“Only Yesterday: A Novel” by S.Y. Agnon— Reconstructing History

Agnon. S.Y. “Only Yesterday: A Novel”, Translated by Barbara Harshav, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Reconstructing History

Amos Lassen

When Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon published “Only Yesterday” in 1945, it was considered a major work of world literature and not just because of its vivid historical reconstruction of Israel’s founding society. The book tells what, at first, seems to be a simple story about a man who immigrates to Palestine with the Second Aliyah (the several hundred idealists who returned between 1904 and 1914 to work the Hebrew soil as was done in Biblical times and revive Hebrew culture). “Only Yesterday” is an epic novel that engages the reader in a stunning series of meanings, contradictions, and paradoxes all leading to the question of what, if anything, controls human existence?

Isaac Kumer was seduced by Zionist slogans causing him to think of the land of Israel as a place filled with the financial, social, and erotic life that he as the son of a poor shopkeeper in Poland. would never know. Upon arriving there, however, he cannot find the agricultural work he anticipated. Instead Isaac finds house-painting jobs as he moves from secular, Zionist Jaffa, where the ideological fervor and sexual freedom are alien to him, to ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist Jerusalem. Some of his Zionist friends turn capitalist and become successful merchants but his own life doesn’t change and he stays adrift and impoverished in a land torn existing between idealism and practicality, a place that is at once homeland and Diaspora. Eventually he marries a religious woman in Jerusalem after his worldly girlfriend in Jaffa rejects him.

It is very easy to see the Kafkaesque surrealism of the text about a man who is led astray by circumstances beyond his control. Playfully Isaac drips paint on a stray dog and writes the words “Crazy Dog” with it. The dog causes panic wherever it goes and ultimately takes over the story until the dog goes crazy after having been persecuted and not understanding why and bites Isaac. The dog has been the object of interpretation since original publication and has been seen as everything “from the embodiment of Exile to a daemonic force, and becomes an unforgettable character in a book about the death of God, the deception of discourse, the power of suppressed eroticism, and the destiny of a people depicted in all its darkness and promise.”

This is considered Agnon’s masterpiece and has a claim to being the great Israeli novel.” It is filled with ancient religious longing, modern political aspirations, and personal dreams of liberation and is a work of originality.

“Only Yesterday” (“Tmol Shilshom”) was written in Palestine under British Mandatory rule in the late 1930s, finished in 1943 during World War II, and published after the war in 1945.

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