Ancestral Tales
Reading the Buczacz Stories of S.Y. Agnon
Alan Mintz



“I Am Building a City”

In the spring of 1956, the critic Baruch Kurzweil wrote to S. Y. Agnon to ask what the writer was currently working on. Agnon, in the midst of launching an extensive cycle of stories about the Galician town in which he grew up, responded by saying: “I am building a city—Buczacz.”1 The present book is a study of those stories, which appeared under the title A City in Its Fullness [‘Ir umelo’ah] in 1973, three years after Agnon’s death. Agnon’s pithy response to Kurzweil provides a revealing snapshot of the writer’s aspirations. A brief meditation on Agnon’s choice of words can provide us with an entrée into this most extraordinary undertaking.

Today Buczacz is a small city in western Ukraine, eighty-three miles southeast of Lviv. Before 1772, it was located on the southern frontier of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; after the partitions of Poland, it became part of Galicia, a province of the Austrian Empire. Buczacz had a populous and vibrant Jewish community until the destruction visited on Galician Jewry during World War One; during World War Two, the city’s Jews were liquidated by the Nazis. Precisely because the Jewish community of Buczacz no longer existed, Agnon’s statement that he is building a city is curious. We would have expected him to say that he is rebuilding or to use other language that would indicate an act of restoring, reconstructing, or recollecting. Yet there is nothing that implies that the result of his work is a simulacrum of the Buczacz that once existed. It is a new building that stands on its own.

To be sure, Agnon’s ebullient reply to Kurzweil at the beginning of his new project should not be taken as a considered programmatic statement. Nevertheless, there is something revealing in Agnon’s insistence on the originality of the Buczacz stories, originality in the sense of something primary that is not a nostalgic tribute to the past. The image is distinctly one of new creation; this is not the work of a craftsman who is restoring a damaged painting or an architect/builder who is reconstructing a model, however true to the original, of a destroyed city. Cannot the difference between the historical Buczacz and the Buczacz that Agnon is building be accounted for by the fact that the latter is a literary endeavor? The city has been destroyed, and now Agnon is reimagining it in words. True, but Agnon’s assertion would seem to go beyond the distinction between history and the imagination. When he writes, “I am building a city,” the “I” is not simply a marker of agency but a proprietary stamp of a veteran writer who writes using an established repertoire of modernist techniques. Reimagining Buczacz through the filter of this imagination that abandons nothing from the toolkit of modernism must of necessity mean creating something new, a new city. The bricks and mortar may be taken from the historical record, but the building will be a new creation.

No other writer in modern Jewish culture has attempted a project of similar scope or ambition. In the sequence of 140 stories in A City in Its Fullness, Agnon endeavors to do nothing less than to reimagine the life of Polish Jewry in the period of its classical flowering and to do so, moreover, through the resources and energies of the modern literary imagination. By classical I mean what historians today call the early modern period; and, indeed, all of the stories are set in a two-hundred-year period between the last half of the seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth century. This is a time before modern memory, either the memory of Agnon as a boy or the recollections he heard directly from his parents and grandparents, or the flood of images that has come to us after the Holocaust of East European Jewish life in the twentieth century. This is Agnon’s great presumption: to fashion memories of life beyond the range of memory and to bring back a vanished world through the power of modern writing.

The vast enterprise of building the city of Buczacz was the great calling of Agnon’s later years. It was a demanding calling because to achieve it he could not simply adapt or extend the modes of writing he had cultivated over the previous half-century of literary production. Agnon’s greatest work depends for its success upon the ironic deployment of an autobiographical persona, a narrator who very much resembles Agnon himself in life circumstances and religious allegiances. When it came to reimagining the life of Polish Jewry hundreds of years ago, there could be no pretense of personal observation or recollection. So Agnon looked for useable pre-modern models of storytelling and found one in the voice of the chronicler, the curator of the pinkas—the communal minute book and registry maintained by all Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Agnon fused this voice of impersonal authority with the garrulousness of other traditional storytelling figures to fashion the narrator of the stories in A City in Its Fullness. The invention of this new narrator and the development of a unique late style are the subject of the second chapter of this study.

The Consecration Story

What brought a great master with so many great works to his credit to undertake so daunting and ambitious a challenge in the last phase of his life? We are fortunate to have a story that comes very close to providing the answer. It therefore makes sense to begin this inquiry into Agnon’s Buczacz stories with a look at this text. The story is called “The Sign” [“Hasiman”], and it has an unusual publishing history. The kernel of the story, only one page in length, appeared in a journal in 1944, and then the story in its full length as we have it now—fifty-two pages in length—appeared in 1962 in the last volume of Agnon’s collected stories.2 We do not know when between these years that Agnon grew the germ of the idea into the full story. These are the years when Agnon was consolidating his plans for the great enterprise that would eventually become A City in Its Fullness. The story describes a fundamental experience which, when read together with another key text, identifies the catalyst for the new project.

“The Sign” is set in Jerusalem in the mid-1940s, and at its center is an autobiographical narrator much like Agnon himself. The precipitating event is the arrival of the terrible news that the Jews of the narrator’s Galician hometown have been murdered by the Nazis. The time is afternoon on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, and, as an observant Jew, the narrator knows that mourning is forbidden after the midpoint of the day, when thoughts are to be turned to the joy of the holiday. He dutifully puts his grief away. Around the festive dinner table that evening, he tells his family stories from his childhood about the customs connected to preparations for the Shavuot holiday that were practiced in his town, the town whose destruction has just been announced to him. He is alone later that night when he is vouchsafed a mystical experience. He has come to the shack that serves as the neighborhood synagogue to observe the tikkun leil Shavuot, the custom of remaining awake and studying Torah on the night that marks the giving of the Torah. Instead of reading the selection of classical sources that forms the standard liturgy for the occasion, the narrator tells us that it is his longstanding custom to recite a sacred poem, versifying the commandments, composed by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the great eleventh-century Spanish Hebrew poet. But his concentration is marred by memories of his hometown and when his eyes close, he is visited by nightmarish images of the town in its decimated condition after World War One.

It is at this moment that Ibn Gabirol is revealed in all his regal poetic glory between the doors of the Holy Ark. Through a kind of mystical telepathy, the august and ghostly poet discovers that the poem the narrator is reciting is one of Ibn Gabirol’s own creations; and the narrator in turn remembers the electrifying effect of the first sacred poem of Ibn Gabirol’s that he heard as a child, intoned by the old azzan (synagogue cantor) of this town. That memory collapses the barriers he has constructed against his grief, and he breaks down in tears. After determining the reason for the narrator’s anguish, Ibn Gabirol announces that he will fashion a sign, a siman that will enable the name of the town to be remembered. The sign takes the form of the alphabetic acrostic of the poem he is composing in which the first letter of each line spells out the name of the town. “If my town has been expunged from the world,” the narrator says gratefully, “its name survives in the sign made for it by the poet in his poem.”

When Emunah Yaron compiled A City in Its Fullness after her father’s death, she took this stunning and evocative story and made it the conclusion of the volume. This was an intuitive act that was not part of her father’s editorial guidelines. She must have seen in the story—with its news of the final destruction of Buczacz—a tragic but fitting ending to this epic account of the city in its fullness. Emunah Yaron’s thorough and thoughtful editorial work generally proceeds from a deeply informed understanding of her father’s mentality. In this instance, however, I believe the choice she made was wrong. “The Sign” should appear at the beginning of A City in Its Fullness and not at its end, and I make an argument why this should be so, and why this issue of placement matters a great deal.

