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Agnon’s Great American Story

As a man of letters, Agnon showed deep appreciation for America’s marketplace of ideas and viewpoints.

English was not his language, America was not his landscape, and the story of America was not part of his literary oeuvre, but in 1967 – on his first and only trip to America – Israeli author S.Y. Agnon stood before 1000 Americans and told them his version of the American story.

I can’t think of a better time to recall that iconic story than during our holiday of Thanksgiving.

I can’t think of a better time to recall that iconic story than during our holiday of Thanksgiving.

It was May 23, 1967, just a few months after Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. As Israel’s first ever Nobel Laureate in any category, Agnon became an instant celebrity, and the American Jewish community wanted to honor him. So the Israeli writer who was born in Buczacz (present-day Ukraine) and lived most of his life in Jerusalem was now coming to America for the first time. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people,” Agnon’s trip to America was an opportunity to add “the American story” to his literary repertoire.

The setting was the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, where Agnon was the guest of honor at the gala banquet of the American Friends of the Hebrew University.  Agnon was not a man of standard public speeches. Whether speaking to a literary salon in Jerusalem or accepting the Nobel Prize, Agnon spoke like he wrote – through the medium of stories. Tonight in New York would be no different.

“When I was a child, I suffered along with every human being who suffered, whether he was a Jew or non-Jew,” opened Agnon. “Whenever I heard someone say that he had no place in the world to rest his head, my whole body would shake. It was through these people, sighing and groaning in adversity, that I discovered America.”

Agnon proceeded to tell the story of a poor man in Buczacz whose house was ruined by a flood, and his family “mourned over the fact that they did not have a place left in the world.”

Agnon’s grandfather took the family into his home, and there they resided until one day when that poor man got a ticket to go to America.

“It was on that day that I learned that there was a place in the world called America,” recounted Agnon, “and that if a Jew had no place left in the world, he went to America.”

That story piqued the young Agnon’s interest about this far-away land called America. Where was it? Who lived there? What made America unique and different from all other places in the world?

The young boy discovered lots of folklore about this new land: “In other countries, if you had a toothache, you dropped some whiskey or oil of cloves on it” and pulled it out by tying it to a string attached to a door.

“But in America – if a man had a toothache, he went to a doctor, and the doctor pulled the bad tooth and put a gold tooth in there, because in America gold was cheap. They used goldware the way we used crockery.”

This perception of America as “the Goldene Medina” (Yiddish for “The Golden Country”) was common amongst European Jews. While many dreamt the economic “American Dream,’ most were attracted by the promise of a democracy that did not persecute Jews.

It was on this point – America as a safe haven for Jews – that Agnon continued his story by painting his own unique image of Christopher Columbus.

“I assumed Columbus had been a Jew and a very holy man, who had seen how people were suffering for a lack of place in the world and gave them America the way my grandfather, may he rest-in-peace, had given a place in his home to that poor man whose house was flooded.”

Having thought Columbus was a Jew, Agnon wondered why “such a tzaddik (righteous person) who had done such a great thing as to provide a place for people” was not given the title “Rabbi.” 

Agnon celebrated the safe haven America became for Jews by adding a story to his story, this time about a former resident of Buczacz who migrated to America and came back to visit the graves of his parents. Agnon recounted the manner in which this man interacted with and spoke to the local population. With this story, Agnon wished to celebrate the great American value of freedom of speech:

“He would speak to everybody – to the common folk as well as to the town’s notables – the way a man speaks to his good friend, for America is a democratic country, and its people are free men, and everybody in America can say ‘this is my opinion’ without any fear of displeasing anyone.”

Agnon also recounted how European Jews who migrated to America would send their European brethren Yiddish newspapers published in America, opening their minds and exposing them to the American world of free thinking:

“America, which had given a place to those who had no place, and had given them the fruit of labor, now also opened the eyes of many to see, and gave them a mouth to speak… Wretched, downtrodden people who had not dared to open their mouths in public, now taught their tongues to speak and what to say.” – S.Y. Agnon

“America, which had given a place to those who had no place, and had given them the fruit of labor, now also opened the eyes of many to see, and gave them a mouth to speak. America gave us many boons, and this was one of them, one of the greatest of them. Wretched, downtrodden people who had not dared to open their mouths in public, now taught their tongues to speak and what to say.”

As a man of letters, Agnon showed deep appreciation for America’s marketplace of ideas and viewpoints.

Transitioning from storytelling about America to gratitude, Agnon took the opportunity to express his gratitude for American Jewry, as well as for America’s support of Israel: “America is supreme among all the States in the world, in that America was the first to recognize the State of Israel, and stood by us in the establishment of the State of Israel.”

To many contemporary readers, Agnon’s American story might seem outdated, overstated or out of touch with current realities. But if you’ll recall, the America of 1967 was full of turmoil and faced at least as many challenges as we do today.

So, when I sit down to my Thanksgiving dinner this week, I will proudly express my gratitude for this great country, its vibrant democracy, its continued defense of our freedom of expression, its steadfast support of Israel and – while never perfect – a much safer haven for Jews than any other place in the world until the founding of Israel in 1948. 

I will also thank Agnon for coming to America and reminding us, in his own unique telling, of the “Great American Story” – then and today.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center and the rabbi of the Westwood Village Synagogue.

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