One of the central figures in modern Hebrew fiction, Shmuel Yosef Agnon (b. 1888 in eastern Galicia, now part of Ukraine; d. 1970 in Israel) was Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1966. Using language and storytelling techniques drawn from Jewish religious texts and folk literature, Agnon's works deal with major contemporary spiritual concerns: the disintegration of traditional world of late 18th, early 19th-century Galician Jewry, the loss of faith, and the subsequent loss of identity.

The following selection is taken from one of Agnon's major novels, Hakhnasat Kallah (1929; lengthened into a novel, The Bridal Canopy, in 1937). This folk-epic was recognized as one of the cornerstones of modern Hebrew literature, and helped established Agnon as one of its central figures. Agnon develops here an indigenous Jewish literary form that is built around cyclical motifs drawn from pietistic literature (marriage, hospitality, wandering, etc.). Traditional folk themes, the treasure and the cock, are imbued with modern symbolic significance.

The hero of the story is R. Yidel, a devout though quixotic Galician Jew who confronts life with a world view nurtured in the past. Together with his companion, Nuta, he wanders the countryside in search of bridegrooms for his three daughters. At the heart of this work are the stories and the stories within the stories which the two travelers share on their journey.

Simeon Nathan ordered all the good things there are in the world for his daughter's wedding, in order that the men of Shebush and all the ages to follow might know once for all how Simeon Nathan married off his daughter, and to whom he had wedded her. He had casks of honey in his cellar, so heavy that they squashed the earth of the cellar under them; Simeon Nathan brought a dozen porters and had them shifted up into the house. And the kneading dishes in the house, which were big as baths, were full of flour; bakers and baking women stood there with jugs of oil and bags of raisins and nuts and cinnamon, which they emptied into each trough and mixed with the honey.

The elders of Shebush sneezed with the scent of the cinnamon; when the Sabbath departed, stingy folk dispensed with spices for the Havdalah service because of the scent of the cinnamon; God-fearing folk going out into the market place used to hold their nostrils closed to prevent it entering, because they did not know whether they needed to say a blessing or not, seeing that hot bread and the like should not be smelt because the authorities differ as to whether it requires a blessing or not.

And Shprintsa Pessil bought up all the fat cocks and hens; were it not that she left the scrawny ones alone it's doubtful whether there would have been any left to serve Shebush for the Atonement custom on the Eve of the Day of Atonement. They say of the woman that there was never a goose or a duck or a swan or a dove in all Shebush that she didn't have slaughtered. Doves were for grilling, swans for boiling, ducks to be stuffed with apples and then roasted, while geese were both for roasting and for boiling. Besides which she had a number of beasts slaughtered, the red flesh of which was hidden by the white fat.

While the squawking of the poultry still sounded from town's end to town's end, and beasts were lowing from the slaughter house, the wheels of a wagon came creaking through the street and there appeared a wagonload of vegetables with a deer walking ahead of it, its horns decked with greens, and a crown of red peppers on its head, and the lord of the manor's cook walking behind.

What's all this here, they asked him. This deer, said he, is being sent by my master, the lord of the manor, to his Jew, Simeon Nathan, and I'm going with to show him how to cook it. And all the folk nodded with their head and said, in all truth, my love is like to a deer. And the children ran along behind, singing, Flee my love and be thou like to a deer.

And in addition the lord of the manor sent fish wonderful to see; and if they hadn't been hacked up in chunks no vessel could have contained them, so large were they. Some were prepared with onions and pepper, some with good red wine and honey cakes and sugar and raisins, some were pickled in wine-vinegar boiled with laurel leaves and onions, while some were fried. Those with onions and pepper were for after the ceremony, those with raisins for the morning feast since in the morning folk enjoy sweet things. The pickled ones were for the entire week of feasting; while as for the fried, it sometimes happens that a man doesn't want to wait until they set the dish for him, so instead he picks his portion up in his fingers and eats standing.

Meanwhile the men of Shebush were undecided whether this was a wedding made by the warden, in which case they had to bring presents worthy of the warden, or whether this was an orphan's wedding for which any present is good enough. Silly husbands, said their wives to them, can't you make it out? Do you reckon it's a plain and simple wedding when the warden goes out of his way to marry off an orphan? Now why is the warden marrying off an orphan? Because he has no children of his own; and if he had children of his own and were to marry them off, we'd be making ourselves new clothes; well, that's how it is now; the orphan can be reckoned as his son and the wedding as the wedding of his son, and so we and our daughters must have new clothes. Must we lose just because he happens to be childless? And they straightway began putting their principles into practice and ordering new clothes for themselves and their daughters, the swish of the hems of which could be heard two full Sabbath-days' journey from the town.

And Simeon Nathan invited all his kindred and friends, and sent wagons and horses to a number of towns to beseech the sages of Israel to come and light up the wedding with their honored presences. Some came bringing with them outstanding lads and desirable lads, saying, Since the bridegroom's an orphan and has no family to be present, let us go and treat the Torah with love.


Barnes and Noble linkFrom: The Bridal Canopy, by: S.Y. Agnon, translated by: I.M. Lask, p. 161-162 (New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1967)

excerpted An analysis of an Agnon dream-story
A Whole Loaf: A short story by Agnon
The Tale of the Scribe: A short story by Agnon
On One Stone: A short story by Agnon



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