“The Sign,” I propose, is a narrative of consecration. The Agnon-like narrator undergoes a transformative mystical experience in which he is called upon to memorialize the lost community of Buczacz and to do so through the medium of his narrative art. The story presents the revelation of Ibn Gabirol as a profound event that actually took place rather than a dream or a reverie or a literary conceit. The assertion is strengthened by the fact that this revelation appears in the one-page text published in 1944, the kernel from which the full story grew. As modern readers, we are well practiced in naturalizing the supernatural events we encounter in poems and novels by recourse to the fact that they are manifestations of the literary imagination. But the events in “The Sign” make a truth claim of a different sort. Agnon is saying to us, “With all due regard to the literary imagination, this really happened.”

Even if we accept that claim, there remains a gap between the enigmatic ending of the story and the writing of A City in Its Fullness as the harkening to a call that issued from the mystical experience. “The Sign” ends with Ibn Gabirol modeling an act of remembrance by fashioning a poetic sign for the city; but in his disorientation, the narrator cannot remember the poem and remains dejected by the finality of the destruction. If there is a call and it is answered, it is not, explicitly, within the bounds of the story. I say “explicitly” because there exists a hermeneutic key that can bridge this gap and explain why the narrator would experience Ibn Gabirol’s actions as a prompting to undertake a project of creative memorialization.

That key is to be found in another story. As so often is the case in the Agnonian world, one text is parsed and opened up by another. The story is called “A Sense of Smell” [“ush harea,” 1937], and in it the Agnon-like narrator makes explicit his connection to the writing of sacred poetry. He bases the connection upon the fact that Agnon was born into a Levitical family. The Bible mandates that the tribe of Levi be separated from the rest of Israel and dedicated to the service of the Temple. This distinction of birth became largely inoperative and restricted to minor roles played by Levites in the synagogue service after the destruction of the Temple.

Yet the narrator of “A Sense of Smell” takes his identity as a Levite very seriously in a very specific way. The narrator declares that

[i]f the Temple were still standing, I would be up there on the platform among my singing brothers, reciting each day the song that the Levites sang in the Temple. Since the Temple remains destroyed and we have no priests at service or Levites at song, instead I study Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, Mishnah, laws and legends, supplementary treatises and fine points of Torah and the works of the scribes. When I look at their words and see that of all the delights we possessed in ancient times there remains only this memory, my heart fills up with grief. That grief makes my heart tremble, and it is out of that trembling that I write these stories, like one exiled from his father’s palace who makes himself a little hut and sits there telling of the glory of his father’s house.3

The tradition of sacred song (piyyut) has its origins in the psalms sung by the Levites as an accompaniment to the Temple service. Although this practice was silenced by the Destruction, the inspiration of sacred poetry and song survived in the work of the synagogue poets (payyetanim), who composed a vast and varied body of piyyutim beginning in Late Antiquity and continuing into modern times, together with the azzanim (the synagogue cantors), who realized their work in musical settings and transmitted it to the people. This is the path of transmission described in “The Sign” but not in the passage above. Here the narrator presents himself as a kind of laid-off Levite who turns to the study of Torah as an alternative to his former employment. Despite its great prestige, Torah learning is considered here—rather surprisingly—as second best. The gap between it and “all the delights we possessed in ancient times,” namely, the sacred service in the Temple, generates a grief that causes a trembling of the heart, and that trembling, in turn, results in the narrator’s writing stories (sippurei ma‘asiyot).

Why stories and not poems? The parable that ends the passage explains the reason. Exile from the palace means living in a little hut. The majestic and sublime modes of expression are no longer available to us, and now the only medium available for narrating the glories of the palace is storytelling. In a post-exilic age of prose, stories are the successors to sacred poetry; and if they are fallen as a form, nonetheless the greatness of their success underwrites their authority.

We are now very close to putting the pieces together and appreciating the full import of Ibn Gabirol’s revelation. Earlier in “The Sign,” the narrator’s deep connections to piyyut and azzanut are underscored at several key junctures. Perusing his grandfather’s prayer book, he discovers that the author of a hymn that moved him greatly is Solomon Ibn Gabirol; and, in a memory recovered during the revelatory experience, the narrator recalls hearing (as a young child) another sacred poem of Ibn Gabirol’s rendered by the old azzan of Buczacz. He further recalls the circumstances of imprisonment that led the azzan to compose the melody. These experiences and affiliations help us to grasp the larger resonance of what the Agnon-like narrator undergoes on that Shavuot night.

This image of the writer’s lineage and mission can help us better understand the situation of the narrator in “The Sign” as he sits dumbfounded and entranced before the ghostly presence of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. The narrator sits abashed and humbled in the presence of the great poet, and we realize that the very fact that he is made the recipient of this extraordinary visitation is not accidental. He has been chosen to play a role in this drama because in an essential sense he belongs to the chain of sacred creativity of which Ibn Gabirol is an apotheosis. That is why he was especially attuned as a child to the piyyutim and the spiritual drama they enacted, and that is why it was the memory of the old azzan singing those poems that opened the floodgates of grief over the loss of Buczacz. When we construct Agnon’s autobiographical myth by reading “The Sign” together with “A Sense of Smell,” we see two things. First, Agnon is not simply a consumer or a beneficiary of the tradition of sacred song that goes back to the Temple; he is an actor who is himself a belated link in that chain. Second, precisely because of his belated status, his role in the tradition takes the form of telling stories rather than composing poems.

Seen from this angle, the exchange between Ibn Gabirol and the narrator of “The Sign” takes on a far more portentous and even exhilarating aspect. The great poet is not merely offering a memorial lamentation for Buczacz and its Jews, although that is no small gift. Rather he is modeling, in his own classical medium, an act of creative memorialization that he expects the narrator to imitate in his own—belated—creative medium. Ibn Gabirol is at the same time demonstrating a way out of the cul-de-sac of grief and loss while summoning the narrator to activate himself and apply his creative gifts to perpetuating the memory of his town. “The Sign” is a consecration story that resonates with the scenes from classical prophecy in the Hebrew Bible in which the prophet is called by God to undertake a high mission that transforms his life and from which he is not free to desist.

Let us return, finally, to the question of placement. There can be no doubt that “The Sign” is an extraordinary story that is essential to understanding Agnon’s Buczacz project. Does it belong at the end or at the beginning? Placing the story at the end—the choice of Emunah Yaron when she edited the stories—gives Ibn Gabirol’s lament a funereal finality and suggests that the function of the book as a whole is to provide an epitaph for the community of Buczacz. Placing the story at the beginning—as I have done in a selection of the stories in English translation—makes the composition of the lament into an invitation to be emulated in the narrator’s belated prosaic mode of creativity. It makes the book as a whole into an imaginative construction that possesses its own reality separate from, though of course dependent upon, the destroyed world of Buczacz. Both placements are interventions and interpretive choices. I argue that making “The Sign” a gateway honors Agnon’s ambition in A City in Its Fullness to build the city anew through the resources of his own imagination rather than merely performing a memorial gesture.

Under the Sign of the Holocaust

To understand the dilemma that faced Agnon in taking up this fraught, monumental task, I first set the aperture as wide as possible. In Agnon’s situation we can see the plight of all writers and intellectuals who survive the destruction of their native civilizations and take it upon themselves to convey what vanished to contemporaries who know little about what was lost. When a whole culture vanishes—whether by genocide, cultural domination, or modernization—how does the work of remembrance proceed? What elements of the lost culture does a writer who is a survivor or an exile select for representation? How do the literary means chosen—the very question of mode and style—differ from the choices made before the fact of loss becomes final? Thus, the Holocaust, despite its uniqueness, is only the most terrible and absolute example of a phenomenon that is an indelible part of our world, and the ethical and aesthetic choices made by a great master like Agnon warrant our attention.

