Photo Credit: Faigie Heiman
Agnon Bet Knesset

Who Knows Fifty? Fifty is the number of years since Israel celebrated her first Nobel Laureate.

heiman-122316Motzai Shabbat Chanukah – December 10, 1966, author Shai Agnon lingered in his hotel room in Stockholm waiting for three stars to appear in the heavens indicating that Shabbat had ended. Agnon davened Maariv, made Havdalah, lit four Chanukah candles, and dressed in his mandatory tailcoat tuxedo before stepping into a waiting limousine. He had arranged with the chauffeur to sit in the front seat, enabling him to plug his shaver into the cigarette lighter and shave. The limousine sped, accompanied by a siren-wailing motorcycle escort, to the Nobel Prize ceremony that had commenced at City Hall.

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As a youngster growing up in America in the ‘40s and ‘50s of the last century, I was not attentive to Nobel Laureates or the ceremonies held in their honor. There were American doctors, chemists, scientists and authors who received Nobel prizes. That information was often splashed on book covers they authored. But the ceremony wasn’t followed or patriotic enthusiasm shared; not for the recipients or for the participants at the annual banquet in Sweden. Neither the prize or the laureates or their speeches were discussed around our family table – not on Shabbat and not at our annual family gatherings on Chanukah.

Our first Chanukah in Israel, soon after we married in 1960, saw me suffering from a terrible bout of homesickness. We were alone, without family or friends, unable to find a rental apartment in Jerusalem, holed up in an old rooming house without private facilities, without a kitchen, or heat. The room had two metal cots topped with straw mattresses, a small narrow table, one chair, and an old malodourous wooden closet with hanging space for three garments. My husband lit the wicks in the silver chanukiyah my grandparents had given us as a gift before our departure, and I cried, wiping my tears with a handkerchief, as tissues were not available in Israel.

“It won’t be like this forever,” my husband promised. “One day we will have a home, we will have a family; this is just the start, and all beginnings are difficult.” My husband was the soothsayer, the optimist, not one to throw in the towel in haste.

The author's husband lighting the menorah.
The author’s husband lighting the menorah.

Shabbat Chanukah was sunny and pleasant, early winter weather at its best. A heavy dose of fresh Jerusalem air was essential for my recovery from the blues. So we walked the length of the city and returned lighthearted two hours later. Starting at Rechov Meah Shearim on the eastern border with Jordan, we walked straight across town to Talpiot, a sparsely-populated neighborhood with small villas nestled romantically in a forest of trees at the southern border with Jordan.

Six years later, as parents of two children, we had settled in our fourth rental apartment in the Rechavia section of Jerusalem. My parents, who moved to Israel in 1964, lived with my grandfather a short distance away, on the edge of Shaarei Chessed.

Talpiot, a quaint Jerusalem neighborhood, hit the news as home of the famous author, Shai Agnon, the first Israeli awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. Television had not yet debuted, thus the Kiddush Hashem that Agnon rendered at the ceremony in Stockholm could only be lauded through articles that appeared the following morning in the local press, on Kol Yisrael radio news, or in short newsreel film clips on movie screens. Six years in Jerusalem, and we reveled in all three available news options.

Agnon, wearing a black velvet kippah, addressed the audience in Stockholm in Hebrew. Opening his address he cited our sages that “One must not enjoy any pleasure in this world without first reciting a blessing.” He noted that food and scents, the pleasure of sights, and the recipient of good news, all require blessings, and when the Swedish Charge D’affairs notified him that he had won the Nobel Prize, he recited the brachahatov v’hameitiv” for the good news he received, and for the messenger who delivered the good news. He explained the importance of a blessing recited when beholding a monarch, and on stage he recited the bracha, honored to be in the presence of the King of Sweden.

Agnon’s words at the Nobel ceremony resonated for a proud observant Jew embracing a momentous occasion. “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Yerushalayim, and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the exile, but I always regarded myself as one who was born in Yerushalayim. I belong to the tribe of Levi; my forbears and I are the minstrels that were in the Temple, and there is a tradition in my father’s family that we are of the lineage of the Prophet Samuel whose name I bear.”

heiman-122316-chanukia-litHis written works were his songs; the songs of a Levite sung in the shtetl Buczacz where he started writing poetry at age five. Jews in Israel glowed with pride for the Jerusalem recipient, his heritage, praise and gratitude, a Kiddush Hashem.

Born in Polish Galicia in 1888, Agnon first moved to Eretz Yisroel (Mandated Palestine) at the age of 19. His Nobel Laureate acceptance speech provided the tragic historical background of his return to Europe, his library, books and manuscripts burned to ashes in a house fire, and so too his family and loved ones, decimated in the Nazi death camps. He didn’t spare his audience discomfort, affirming two tortuous world wars conducted against his Jewish sisters and brothers. And when those worlds were destroyed, he continued to write and publish, books and stories, short and long, recreating and building his life in G-d’s Land, among his people in Jerusalem.

Who Knows Fifty? Chanukah 1966, Jerusalem was a skeleton city, cut in half, and denied recognition as Israel’s capital. Agnon’s Nobel Prize was the first taste of international recognition; a one night stand. Could anyone have foretold that the following Chanukah Jerusalem would expand beyond the barbed wire and concrete walls surrounding the city? If someone had “tweeted” the news that we would light a Menorah at the Kotel Hamaaravi the following Chanukah, we would have laughed! Laughed at the foolish “tweet,” same as Sarah laughed when told by the angel she would bear Avraham’s child at the age of ninety.

Agnon House Talpiot
Agnon House Talpiot

Fifty years ago Israel was living in the shadow of World War II, still hunting Nazi war criminals to stand trial in Jerusalem, eighteen and a half years young, and six months away from dominating powerful world headlines.

Thirty-nine years after Agnon, December 2005, Professor Yisrael Robert Aumann, a mathematician, received the Nobel Prize for Economics, for his game theory analysis. Like the State that had expanded in every area, Professor Aumann arrived in Stockholm accompanied by 34 guests, including 27 members of his immediate family, an impressive contingent of Torah-observant Jews who were also challenged by the motzai Shabbat award ceremony. As had Agnon, they too rose to the challenge, an inspiration to observant and non-observant Jews alike. They fulfilled the required elegant dress code with full-length modest women’s wear, and Professor Aumann, prominent with his white-knitted kippah and flowing white beard, had overseen that the fabric for the special tuxedo sewn for him be checked for shatnez.

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