished. Reading the German translations alongside the Hebrew texts, my paper explores Agnon’s position as a writer who, in contrast to the porter figure in his story, deeply understood the contents of Jewish books, and thus represented, for Scholem and others, “the end of his line,” tasked with chronicling the disintegration of Jewish tradition. Reading these stories as part of a broader literary and philosophical exchange between Agnon and Scholem, I maintain that Scholem might have focused on these specific stories because they thematize the distance from Jewish sources and spaces of worship. Rather than providing a sentimental or nostalgic view of Poland, these stories portray Jewish destruction in almost fatalistic terms, enabling Scholem, via translation, also to lament Jewish life on German soil.

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