Agnon’s case—and that of many other Hebrew writers—is complicated by the fact that his survival was the result of his having voluntarily exiled himself from a world that was later destroyed. Agnon emigrated from Galicia and came to Palestine in 1907 and, after a twelve-year sojourn in Germany, returned there permanently in 1924. He returned to Buczacz only twice, for a week following his father’s death in 1913 and for five days in 1930. Agnon, then, put Buczacz behind him and rejected it as a place where he could live, and he did so long before the city’s Jews were murdered. The fact of the rejection remains even if we exempt Agnon from the vulgar manifestations of shelilat hagolah, the negation of the Diaspora, that were integral to Zionist ideology of the time. Yet, at the same time Buczacz and Galician Jewry are a major axis of Agnon’s fiction and stand at the center of three of the four novels published in his lifetime, as well as the center of dozens of short stories. The Bridal Canopy [Hakhnasat kalah, 1931] is set in the heartland of traditional Jewish life in Galicia during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. A Simple Story [Sippur pashut, 1935] presents Buczacz as a town of shopkeepers in the first years of the twentieth century. And A Guest for the Night, [Ore’a natah lalun, 1938] describes a year-long visit by an Agnon-like narrator to a Buczacz decimated by the ravages of World War One. Having given so much of his creative attention to Buczacz during the major phase of his career, what more was there to say, or what different things were there to say, once the loss of the town and Galician Jewry as a whole had become utterly final?

Apparently so, and A City in Its Fullness is the evidence. Although not evident to Israeli readers at the time, Agnon embarked on a vast new project that dominated his energies from the middle of the 1950s until his death in 1970 at the age of 82. This was not, to be sure, his only creative outlet in the post-war period, but it was the only one that constituted a major new direction for his work. Agnon published other important works during this period, but they were largely continuations or refinements of the modes of writing he had developed earlier. What was new about A City in Its Fullness, in addition to its vast scale, is a set of solutions that Agnon developed to deal with the great task he had taken on. Like the narrator at the conclusion of “The Sign,” Agnon must have felt the solemn duty to overmaster his grief and convert it into imaginative constructions capable of effectively memorializing the lost city and its culture. But how? If the duty and the desire were clear and profoundly felt, the literary means for discharging such an exigent mission were hardly self-evident or ready-made.

Characteristically, Agnon said little about what was on his mind regarding the project either in his correspondence or his public statements. But it is not difficult to infer from the final product some of the key choices that were made at the outset, especially when it comes to the options Agnon sought to avoid. The early 1950s, for example, was a time when many memorial volumes for destroyed European communities were being assembled. These sifrei zikaron (in Hebrew) or yizker bikher (in Yiddish) were collaborative efforts that depended on the contributions—both in the sense of money and articles—of emigrants from a given town scattered around the world. These volumes aspired to cover all aspects of a town’s life: the history of the community, famous rabbis and scholars, synagogues, schools and other institutions, important communal leaders, clubs and organizations, economic life, and, of course, documentation of the liquidation of the community by the Germans and their local helpers, with eye-witness reports by survivors.

Buczacz was no exception to this surge of memorialization. The writer and editor Yisrael Cohen worked for ten years on compiling Sefer Buczacz, which appeared in 1957.4 From the inception of the project, Cohen tried unceasingly to cajole his friend Agnon into taking a major role in compiling the volume. Yet, although Agnon encouraged Cohen and endorsed his efforts, he remained aloof. He declined to attach his name to the initial announcement soliciting material and contributions, and he rebuffed Cohen’s invitation to join him as coeditor. In the end, Agnon contributed several short stories, a bibliography of books published in Buczacz, and a brief list of places where the town is mentioned in responsa literature; these are ornaments to the book but far less than had been hoped.5

Agnon’s reluctance to take a more central role in this worthy undertaking undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that it was precisely during these years that he was formulating his plans for his own, very different, book on Buczacz. Agnon kept his own counsel, and concerning this new project, no word was said by Agnon to Cohen over the many years of their published correspondence, even as Cohen reported on the material he was gathering for the memorial book. One can imagine that the variegated collaboration involved in such a project was not congenial to Agnon’s temperament. But more serious limitations to the genre of memorial books as a whole, and not just that of Buczacz, would have made it unsuitable for Agnon’s purposes. The accounts of Jewish communal life in these books generally focus on the several decades before the war in accordance with the personal recollections of the writers, whereas Agnon was after a classical past that was beyond the range of such reminiscences. Further, a memorial book explicitly saw as its function to become a matseivah, a gravestone in words for a lost community, whereas Agnon sought imaginatively to recreate a spiritual vigor it once possessed. Finally, Agnon saw storytelling as the only vehicle for accomplishing his goals, and the assemblage of documentation and testimony in the memorial-volume genre was something else entirely.

The other model from which Agnon distances himself is the kind of writing that came to be called Holocaust literature. This kind of writing is not much in evidence in the Israel of the 1950s except for a writer such as Ka-Tsetnik (Yehiel Dinur), whose House of Dolls [Beit habubot, 1953], often served as the first exposure of young readers to the graphic horrors of the camps.6 At the center of this growing literature was the problem of the representability of the Holocaust. How can an event of such negative transcendence with no precedence in human history be rendered intelligible? What are the literary means by which atrocity can be conveyed? Is language capable of sustaining this burden?

Of all of these serious and legitimate questions Agnon wanted to have no part. Finding effective ways to convey the horror of the death throes of European Jewry was not the goal to which he wished to commit his considerable artistic resources. The narrator of the stories in A City in Its Fullness never hesitates to register the reality of the horrible deaths of the Jews of Buczacz and to excoriate the perpetrators. But it is not their deaths that are the object of the work of memorialization that Agnon is undertaking, and not even their lives, that is, not the lives of the generation that died in the Holocaust, but rather the lives of their distant ancestors. Agnon wants to go back even further. Not because he is seeking to escape from a brutal confrontation with the gentile world—there is ample brutality in these earlier periods—but rather, as will be discussed shortly, the fabric of traditional Jewish culture had not yet been torn asunder.

So, in the final analysis, is Agnon’s Buczacz project part of Holocaust literature? To consider this question I briefly rehearse a chapter in my own intellectual biography. When earlier in my career I was undertaking the research that resulted in urban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, I examined Agnon’s oeuvre to see whether this figure, considered by many to be the greatest Hebrew writer of the twentieth century, had mounted a major response to the murder of European Jewry.7 My determination was negative.8 There were indeed several stories that obliquely related to the Holocaust, but I concluded that by the time of World War Two, Agnon’s career, like a vast ocean liner whose direction could not be easily changed, had been formed in its major phases and could not be brought around to undertake a major engagement with the tremendum of the Holocaust.

I was wrong, as the present study makes abundantly clear. The source of my error was in what I assumed at the time were the established markers of Holocaust literature: ghettos, camps, victims, perpetrators, survivors, traumatic memory, and so on. Based on those criteria, Agnon indeed came up short. What I did not see was that during the last twenty years of his life, Agnon had in fact reoriented his career and redeployed his formidable imaginative resources in the service of a major project of memorialization. Yet rather than turning to the appurtenances of the “concentrationary universe,” he set upon the idea of conjuring—in his own imaginative terms—the lost world of Polish Jewry, viewed not in its fallen, belated aspect but in the vigor of its golden age. This was not inevitable. Agnon could have surely rested on his laurels. Having written so much about East European Jewry in general and Buczacz in particular, he could easily have anthologized his own work and produced a stirring tribute to this vanished world. Instead, during the last phase of his career he undertook a vast project that was entirely new and remarkably different from his earlier work. It is important to note that, with the exception of “The Sign,” not one of the 150 texts in the 730 pages of A City in Its Fullness was written earlier or published previously in book form. To present these stories, Agnon developed a new mode of storytelling and fashioned a new kind of narrator to tell them.

