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From Buczacz to Berlin: S.Y. Agnon and the Diasporic Imagination

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

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


In 1966, S.Y. Agnon won the Nobel Prize in literature, which he shared with the German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. The committee’s decision to split the prize between a German writer and a Hebrew one raises salient questions about the nature of Jewish literature, and Agnon’s part in it. In particular, it calls into question Agnon’s place in the Hebrew and Israeli literary imagination. While past scholarship on this author has tended to consider his work as part of a monolingual Hebrew literary tradition, dominated by the Zionist narrative, this panel attempts to locate Agnon in-between Eretz Israel and the Jewish diaspora through concepts central to German thought of the early twentieth century: political theology, montage, and translation. They offer a theoretical dialogue between Agnon’s writings and the philosophies of Carl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem, advancing alternative approaches to Agnon’s familiar modes of narration and intertexual reference.
Shai Ginsburg’s paper focuses on the political dimension and intertextual practice of Agnon’s novella In the Heart of the Seas, which depicts the travels of a Hasidic group from Galicia to Eretz Israel. Drawing on Carl Schmitt’s notion of political theology, he considers Agnon’s text as a mediator between the realm of theology and that of Jewish nationalism. Michal Peles-Almagor’s paper concentrates on the novel To This Day and examines the construction of German urban space and the place of the library in the Jewish exilic imagination. Her paper illuminates the understudied links between Agnon and German-Jewish fiction by comparing his work to Walter Benjamin’s Berliner Childhood around 1900 and to Benjamin’s notion of montage. Maya Barzilai’s paper turns to another kind of literary journey by exploring Gershom Scholem’s 1924 German translations of two short stories by Agnon. She argues that these translations are, for Scholem, a form of indirect lamentation for German Jewish culture. Taken together, the three papers allow us to reconsider Agnon’s Hebrew writing through the lens of German literature, language, and philosophy; they complicate our understanding of Agnon’s position vis-à-vis both European culture and Jewish textuality.

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