Sunday, March 16, 2008

Agnon, the Nobel Prize, and The Song of the Levites

As I often do, this is yet another post about Israeli life and why I love it here! and today, I would simply like to draw your attention to a simple banknote. Yes! the Fifty Shekel. What is so special about this piece of paper?
Well as you can see, this note has a person on it. That person is the fabulous novelist and writer, S.Y. Agnon. Agnon had a deep religious sense about him, a passionate Zionism, a wicked cynicism and a masterful pen. I don't always understand the allusions in his writing but when I figure it out, I understand how his vision was insightful, penetrating and entertaining. He beautifully fused the "old" of tradition and the "new" of Modern Hebrew, and created wonderful literature.
Well, in truth, it isn't really Agnon that I like on this banknote but the TEXT written in small on the left hand side of the banknote. It is part of Agnon's acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize. The entire speech can be found here (link) but this is the section quoted on the Banknote.
"As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing."
On occasion, I read this out to a class, and I feel myself becoming emotional. These are deep Jewish-Zionist sentiments. The notion that we were born in the diaspora by some "Historical catastrophe" due to the Exile that our nation is experienced is just incredible. The sense that Agnon talks about his impetus to write as a continuation of the songs of the Leviim in the Mikdash is amazing. All of this on a simple banknote.
Next time you have a spare moment , take out your 50 shekel and read this wonderful speech. It is truly a classic!

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