Agnon’s way of dealing with the Holocaust, in sum, was not to deal with it—at least not directly. He chose instead to reanimate, in his own terms and under the sign of the Holocaust, what was most valuable in the civilization that had been destroyed. In a narrow and conventional sense, then, A City in Its Fullness may not fall into the category of Holocaust literature, but it is most certainly a major response to the Holocaust. (It is ironic and significant that it took the emergence of the construct of “Holocaust consciousness” to make it possible for us to look back at what Agnon was doing during those years and realize its enormity and innovation.) Agnon’s project points to a new, alternative path to Holocaust memorialization. It is a path, moreover, that shares more with responses to catastrophe in earlier periods of Jewish history than do the familiar classics of Holocaust literature. In the responses to the destruction of the two temples and to the catastrophic massacres of the Middle Ages, emphasis was always placed on the reconstruction of the paradigms of meaning that had been stressed or broken by the calamities.9 There is something, then, deeply continuous with the classical tradition in Agnon’s undertaking to restore, if only through the medium of the storyteller’s art, the world of Jews and Judaism that had been brought to its final extermination.

Fundamental Choices

I now turn from the options Agnon rejected to the new principles he fashioned for himself. I present these under five headings framed as a series of critical choices Agnon made concerning the conception of his project. In speaking of these as choices, I am aware that I am inferring them from Agnon’s praxis—A City in Its Fullness as a finished product—and dramatizing them as conscious interventions. It should be evident by now that Agnon was not the kind of writer who was given to discussing motives and intentions. But it is productive and legitimate to argue backward from the text if it helps us to provide a foreground for the distinctive departures embodied in the text.

First was the choice of historical parameters. A City in Its Fullness begins with the generation following the Khmelnytskyi massacres of 1648 and ends around 1867, the year the Jews of Galicia were emancipated and given the vote. The starting point is explained, I believe, by the scarcity of historical materials about Buczacz before this time and by Agnon’s desire to underscore the fortitude of the Jews of Buczacz, and their collective will in rebuilding the community, after those massacres and the ones visited upon the city by the Tartars and the Turks in the following decades. The end point is explained by the great changes that swept over Buczacz and all of Galician Jewry in the second half of the nineteenth century: pauperization, emigration to the West (Vienna, Warsaw, and America), and the influx of socialism, Zionism, and territorialism as ideological and social movements. These changes spelled the end of rabbinic authority and the intense culture of lay Torah scholarship that Agnon saw as the hallmarks of his city.

The next phases in the history of the city had been abundantly documented in the novels A Simple Story and A Guest for the Night; and, as discussed above, Agnon wanted the horrific fate of Buczacz’s Jews in the 1940s to be registered and recalled frequently and unequivocally, but not to be made the subject of literary representation. All this was not avoidance but principled choice. What Agnon wanted to convey to future readers about his town was located in the centuries when, as often repeated in the book, “Buczacz was Buczacz,” by which he meant when the town and its Jewish inhabitants lived under the sway of the Torah before the full effects of modernization.

Second is the decision to write about a single town. Holding in one’s hands this heavy tome with its encyclopedic store of lore about Buczacz, this fait accompli, it is hard to imagine that it could be otherwise. But the choice represents a more complex calculation. To be sure, Agnon was a man of Buczacz, he had a deep loyalty to the place in which he grew up, and he had spent a lifetime collecting documents and materials about his town. Yet he was also a great Hebrew writer—undoubtedly the greatest in his own eyes—with a felt responsibility to the whole of the Jewish people. Sentimentality and convenience could not be the paramount motives of a figure of such eminence as he poised to undertake a great project memorializing the murder of European Jewry. If Polish Jewry as a whole was too wide a focus, then certainly a narrower aperture focused on Galician Jewry would have been coherent and appropriate, especially in light of the fact that, despite the endearing attention invested in its depiction, Buczacz was not among the first rank of towns in the province. Yet Agnon insisted on Buczacz and Buczacz alone. This insistence, I would argue, can best be understood as an aesthetic choice. What James Joyce had done with Dublin and what William Faulkner had done with Yoknapatawpha County, Agnon intended to accomplish with Buczacz. The choice is much more than making a place serve as a representative function or become a microcosm. This approach proceeds from the modernist premise that the deepest and most universal truths can be grasped only through the radical particularity and specificity of the one instance. It is a guard against the blunting of concreteness, which can turn remembrance into nostalgia. Agnon’s identification with Buczacz and the stock of lore in his possession surely paved the way, but the choice itself was a modernist move.

Third is the selection of those aspects of life in Buczacz to foreground. Again, we must make an effort to suspend our experience of A City in Its Fullness in its monumental givenness to consider how it could have been otherwise. To get a sense of just how fungible was the representation of small-town Jewish life in Eastern Europe, one needs only to look at the variety of versions extant in Hebrew and Yiddish literature: the shtetl as a cradle of folly and superstition (Sh. Abramovitch/Mendele), the shtetl as a harmonious human organism (Shalom Asch), the shtetl as the stage for the dark comedy of the human condition (Sholem Aleichem), the shtetl as a scene of social and class conflict (I. M. Weissenberg), the shtetl as a container for the lives of women and families (Devorah Baron), the shtetl as the ground of a life-denying religious fundamentalism (Mordecai Ze’ev Feierberg), the shtetl as an educational regime that damages the inner life of the child (Sh. Benzion, Yosef Haim Brenner).10 And this is only a partial catalogue, to which one should add Agnon’s own important earlier contributions. So, when belatedly Agnon revisited this busy field of representation—all the literature just referred to was written before the war—how did he shape the portrait of Buczacz?

The answer is that Agnon self-consciously chose two related categories around which to constellate the reimagined world of Buczacz: Torah study and synagogue worship, or, in the traditional formulation, ‘al hatorah ve‘al ha‘avodah. Torah study includes the chronicles of the great scholars who were brought to Buczacz to serve as the town’s rabbinic authorities, as well as those, sometimes greater, scholars whom the town could not succeed in attracting or retaining. Yet what Agnon places at the center is not the remunerated position of community rabbi but rather the batei midrash (beit midrash, singular), the study houses, which were the greatest and most characteristic glory of Buczacz. The beit midrash, as presented in A City in Its Fullness, is filled from morning to night with full-time scholars, bridegrooms devoting themselves to study, shopkeepers meeting their study partners after work in the evenings, and tradesmen popping in for an hour to read Psalms or recite mishnayot. Adjacent to the beit midrash is the beit keneset, the synagogue, which is the other focus. Agnon devotes considerable attention to how the prayer houses of Buczacz were financed and built; to the lives of the salaried (shamashim, sextons; [shamash, singular]) and non-salaried (gabaiim, treasurers; [gabai, singular]) personnel who maintained them; and to the zealous loyalty to the particular customs of prayer that had been inherited from the town’s founders, who had come—according to Agnon’s historically questionable assertion—from the Rhineland Valley in medieval Germany. Crucial to this picture are the lives of the great azzanim, who served as both the custodians of the collective tradition of piyyutim and men of individual talent who originated new musical settings for old texts.

Yet, ironically, despite Agnon’s manifest intention to organize his account of Buczacz under the sign of these two norms, the strongest texts, that is to say the greatest stories of A City in Its Fullness, are about deviations from these norms. These are stories of class conflict and human fallibility written in modes of social critique and satire. This is the productive inner duality of Agnon’s project: the desire to conjure Buczacz as a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community, built on study and worship, and the fact that a truly good story qua story cannot be based or sustained on the wholly normative. The “best self” of Buczacz as expressed and fulfilled in these collective norms is the proper subject matter for a chronicle but not for fiction as Agnon practiced it. The deviations are of all kinds. There is cupidity, cruelty, pride and sensuality, and other divagations of the individual human heart. There is hypocrisy, oppression, and high-handedness in the communal realm. There are ordeals that challenge God’s righteousness and justice. And then there are exaggerations of the norms in the form of excessive piety and self-sacrifice. The complex dialectic between the ideal and the real is at the heart of the book’s power.

Fourth was the choice to compose A City in Its Fullness not as a novel but as cycle of texts that alternates between ethnography and story. The modernist novella and the sprawling novel, forms Agnon had mastered between the two world wars, were not suitable vehicles for this endeavor. Agnon chose instead an ostensibly pre-modern version of the story as a literary form. This was not the short story perfected and aestheticized by Chekov, Maupassant, and Joyce, but rather the kind of tale told by a storyteller in a world before the institutionalization of literature. It is these stories—there are about twenty of them, some quite long, depending how one counts—that are embedded in the historical account the narrator provides of the customs, institutions, and personalities of Buczacz. The story had of course been Agnon’s métier since “Agunot,” his first published story in 1908; the kind of story Agnon fashioned for A City in Its Fullness is different because of the workings of a new kind of narrator, as I discuss below. The insistence on story should be understood in the context of Agnon’s quarrel with memorial books and other forms of memorialization that treated the past as dead and lost. Agnon saw the special kind of imaginative means he was working with as possessing the capacity to do just the opposite: to bring the past back to life. He knew that this was a virtual life, a fiction. But as a modernist and a storyteller, he also knew that this was no small thing. Finally, there is the large, architectonic form in which the individual units are arrayed. This form properly should be called a story sequence, a form of epic dimensions comprised of linked but individual units organized along purposeful principles of composition. In its mode of organization, A City in Its Fullness also represents an innovation in Agnon’s corpus. To be sure, there are other collections of stories, such as Eilu ve’eilu, but all of these are just that: collections that have been assembled after the fact and put together to be published as a volume. A City in Its Fullness was a new departure for Agnon because the individual stories were conceived from the outset as part of a coherent project with a unique epic trajectory.

Fifth, and most important, was the fashioning of a new narrative persona. Open up A City in Its Fullness at any point and read a few pages and you will immediately sense that the words on the page are not simply there but they are told, and they are told by a narrator with a characteristic voice who frequently lets his presence be known. Who is this narrator? With reference to Agnon’s earlier work, it is easier to say who he is not. He is not the narcissistic, self-ironic moyen homme sensuel religieux, the autobiographical persona that is a fixture of much of the author’s best work, especially the novel A Guest for the Night, in which the narrator is actually named Shmuel Yosef.

To do the work of narration in A City in Its Fullness, Agnon needed a more impersonal narrator who was attached to the pre-modern centuries when “Buczacz was Buczacz.” He found a model for some elements of this narrator in the pinkasim, the communal registers kept by Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. His narrator could be presented as a kind of ba‘al hapinkas, a traditional chronicler who possesses authoritative knowledge of the affairs of the community. Indeed, Agnon’s narrator is an apotheosis of such a figure. His knowledge is not just authoritative but also omniscient, and it ranges over the centuries. He knows the innermost thoughts of rabbis and thieves and can report their intimate conversations with their wives.

To demonstrate his reliability as a reporter, he frequently stipulates his uncertainty about trivial matters, admitting, for instance, that he is not certain whether a wagon journey undertaken at the beginning of the eighteenth century cost fourteen coins or eighteen. One thing is certain: the narrator is a man of Buczacz whose worldview is close to the worldview of believing Jews in the early modern period. That a deceased scholar might descend from the Other World to teach his orphaned son Torah, or that it is possible to find an entryway to Gehinnom, the netherworld, near Buczacz, or even that the soul of a tsaddik might be reborn in the body of a fish—all these occurrences are noted as remarkable and uncommon but entirely plausible. Yet simultaneously and inexplicably, this narrator possesses full knowledge of the fate of Buczacz’s Jews during the Holocaust, and he often observes that various customs and family lines persisted until the coming of the “obscene and polluted murderers.” The Holocaust—just the fact of it, not its substance—forms the outer horizon of the narrator’s historical knowledge.

Finally, the self-referential voice of the narrator as an “I” directly addressing the reader is busily heard throughout the pages of A City in Its Fullness. The narrator explains why he has presented events out of order, apologizes for digressions, defends the accuracy of his sources, states moral principles as aphorisms, and does not hesitate to draw simple moral lessons from complex human entanglements. By allowing his narrator such frequent, garrulous interventions, Agnon has negotiated a creative deal with the pinkas model, appropriating its austere and impersonal authority while at the same time retaining something of the arch playfulness of his previous, narcissistic personae.

Pangs of Reception

Now, if A City in Its Fullness is such an innovative and important work, one would have expected its publication in 1973 to have been a major event in Israeli culture. Yet this was hardly the case. A survey of the literary supplements and journals of the time yields only a handful of critical notices. Substantial and adulatory reviews of the book were written by Yehudah Friedlander in Haaretz, Hillel Barzel in Yedi‘ot Aaronot, Yisrael Cohen in Moznayim, Yaakov Rabi in Al Hamishmar, and A. Y. Brawer in Ha’umah.11 But all of these reviewers were either life-long friends of Agnon (Cohen and Brawer) or part of the Bar-Ilan University literary circle, which included Friedlander and Barzel, and which was presided over by Baruch Kurzweil, the foremost interpreter of Agnon’s work. They were all already persuaded of Agnon’s genius and already disposed to welcome a major work that grappled with the inheritance of East European Jewish culture. In addition to the general paucity of critical reaction, conspicuous is the absence of response from the younger, secular generation of intellectuals and writers, especially the members of what was called Hador ba’arets, the State Generation.

This tepid reception should not surprise us. What we might view today as a crucial artistic encounter with the lost Jewish past seemed in the climate of the times merely to be elegiac at best and nostalgic at worst. The world of Galician Jewry in the eighteenth century seemed, to understate the matter, very remote from public consciousness in Israel during the two decades after independence. While Agnon was deeply involved in building the city of Buczacz, David Ben-Gurion was busy building a state. The enormous energies required to build the institutions of the new country, settle the vast numbers of refugees, and defend the state against it enemies left little room for thinking about the past. The publication of the book, it should be recalled, coincided with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

In the eyes of Zionist ideology, moreover, that exilic past had become identified with inner corruption, powerlessness, and victimization. Agnon’s stories about the Old World, as they appeared on the pages of Haaretz in the 1950s and 1960s, evoked little interest. They appeared there, in the first place, because Agnon was under obligation to the Schocken family, the publishers of Haaretz, to supply the newspaper with material regularly although the editors would have much preferred to have been supplied with writing closer to the interests of their readers. One gets the sense that A City in Its Fullness was generally regarded as a huge and intimidating tome full of recondite lore about the lost exilic past. Charitably, Agnon was seen as erecting a headstone over the grave of his ancestors; less charitably, he was seen as having abandoned himself to sentimentality and nostalgia and given up the high road of modernism to become an amateur ethnographer.

Ironically it was Agnon himself who played a role in the marginalization of A City in Its Fullness. The book was actually the second of the posthumous works to be published. A year after Agnon’s death, the novel Shira appeared, and the Israeli literary community exploded. The novel tells the story of Manfred Herbst, a married, German-born professor at Hebrew University who has a romantic relationship with Shira, a nurse who later contracts leprosy. The story is set in the late 1930s in a Jerusalem deluged by destitute, forlorn, and over-educated refugees from Austria and Germany. Not only was Agnon returning to the setting of Erets Yisrael and not only was he describing a time closer to the present than the Second Aliyah of Only Yesterday, but he was also dealing directly with love between a man and woman, and adulterous love at that. It was all Israeli readers could want. Agnon had been working on the novel since the 1940s—why he did not complete it is a matter unto itself—and had published chapters of it along the way. The appetite and curiosity of the reading public were whetted in anticipation of the publication. Shira had the additional asset of being a roman à clef set in the university circles of Jerusalem, and the gossipy curiosity it generated was not a small factor in its immediate success.

