How a Master of Hebrew Fiction Made Peace with His East European Hometown

On the Jewish calendar, tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the great Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon, several of whose works are set in the Galician town he calls Shibush (in Hebrew, “mistake”): a stand-in for his hometown of Buczacz in what is now Ukraine. Jeffrey Saks considers the city’s role in Agnon’s posthumous book A City in Its Fullness—a cycle of stories set in Shibush—which, like most of Agnon’s work, was written in the Land of Israel:

Agnon’s early writings are marked by a harsh critical eye, spotlighting hypocrisy and deception, especially relating to financial matters and social injustice. Only as Agnon matures is his focus on physical poverty (which remains ever present in his writing) overtaken by a portrayal of the spiritual poverty of Buczacz as a synecdoche for Jewry in general.

Agnon departed Buczacz at age twenty, and, aside from two very brief visits, essentially never returned—yet his literary imagination was never far from his hometown, as if to say, “you can take the boy out of Buczacz, but you can’t take the Buczacz out of the boy.” Similar observations can and have been made about other great novelists; Mark Twain, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Philip Roth all come to mind.

A City in Its Fullness is awash in social criticism, bordering on outright indictment of the communal leadership and the corrosive effects of vanity and power on Jewish life. Among the objects of particular concern are the oppression of the poor and the gap between the town’s expressed ideals as a religious community and its sometimes-shoddy application of those ideals. The book bears a dedication to a city that “was full of Torah, wisdom, love, piety, life, grace, kindness and charity”; its content often tells a different tale.

The essential difference between his early and later career is how Agnon learned to temper the youthful critique. He did this out of artistic impulse, . . . but also out of a desire not to be a shill for the old world, or attempt to deconstruct it. . . . Agnon desired simultaneously to skewer and to sacralize and, in so doing, ask what that world of the past has to say to the present and future. It is this last insight which makes Agnon and his writing worthy of our attention even now, a half-century since his passing.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: East European Jewry, Hebrew literature, S. Y. Agnon

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus