Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday


Israeli Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon's famous masterpiece, his novel "Only Yesterday," here appears in English translation for the first time. Published in 1945, the book tells a seemingly simple tale about a man who immigrates to Palestine with the Second Aliya--the several hundred idealists who returned between 1904 and 1914 to work the Hebrew soil as in Biblical times and revive Hebrew culture. "Only Yesterday" quickly became recognized as a monumental work of world literature, but not only for its vivid historical reconstruction of Israel's founding society. This epic novel also engages the reader in a fascinating network of meanings, contradictions, and paradoxes all leading to the question, what, if anything, controls human existence?

Seduced by Zionist slogans, young Isaac Kumer imagines the Land of Israel filled with the financial, social, and erotic opportunities that were denied him, the son of an impoverished shopkeeper, in Poland. Once there, he cannot find the agricultural work he anticipated. Instead Isaac happens upon house-painting jobs as he moves from secular, Zionist Jaffa, where the ideological fervor and sexual fre


As Agnon felt that this strangely intensive bygone world happened “only yesterday,” but was timelessly valid, so his own fictional world was alive, pervading all of modern Hebrew culture “only yesterday,” and can—and should—stand beyond its ostensibly parochial landscape as one of the great literary myths of the twentieth century.

Shmuel-Yosef Agnon's Hebrew novel Only Yesterday (Tmol Shilshom) was written in Palestine under British Mandatory rule in the late 1930s, finished in 1943 during World War II, and published after the war in 1945. The prominent Israeli literary critic Barukh Kurzweil, a German Ph.D. in literature and a leading authority on his fellow Austro-Hungarian novelist, pronounced: “The place of Only Yesterday is among the greatest works of world literature.” Those were not parochial sentiments of a “minor literature”; similar opinions were voiced by Leah Goldberg, Hebrew poetess and polyglot, translator of Petrarch and Tolstoy into Hebrew, and first professor of comparative literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and by Robert B. Alter, Professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, a discerning critic and scholar of the European novel.

On the face of it, it is a simple story about a simple man, Isaac Kumer, who immigrated from Austrian Galicia to that cultural backwater, the southern Syrian province under Ottoman rule (the historical Palestine). He arrived with the Second Aliya—a few hundred secular idealists, mostly Socialist Zionists from Russia, who came to the Land of Israel between 1904 and 1914 to till the soil, revive “Hebrew labor” and the Hebrew language, and became the founding generation of Israeli society. Isaac, however, who believed in their . . .

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