A City in Its Fullness would have to wait several decades to begin to garner the attention it deserves. Even for the passionate aficionados of the master’s writing among general readers, this imposing volume—whose subject was familiar but whose structure seemed blurry and abstruse—had a place on the shelf but remained largely unread. Yet recently there has been awakening interest in Agnon’s Buczacz stories. This new openness is the result of a series of changes in public consciousness both in Israel and in America. The Holocaust first had to be “admitted” into the realm of active discussion and exploration; this brought a change in attitude toward the victims and the survivors, and this in turn led to a greater curiosity about the life they led in Europe, and, finally by extension, to the history of European Jewry before the twentieth century.12 Hillel Weiss and the late Shmuel Werses are veteran scholars who took an interest in A City in Its Fullness.13 More recently, a younger generation of scholars has been drawn to Agnon.

What’s striking in this new work is the range of critical approaches A City in Its Fullness has stimulated. Roman Katsman has devoted two books to the Buczacz stories, each of which develops a body of literary theory and then applies it to the Agnon text. The first, in Hebrew, emphasizes the revival of interest in rhetoric in recent theory and explores the relationship between the presumption of sincerity and the reality of rhetoric.14 These ideas are applied to a reading of book 1 of A City in Its Fullness and foreground the communal voice of the narrator. The second, in English, is titled Literature, History, Choice: The Principle of Alternative History in Literature (S. Y. Agnon, The City with All That is Therein, book 2).15 The concept of alternative history describes works of literature that explain what life would have been like if the course of history had taken a different turn from the one we recognize as factually true. Katsman sees Agnon’s depiction of Buczacz as a recreation of Buczacz after it has been erased by the Nazis, a reimagining that is not limited by historical constraints.

A very different angle of approach is adopted by Shulamit Almog, a professor of law at Haifa University, in ‘Ir, mishpat, sippur [City, law, story], which examines the surprisingly many instances in the stories of A City in Its Fullness in which communal conflict is resolved by, or at least submitted to, the processes of legal deliberation.16 Ariel Hirschfeld has recently taught graduate seminars on A City in Its Fullness focusing on the concept of tragedy. The Agnon scholar Michal Arbell has continued her interest in figures of artistic creation in the Buczacz stories.17 Avidov Lipsker has taken an anthropological approach by examining the major story “Pisces” in light of the experience of the grotesque.18

Standing alongside these literary studies and occupying its own category, is Omer Bartov’s The Voice of Your Brother’s Blood: Buczacz, Biography of a Town.19 A historian of the Holocaust and twentieth-century German history, Bartov is also the son of a mother who was born in Buczcacz and later emigrated to Palestine/Israel. His study tells the story of the interaction among the three main religious-ethnic groups in Buczacz (Poles, Jews, and Ruthenians/Ukrainians), each with its own narrative, from the founding of the town in the Middle Ages until the liquidation of Buczacz’s Jews in the Holocaust. (I elaborate on his perspective in Chapter 1.) Bartov makes extensive use of A City in Its Fullness for understanding the experience of the Jews—as it is refracted through the unique prism of Agnon’s mind—from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century. Our books complement each other in method. Whereas I make use of the historical record to chart how Agnon has remolded his received materials, Bartov uses Agnon’s fictional account to grasp both the historical reality as well as the narrative that the Jews of Buczacz constructed of their own history.

The status of A City in Its Fullness within the Agnon corpus has been affected by two related questions. What was the role of his daughter in producing the volume? And, given the absence of citations, how reliable is the book as a historical source? Regarding the first issue, most of what we know comes from the testimony of Emunah Yaron herself in the afterword to the volume, aptly titled “Ma‘aseh hasefer” [The making of the book, pp. 717–20].20 She reports that in a public reading in Jerusalem in 1965, her father introduced the story he read by saying that it was part of a book called ‘Ir umelo’ah that would contain three books or large sections and tell the story of Buczacz over six centuries from its founding until its destruction. Agnon was also clear about the general structure of the book. In the early generations, the rabbi-scholar would be primary and the city secondary, and in the later generations it would be the reverse.21

After her father’s death, Emunah Yaron unpacked the box labeled ‘Ir umelo’ah; she found there about a hundred pages of text, several outlines listing the titles of stories and the order in which they should appear, and many slips of paper with the names of stories and instructions about where they should be inserted. These guided her as to the placement of many of the major stories that had appeared in newspapers and journals. Internal references within stories about other stories provided another guideline. There were points where she was forced to extrapolate. So, for example, her father provided titles for book 1 (“Sippur shel ‘ir” [The story of a city]) and book 2 (“Raboteinu hari’shonim shebeBuczacz” [The early rabbis of Buczacz]) but not for book 3, to which she gave the title “Dorot aaronim” [Later generations] and signified her intervention by placing the words in square brackets. She created a short book 4 to accommodate stories about Buczacz that were obviously part of the enterprise but did not have a home elsewhere. And, as I noted previously, she placed the story “Hasiman” as a conclusion to the entire volume.

Approximately 60 percent of the texts were published in Agnon’s lifetime—these are signified by an asterisk in the table of contents—and the remainder transcribed from manuscript or typescript. Fortunately, Emunah Yaron had long experience in deciphering her father’s difficult handwriting. Still, there are some unreadable lines, and there are a number of stories whose endings are not complete or that have multiple endings that Agnon had not yet resolved. Aged and not well, Agnon was clearly working against time to close open loops, organize the corpus of texts, catch inconsistencies, and polish rough passages. Any scholar who has worked with the canon of works Agnon published in his lifetime knows full well that the man was a writer who unceasingly revised his earlier works. So when we take his collected stories in hand and read, for example, “Agunot,” his first published story, or The Bridal Canopy, his first published novel, we are reading the last version of a text that went through many changes—some, major transformations and some, minor alterations. Emunah Yaron is honest in acknowledging that A City in Its Fullness did not benefit from that process. The undertaking was too vast and her father’s allotted time too limited. For readers and scholars alike, this situation is both bad and good. We are deprived of the perfection that adequate time for revision would have provided; however, at the same time we are granted access to the writing as it flowed from Agnon’s pen, and we feel the master’s imagination in the process of origination.

In the final analysis, then, where does this leave the scholar-critic in working with A City in Its Fullness and the reader in reading it? Generally, I would say, in a confident but cautious position. To begin with, we can be assured that, aside from some titles, every word is Agnon’s and every text appears as he intended, even if he might have wished to revisit and revise it. We can also be assured that the organization of the volume has been realized in accordance with his general instructions. We can never know had he been alive for the final editing whether he would have “deselected” certain stories or arranged them in a slightly different order. But we do know that the person who made these final decisions understood her father’s implied intentions better than anyone else and acted in all instances with exquisite care and responsibility. Nonetheless, the final structure of the book remains something of a speculative construction; and it makes a difference which parts of the book we scrutinize. Book 1, perhaps because it proceeds on the explicit model of a guided tour of Buczacz, seems like it is closest to the intent of the master. In practical terms, then, we are on firm ground when we make statements about the wording, style, or structure of an individual text. The ground is less firm when we seek to make inferences from the subtleties of the juxtaposition of the texts one to another. The question of juxtaposition deserves to be a caution but not a constraint.

