Franz Kafka’s Jewish Endeavors, and His Strange Connection to a Hebrew Writer Who Didn’t Like His Work

June 11, 2024 | David Herman and Jeffrey Saks
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On the Hebrew calendar, Friday was the 100th anniversary of the death of Franz Kafka. David Herman reviews a new exhibit on the Prague-born writer at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which is “the largest exhibition of Kafka’s manuscripts and drawings ever shown.”

Some of the letters are fascinating. . . . His Hebrew notebook, glossary, and his letter (in Hebrew) to his teacher demonstrate his dedication to learning the language that connected him to his family roots. And there is the note to his friend Max Brod in which he famously instructs him to burn all his unpublished manuscripts.

Kafka’s family was not especially religious, but he was deeply interested in many different aspects of Jewishness: the new Zionist movement, Judaism, and Yiddish theatre. In the winter of 1911–12, a troupe of actors from Lemberg (then the capital of Galicia) visited Prague to perform plays in Yiddish. Kafka attended some twenty of the performances and the experience introduced him to the very different Jewish culture of Eastern Europe, which seemed more alive, part of a living tradition.

The Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon was born just a few years after Kafka in a shtetl not far from Lemberg, and deeply immersed in that living tradition. Jeffrey Saks writes:

Many readers and scholars have woven webs of connections between the two writers, a fact that endlessly agitated Agnon, leading him to state in 1962: “What is said about me and Kafka is a mistake. Before I published my Book of Deeds I knew nothing of Kafka’s stories except for his Metamorphosis, and even now, except for The Trial, . . . I have not taken a Kafka book in hand. . . . Kafka is not of my soul’s root, and whatever is not of my soul’s root I do not absorb.”

Despite Agnon’s warning, Saks weaves a new connection between the two writers: just a day after Kafka’s death, a fire broke out at Agnon’s house in Germany, destroying his collection of (he claimed) 4,000 Hebrew books and several of his own unpublished manuscripts, including a 700-page novel. In other words, Kafka’s wish for his oeuvre was visited on Agnon’s. This is an eerie coincidence worthy of one of the Hebrew writer’s own stories, if not one of Kafka’s.

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