If you were to organize a graduate seminar around a single text what would it be?

Robert Alter

University of California at Berkeley

My first choice for a text to which to devote a graduate seminar would be Agnon's Tmol Shilshom [Only Yesterday]. I actually made it the topic of a Berkeley seminar in Hebrew literature that I taught in the early 1990s and regret that I haven't repeated it. Tmol Shilshom is arguably the greatest novel in Hebrew, and it is certainly the one modernist masterpiece in Hebrew. It needs to be read in the original because of its extraordinary stylistic subtlety and the rich play of irony and allusion detectable in the Hebrew. (The English translation is problematic, and when I once taught it in an undergraduate course, I don't think it went over very well.) Tmol Shilshom represents a strenuous reversal of the European Bildungsroman that ends in tragedy, or perhaps one should say, in a violent catastrophe for the protagonist that is an absurdist Akedah. Yitzhak Kummer is one of those young men from the provinces populating ninteenth-century fiction who makes the journey to fulfill himself not to the big city but to Palestine of the Second Aliyah. In the language of the old Zionist song invoked in the opening paragraph, he comes "to build and to be rebuilt," but his naïve aspirations turn into a shambles. Agnon offers a penetrating and unblinking portrait of the dilemmas of Jewish modernity, in part figured through Kummer's oscillation between bohemian Jaffa, where he has an erotic entanglement he can't really handle, and fanatically Orthodox Jerusalem, where he finds a pious bride and death. The inner contradictions of the Zionist enterprise and the lethal ferocity of Orthodoxy are equally exposed, and probing historical realism is interwoven with fantasy and macabre comedy in the chapters devoted to the reflections of Balak, the philosophical dog, one of Agnon's great inventions. The novel is densely textured with symbolic motifs, as the critics have shown, and endlessly inventive—perfect material for enjoyable and instructive investigation.