Another question: Can A City in Its Fullness be trusted as history? The answer, unsurprisingly, depends on what we mean by this term. If by history we mean the collection and evaluation of sources and documents to produce an objective account of past events, then A City in Its Fullness cannot qualify given the fact that Agnon does not disclose his sources. A City in Its Fullness, in any case, does not present itself as that kind of history. With his well-known disdain for the adequacy of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism) as a mode of understanding the experience of the Jewish people, Agnon sought a mode of presentation that freed him from conventions and constraints of academic history. He found what he was looking for in premodern models of recounting the past, such as the chronicle and the pinkas.

It would not be out of place to evoke Herodotus and notions of history writing that are hospitable to custom, legend, story, and myth. Yet this may not be enough to get Agnon off the hook. For as modern, post-Enlightenment readers, we expect to be served our history straight, and the mélange of fact and story—with some of the fantasy of magic realism mixed in for good measure—does not put us at ease. Not all the historical facts Agnon presents, moreover, stand up to scrutiny. For example, Yisrael Cohen, who also grew up in Buczacz, states that he never heard of the story of the founding of the town according to which Jews from the Rhineland Valley on their way to Erets Yisrael suspended their journey and built Buczacz.22 (This is the first story in A City in Its Fullness.) The geographer A. Y. Brawer, who himself grew up close to Buczacz, finds it extremely curious that through his narrator Agnon asserts that the antinomian messianic pretender Jacob Frank was born in Buczacz, where the ruins of his house could still be seen, whereas historians agree that Frank was born in Korolivka, a town on the Eastern boarder of Galicia.23 Both men were lifelong friends of Agnon’s, and their demurrals are voiced with respectful understatement.

There is no doubt that A City in Its Fullness remains an extraordinary repository of information about Buczacz and Galician Jewry. Over decades Agnon was indefatigable in his efforts to debrief Buczacz natives who found their way to Palestine/Israel about what they remembered of his town. He scoured the responsa literature (she’eilot uteshuvot) written by the rabbinical authorities of Buczacz for clues to the texture of everyday life as well as well as communal conflicts. His bibliography of books published in Buczacz, which appeared in Sefer Buczacz, ran to over seventy items. And then there is the store of first-hand memories of the author himself during his first nineteen years of life, memories of the lad who spent his days in the beit midrash of Buczacz and pressed the old timers for their recollections. In the end, however, the vast miscellany of information and imagination that is A City in Its Fullness remains Agnon’s proprietary kingdom. On the one hand, we are not invited to ask niggling and fastidious questions about where the master found his building materials and whether he used them correctly. On the other, we are positively invited to enjoy the feast that has been laid out for us in this capacious palace of memory. The reductive question of historical truth fades as we settle in to the embrace of a broad imagination that is historically grounded but possessed of its own freedom.

The absence of sources also throws up a challenge to the literary scholar who seeks to interpret the stories in A City in Its Fullness. Consider the story about a rabbi and his assistant who descend into Gehinnom, or the daughter of a azzan who dies of melancholy, or a rabbi who goes into hiding because of an impolitic legal ruling, or a demobilized Jewish soldier who is locked up by a Polish noblewoman, or a teenage scholar who volunteers on the spot to marry a bride whose bridegroom has just abandoned her. One hungers to know about the folk stories, the legends, the incidents inscribed in the communal pinkas, and the hearsay that Agnon used as an armature for creating the stories we have before us. For which tales did he have preexisting materials, and which stories were made up out of whole cloth?

The question of sources is different for the literary scholar than for the historian. A historian might focus on the usefulness of the stories as historical sources and measure them against what is known of the historical record. Valorizing the stories as works of art, the literary scholar is less concerned with establishing their reliability as representations than with assessing the degree of imaginative transformation that has been worked upon the sources. The literary scholar not only expects that gap to be large but delights in documenting the degree and kind of transformation and then taking it as a tribute to the writer’s imaginative powers. In Chapter 5, I explore this issue further and propose that Agnon, while basing himself rigorously on the way life was lived in a particular historical period, took upon himself to conceive plots that sometimes “corrected,” that is, improved, the treatment of the Jews and sometimes portrayed their behavior to one another as crueler than it may have been.

Agnon does not make it easy. It is exceedingly difficult and often impossible to discover the materials Agnon had at hand; and when it is possible, it is only through dedicated and erudite detection work. It is just this kind of work that Avraham Holtz did in his extraordinarily annotated and illustrated edition of Agnon’s first novel, Hakhnasat kalah.24 Integrating this kind of source criticism with thematic interpretation has been the goal of the Agnon scholar Hillel Weiss. Very little of this sort of work, unfortunately, has been done on the texts of A City in Its Fullness, and, the current study, due in part to my temperament as a scholar, will make only a partial and inconstant contribution to that goal. I have proceeded on the basis that the stories in A City in Its Fullness, to the degree that they are strong works of art (as I believe many of them to be), can be read on their own terms. Historical contextualization is obviously very important, as of course are the references to classic biblical and rabbinic sources. When lucky, it is possible to find the old bottle into which Agnon is pouring new wine. So, for example, when the compartments of Gehinnom are described in “The Parable and Its Lesson” [“Hamashal vehanimshal”], it is possible to examine the templates Agnon borrowed from medieval treatises on the afterlife and then discover the radically new content he is filling them with. But, again, Agnon, the wily Galitsianer that he is, has not made it easy to be lucky often. I offer this study as an open matrix to be supplemented and enriched by future discoveries.

The Plan of this Study

Such a variegated, complex, and epic work as A City in Its Fullness creates challenges for readers and critics alike. The new studies mentioned above each consider the work from a different point of departure. My own approach has been to focus on the longer, more “literary” stories. Of these I count about twenty out of the 140 separate texts in the volume. All the stories in A City in Its Fullness are an amalgam of storytelling, on the one hand, and a conveyance to the reader of ethnographic information about the history and customs of Buczacz on the other. I favor the texts in which the storytelling impulse dominates and takes the form of sustained, complex narrative. I do so out of a certain polemical enthusiasm. For the many decades since its publication, A City in Its Fullness has been regarded as something other, a work that is not exactly literature but more resembles a repository of proprietary nostalgia, historical arcana, and familial anthropology. My wish is to make a case for the work containing some of the greatest fiction Agnon ever wrote, fiction that deserves not only to be given a place in the Agnon canon but to reshape it.

Yet I well understand that the way to make this case is not by demanding recompense for the unwarranted years of misunderstanding and neglect. Rather, the only way to gain acknowledgement for the greatness of a literary text is to demonstrate why it is great, and the only way to do that is through the hard work of analysis and exposition—hence my decision to submit a limited number of stories to close inspection rather than to attempt a survey or taxonomy of the multiplicity of units that comprise the book. In most cases I endeavor to relate the central story under discussion to other related but shorter texts; however, for a major story, in general, I prefer to offer a thorough account.

This approach surely would not be responsible or sustainable if the reader could not have access to the stories in translation. For that reason, this study was conceived from the very beginning as being twinned with a substantial selection of the stories in English translation. That project was begun in collaboration with the scholar and translator James S. Diamond, and it was continued in collaboration with a number of other translators after his untimely death. All the texts analyzed in this study can be found in that collection, and the two books are meant to be used in tandem. The citations in the following chapters refer to both the original Hebrew and to the stories as they appear in A City in Its Fullness (Toby Press, 2016), which contains the major stories from the 1973 Hebrew volume of that name.

The study contains eight chapters in addition to this introduction. Chapter 1 presents the historical background of the Jewish community of Buczacz and then proceeds to describe the “grand tour” of the key institutions of that community as they unfold in book 1 of A City in Its Fullness. Chapter 2 is devoted to the signal innovation of the Buczacz stories: the invention and deployment of a new kind of narrative mechanism. Because Agnon was reimagining events from the distant past, he had to give up the autobiographical persona that had served him for so long and instead adopt more classical modes of storytelling. These narrators, who proclaim their authority and omniscience while manifesting their unreliability, give these stories their intriguing and canny power.

