Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
The origins of the project of writing a cycle of stories about Buczacz are presented in the story "The Sign," in which an Agnon-like narrator experiences a mystical visitation by a Jewish medieval poet who models literary creation as a way to memorialize the destroyed city. Although many of the stories were published in the author's lifetime, scant attention was paid to them then or when they were published in book form. Israeli culture had a conflicted relationship to the Holocaust, and there was little interest in literature devoted to the Old World life that Zionism had sought to replace. There has been a significant change in attitude since that time, and A City in Its Fullness has recently become the object of increasing critical attention.
The opening story of A City in Its Fullness is a myth of origins that presents the founding of Buczacz as an arrested attempt on the part of fervent Jews from the Rhineland Valley to journey to the Land of Israel. This story is compared with the historical record, which describes an economic emigration of Jews from central Poland in the sixteenth century into lands in the southeast newly colonized by Polish nobles. The Jewish community of Buczacz rebuilt itself after the Khmelnytskyi massacres of 1648 and the Tatar and Turkish incursions that followed. The community experienced relative prosperity and stability as a town owned by the Potocki family. The first book of A City in Its Fullness is devoted to the town's principle places and institutions in the form of a grand tour conducted for the reader, with attention given to both Jewish and gentile space.
Writing stories set in a period beyond modern memory presented Agnon with the challenge of a workable narrative premise. For this task Agnon gave up the autobiographical narrator that had been the mainstay of his earlier fiction and developed a unique narrator—actually, a set of variations on a single premise—who speaks as a believing Jew within the historical milieu of the stories. The narrator's views are aligned with the contemporary rabbinic elite and, like the leaders of Buczacz, skeptical of mysticism and Hasidism. His tone assumes the authority of the communal minute book, the pinkas; yet although impersonal, and without a recognizable identity, he uses the "I" in a garrulous and compunctious manner. This chapter describes how the stories communicate simultaneously with the implied traditional audience contemporary to the events and the modern audience reading the stories as they appeared in Haaretz and similar news journals.
Agnon examines azzanim, the cantors or professional prayer leaders in the synagogue, not as employees of the community but as embodying the ideal of prayer as a vocation. This construction draws upon the office of the high priest in the ancient Temple service, the sacred poet of the Middle Ages, and the romantic artist, whose self-sacrifice on the altar of his art renders him a martyr. Discussing three stories about azzanim—about a young woman with a gift for sacred music who must keep her gift hidden; a azzan whose determination to serve the community without pay brings about his gruesome martyrdom; and a gifted azzan who pays for his amour-propre earlier in life by having to recluse himself from the profession—this chapter examines the stories' tragic realization that leading the community in true prayer inevitably leads to the danger of too close proximity to the holy.
The major novella at the heart of A City in Its Fullness asks whether it is possible to combine two kinds of rabbinic leadership: the pure scholar and the community rabbi. Whether the source is the Polish magnate or the Austrian government official, government interference in appointments to rabbinic seats is a factor that few Jewish communities can elude. The novella concerns Buczacz's failed quest to find a rabbi who is equal in all respects to the community's high regard for its own learning and piety. Because of the ineluctability of gentile interference, the story concludes that true Torah scholarship can almost never be realized by a rabbi beholden to the community.
Until 1772, Buczacz, like many Polish towns, was owned outright by a Polish noble, who was the source of all law. In the social space between the Catholic land-owning Poles and the Orthodox Ruthenian/Ukrainian serfs, the Jews operated as merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. Although the services provided by the Jews were economically critical to the Poles, the latter despised the former and knew little of their inner religious life. Two major stories imagine a set of circumstances in which these roles are reversed and two great magnates become dependent for their lives on Jews, one a great communal leader and the other a humble charcoal maker. The chapter examines how Agnon uses established historical information to create alternative history and reimagine a "corrected" relationship between the two communities.
The Austrian rule over Buczacz that came with the partition of Poland in 1772 brought far-reaching changes to Jewish life, especially during the first decades of imperial rule. One change was the imposition of a special tax on the candles Jews used for Sabbaths, holidays, and weddings. Agnon's general approach is to examine the corrupting effects of these measures within the Jewish community rather than between the community and the Austrian authorities. One major story concerns a thug named Feivush, who serves as an enforcer for a heartless tax farmer. Feivush is feared and reviled by his fellow Jews, but then he himself becomes a victim. Other tales focus on the marginalization of rabbinic courts under the Austrians, which allows the violence of the wealthy to go unchecked.
One of the most hated measures imposed by the Austrians was conscription into the imperial army for long periods of service. To meet the quotas, Jewish communities offered inducements to the vagrant poor and forcibly recruited youth who were insufficiently religious. The story "Disappeared" concerns a blameless apprentice tailor named Dan, who is delivered to the army by the Buczacz community to protect its better-born youth. The story focuses on the community's apathy to the suffering of Dan's mother and his secret fiancée, as well as the role of literacy and letter writing in this changing society. On his way back to Buczacz after years of service, Dan falls into the hands of a Polish noblewoman who keeps him captive for several years. The story's sensational conclusion, in the form of this woman's diary, describes her sexual attraction to the ex-soldier and her victimization of him.
The depiction of the Buczacz Jewish community under Austrian rule is so negative that it threatens the very enterprise of A City in Its Fullness as a memorial project. To counterbalance this, at the end of the volume, Agnon explores redemption as both a theological and social construct. He locates the potential for redemption not within the rabbinic elite or communal leadership, but within the love of learning on the part of ordinary householders. In a story called "In a Single Moment," the unmarried status of an outstanding fifteen-year-old scholar is of great concern to his parents. During the climactic conclusion of the events of a single day, the boy weds a young woman who has been left under the uppah by an unscrupulously materialistic bridegroom. The joy that suddenly floods the community provides a moment of redemption, a brief but significant recoupment of the community's spiritual glory.
A City in Its Fullness represents an extraordinary instance of a major writer returning to the golden age of East European Jewry and reimagining it through the medium of modernist fiction. Although the stories are carefully set within the facts of their historical periods, Agnon sometimes arrogates to himself the freedom to "correct" the historical record by fashioning stories that accord to their Jewish subjects the dignity they deserved in their own time but did not receive.