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By S.Y. Agnon
Translated from the Hebrew by I. M. Lask
New York: Schocken Books, 1967
237 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2013

The Lask translation which I read is based on the Hebrew version of 1931. The editor tells us:

“The translator realized the impossibility of reconstructing more than a part of the continuous undercurrent of biblical and Talmudic phrases in the narrative. His solution was to reproduce ‘the scent of an English style of a period corresponding in a way to that which Agnon set out to portray.’”

The novel is set in an area of Galicia, an area that was within Hapsburg Austria about 1820.

Yudel Nathanson is not a rabbi but is a Hassid which is described as a Jew who has little to do with the external world, dedicated to the Torah, and he was especially interested in Kabbalah.

He has three daughters, all of marriageable age. Gittele, 17, Blume 19 and Pessele 20. His wife is Frummet. The girls are of marriageable age and that sets the problematic which drives the story.

He is dirt poor and has to go off on a journey to other villages seeking alms to gather enough money to pay the dowry necessary to secure husbands for the girls. Actually, Reb Yudel himself seems very much like a Don Quixote figure, who, while he never tilts at windmills, does many things as extraordinary and unworldly as Quixote himself does. A significant difference from the Cervantes’ novel is that Don Quixote supposedly DOES all the things told. However, in Agnon’s work various storytellers, wherever they are, tell the stories. In that sense it’s a bit more like the frame stories in Boccaccio’s work.

Friends help him with some fancy clothes for the trip, and even outfit him with a wagon with two horses and even a driver for the horses. The driver, Nula, is also quite reminiscent of Sancho Panza, the driver for Quixote in Cervantes’ novel. Nula “. . . drank like a Gentile priest.” They have two horses, Ivory and Peacock to carry them on their way.

They roam from Jewish village to Jewish village having many different sorts of experiences and almost always raising a bit of money toward the dowries.

In one of the early stories that he tells he happens to see a man with just one eye and he gives an account which holds that a man cannot really “see” better with two eyes than a man with one eye sees. However, he argues there is a reason for two eyes, each eye DOES something differently and SEES differently. One eye sees the everyday world, and it is the world of humans with all its misery and difficulties, temptations and meanness. The other eye is from God and it sees the world of goodness, hope and eternality. The two eyes may often be in conflict, but, he claims, that can help up to understand the world more clearly as a clash between these two “eyes.”

I chuckled at this and was telling my partner about this very strange theory when it hit me that I experienced something of a very similar nature some 40 years ago. I was at the home of a Jewish colleague and his father was coming through our city on his way south. It was a Friday and my friend was hosting a gathering for some of his friends to meet his parents.

He called me to a door where we could just see through the hinges into the kitchen. There was his father, all dressed in his prayer clothes and fairly loudly “praying.” But the praying, which was in Hebrew, but frequently interrupted by his father who would raise his fist to the heavens and bawl out God in accented English! “Bah,” he would exclaim, “wars, pestilence, sickness, misery, bah.” And then he’d go back to praying is his sing-song manner in Hebrew. This was repeated several times.

We pulled back and my friend explained that his father had a very strange theological view: God was evil and had it in for humans. Nonetheless, God was God and one had to honor God, “or else!”

I think Yodel’s view is rather similar. It is a dualistic view that there are two different worlds, one of the earth and one of a different world. One is decent, one is evil. Yodel sees this split, which seems common to religions, in which one is the spirit of the earth and particularly humans which are the evil ones and God is the good. My friend’s father had the dualism of this position, but it was the Earth that was basically decent, and God caused most of the evil, or at least allowed it, nonetheless, God was God.

Various people in Yudel’s travels tell stories, most with a moral important to Jewish culture of the time, even when the story is told by a non-observant Jew. They remind me of Aesop’s Fables, short tales which illustrate a point in moral theory.

Yudel’s himself lives in the town of Brod. He travels to many towns, large and small yet it seems that throughout the whole novel and travels there are virtually no Gentiles at all.

After he refuses to marry his daughter to his old friend tough times come and the issue of Jews returning to Israel keeps rising up.

There is a story of the man who tries to foist off a “dummy” on a rich man whom the man hates and envies. But the boy is actually brilliant and gifted. In the psalms one reads:

“He marked a pit and diged it, and fell into the trap he made.”

After five months Yudel parts company with Nula. Yudel stays on at an inn, spending much of the money he has collected for his daughters’ dowry, in order that he can study Torah.

He does meet with a matchmaker and gives his name as Yudel Nathanson of Brod, well knowing that there is a relatively famous rich man in Brod with the same name. The ruse works and soon the matchmaker has found a rich man in the town and a marriage proposal is made and accepted for the rich man’s son. Yudel, just trusting to “match” whatever amount the other father offers, agrees to a dowry for his daughter of ten thousand gold pieces. He hasn’t that many pennies!

When he gets back to Brod he eventually meets the rich Yudel Nathanson, and the man, in sympathy to Yudel, decides to provide the rich dowry so Yudel’s daughter can get married, but Reb Yudel got cheated out of the money by a stranger. Yet the rich Yudel keeps up the communication with the family of the would-be groom, not really knowing what else to do. The problem is there is no bride. The rich Yudel is childless.

Nonetheless, the family eventually comes to town with their son to meet the bride and family. Finally the rich Yudel finds the poor Yudel and brings the girl forward to meet the groom. Yudel’s family doesn’t really know what to do but they decided to have a dinner for the groom’s family and kill their only cock. But they simply don’t have the dowry money.

In a crash climax of ridiculous improbability the cock runs away and while chasing and hunting it the girls and their mother find a large treasure that was hidden away in one of the Kaiser’s wars, and now they are rich beyond measure.

The author takes it all in stride:

“In brief, within a few moments it was known from one end of town to that other that The Name had had pity on Reb Yudel and had made him wealthy. . .”

I had read the story after being very disappointed with the two short stories in another of Agnon’s books. I just thought that if he won the Nobel Prize he had to be a better writer than those short stories suggested. Admittedly the story of The Bridal Canopy was better than either of the short stories, at least it was intelligible. However, it never rose to the level of serious or fully coherent story telling for me. I remain quite cool toward S.Y. Agnon’s talent and haven’t any plans to read anything else of his writings.

Bob Corbett


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