The subsequent chapters are devoted to the two norms that organize Agnon’s reimagining of Buczacz: worship and study. Chapter 3 focuses on a set of stories concerning the azzanim, the professional prayer leaders whose vocation required close—and ultimately dangerous—proximity to the holy. Stories that deal with the more rarefied world of elite Torah scholars are the subject of Chapter 4. There is no more greatly exalted ideal in the world Agnon has imagined than a rabbi whose prodigious learning allows him not only to perpetuate the great tradition of scholarship but to augment it and alter it by the force of his mental acuity. Yet the rabbi is an employee of the community, which operates under the constraints and interventions of the Polish magnates. The great, sprawling novella at the center of the chapter, “In Search of a Rabbi, or The Governor’s Whim,” explores the complex knot of these tensions.

Buczacz was first owned outright by the Potockis, a Polish noble family; but after the first partition of Poland in 1772, it was governed by officials of the Austrian Empire as part of the province of Galicia. Chapter 5 discusses a set of stories that stage fateful interactions between Jews and high-born Poles. Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 deal with the effects of the “enlightened” absolutism of the Austrian Empire on the Jews of Buczacz. In the stories set both before and after the Partition, Agnon positions his tales against a background of historically accurate circumstances even as he exercises his artistic freedom to imagine alternate outcomes and to focus on the responsibility of the Jews for their own fate. The stories set in the Austrian period are particularly severe in their judgment of the behavior of the communal leadership of Buczacz.

If in the earlier sections of A City in Its Fullness the city is presented brightly under the sign of worship and learning, in the later sections its luster is significantly tarnished. Chapter 8 is devoted to the countertheme of redemption, which is realized through individual acts of spiritual and ethical heroism. The Epilogue meditates on the place of Agnon’s project in rethinking the imaginative construct of East European Jewry in the wake of its destruction.


1. Lilian Dabi-Guri, Kurzweil-Agnon-Atsag: ilufei Iggarot [Kurzweil-Agnon-Uri Zvi Greenberg: Correspondence] (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1987), 56.

2. Moznayim 18, no. 2 (1942): 103–4; the full version appeared in Ha’esh veha‘etsim (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Schocken, 1962), 263–315. The one-page kernel from 1944 describes the revelation of Ibn Gabirol’s presence. Despite its literary artifice, the story insists on a true mystical experience as its generating core, and an early, fragmentary record of this event strengthens the claim. For the translation by Arthur Green, see Alan Mintz and Jeffrey Saks, eds., A City in Its Fullness (New Milford, CT: Toby Press, 2016), 1–30.

3. Translation by Arthur Green. For the text of the story and interpretive approaches to it, see Alan Mintz, ed., Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003), 103–4.

4. Yisrael Cohen, ed., Sefer Buczacz (Tel Aviv: Am Over, 1957). The volume and an English translation of its contents is at

5. Yisrael Cohen, ilufei mikhtavim bein Shai Agnon veDavid Ben-Gurion [Correspondence between Shai Agnon and David Ben-Gurion], ed. Nurit Govrin (Tel Aviv: Eked, 1985), 20–82. The prospect for the volume can be found on pp. 23–25.

6. Ka-Tsetnik, Beit habubot (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1953); Ka-Tsetnik, House of Dolls, trans. Moshe M. Kohn (New York: Lion Library, 1956).

7. Alan Mintz, urban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

8. On the Holocaust in Agnon’s work, see Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, “Agnon Before and After,” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 2, no. 1 (1982): 78–94; and Dan Laor, “Did Agnon Write about the Holocaust?” Yad Vashem Studies 22 (1992): 17–63.

9. urban, 2–3.

10. For a general account of the representations of the shtetl, see Dan Miron, The Image of the Shtetl and Other Studies of Modern Jewish Literary Imagination (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001). It is important to note that Agnon himself never used the term shtetl or its Hebrew equivalent ‘ayyarah. Throughout A City in Its Fullness, he refers to Buczacz as ‘iri, my city. Hebrew has a separate term, krakh, for a metropolis, and this was reserved for a city like Lviv.

11. Yehudah Friedlander, “Masekhet shivah ufreidah” [Return and leave taking], Haaretz, June 1, 1973; and “A City and the Fullness Thereof,” Hebrew Book Review (Autumn, 1973): 3–6; Hillel Barzel, “Ir umeloah: uvdah uvedayah” [A City in Its Fullness: Fact and invention], Yediyot Aaronot, September 26, 1973; Yaakov Rabi, “Hatorah, ha’emunah, vemirmat hatsedakah” [Torah, belief, and the dishonesty of charity], Al Hamishmar, October 12, 1973; Yisrael Cohen, “Haavayah ha’arkhtipit shel Ir umeloah” [The archetypal world of A City in Its Fullness], Moznayim 28, nos. 1–2 (Dec.–Jan., 1973–74), 61–73; A. Y. Brawer, “Ir umeloah: ‘Olam shene‘lam” [Ir umeloah: A world that disappeared], Ha’umah (April, 1974): 246–53.

12. I discussed these changes in urban.

13. Shmuel Werses, Shai Agnon kifshuto: Keri’ah bikhtavav [S. Y. Agnon Literally: Studies in His Writings] (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2000); and Relations between Poles and Jews in S. Y. Agnon’s Work (Jerusalem: Magnes Press of the Hebrew University, 1994).

14. Roman Katsman, Keinut veretorikah beIr Umeloah leShai Agnon [Sincerity and rhetoric in A City in Its Fullness by S. Y. Agnon] (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2013).

15. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013.

16. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2002.

17. Michal Arbell, Katuv ‘al ‘oro shel kelev: Tefisat hayetsirah etsel Shai Agnon [Written on a dog’s skin: The conception of creation in Shai Agnon] (Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv: Ben-Gurion University and Keter, 2008); “The Melancholic azzanit Miriam Devorah and Other azzanim in Agnon’s Stories: ‘ahazzanim’ and ‘Lefi hatsa‘ar hasekhar’” [in Hebrew], Ayin Gimel: Ketav eit leequer yetsirat Agnon 2 (2012): 108–30,; and “R. Amnon of Mainz as Paragon: The Development of a Cultural Icon in the Works of Agnon” [in Hebrew] in Studies in Jewish Narrative vol. 2, ed. Avidov Lipsker and Rella Kushelevsky (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2009).

18. “Providence and Redemption in the Fish’s [Whale’s] Belly: Part 1: The Book of Jonah, the Midrashic Versions, Jakob Steinhardt’s Illustrated Edition” [in Hebrew], 46–68; and “‘Mazal Dagim (Pisces)’ by S. Y. Agnon: The Disgust from the Real and the Despair of the Representative, Yosl Bergner’s Illustrated Edition” [in Hebrew], 69–82, in Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies,

19. New York: Simon and Schuster, forthcoming.

20. In her memoirs, she provides a broader picture of her work on the many posthumous volumes of her father’s work. Emunah Yaron, Pirkei ayyai [Memoirs] (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2005). See, esp., pp. 197–223.

21. Page 717, quoting from David Knaani, Shai Agnon be‘al peh [S. Y. Agnon in his own words] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1971), 50. The passage, in a fuller form, is returned to in Chapter 2.

22. Yisrael Cohen, “The Reflection of One City,” Moznayim 3–4 (1940–41): 265–70.

23. A. Y. Brawer, “Agnon’s Buczacz,” Moznayim (April–May 1970): 422–30.

24. Avraham Holtz, Mar’ot umekorot: Mahadurah mu’eret umeyu’eret shel Hakhnasat kalah leShai Agnon [Sights and sources: An annotated and illustrated edition of S. Y. Agnon’s Hakhnasat kalah] (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1995).