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In the Heart of the Seas by Shmuel Yosef…

In the Heart of the Seas (1933)

by Shmuel Yosef Agnon

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Here’s a strange book. I spent most of this picaresque account of a group of Jewish friends attempting to reach Jerusalem on a pilgrimage from the Ukraine trying to figure out why it’s on the 1001 books list.

Unfortunately, reading the entry in the 1001 Books book didn’t really enlighten me much. I’m aware, from the cover of the book, that Agnon was a Nobel Prize-Winner. I thus thought that perhaps it is the legacy of this book which makes its importance. It’s certainly not the plot, characters, style or other things that I usually rate a book on.

Digging around on the web, I did discover that Agnon is pretty much the apogee of modern Hebrew literature and figures largely in the identity of the nation. And, this novel, understandably from a Jewish point of view with its focus on the seemingly unattainable prize of reaching Jerusalem, would have been a common theme among the diaspora when the book was written in 1933.

The group of friends who embark on this pilgrimage do so with their only knowledge of Jerusalem coming from their scriptures. It’s almost a fantastical place which they strive to remind themselves is real and will be attainable if only they persevere against the many barriers that lie in their path. Much of this short book is taken up not so much with the journey as discussions among the friends as they stop off on the way.

This is one of those books that broadens your understanding of what’s important in other literary cultures. For that reason, I’m glad I read it. ( )
  arukiyomi | Jan 2, 2013 |
Nobel Prize (1966). Traveler's tale from East Europe to Jerusalem, as the heavenly city's reflection and meeting the Divine Presence
  Folkshul | Jan 15, 2011 |
This was a delightful tale of a group of Jews who make a journey from their East European home to “the Land of Israel.” The writing about the people, the journey and their adventures was beautifully descriptive so that the story really comes alive for the reader. Along the way we also get to “listen” to the fables and legends they share with each other as they travel. We are even privileged to witness a miracle! Although short, this book is rich with illusion, humor and, especially, heart. We gain a deeper understanding of the importance of the idea of “Israel” is to these people. I want to buy this book because it was a joy to read and I know I will want to read it again ( )
2 vote MusicMom41 | Oct 30, 2008 |
Sort of damning with faint praise but all I can say is that I didn't mind it. A gentle tale of a group of rabbis traveling from Eastern Europe to Israel. It was amusing at times...I enjoyed a rabbi asking an innkeeper how he knew God wanted his prayers instead of a glass of brandy and a dish of groats. However, I also found it tedious at times; fortunately it is short. I've read that Agnon is a great stylist in Hebrew, writing very taut and compelling prose. The translation gave me none of that, mostly emerging as a parody of an archaic form of speech. ( )
  TadAD | Oct 25, 2008 |
The last few weeks of my life were louder than usual, thanks to the blessed noises and cries of our newborn. Agnon’s book was the perfect retreat to at least inner quietness. Whenever I read any of his books, the near-Biblical language he is using and the pace of his books always provide the calmness I seek from them. I was not disappointed this time either; I could transfer myself to mellower times by reading In the Heart of the Seas. The constant reference to the heroes as “our men of good heart” greatly contributed to the pleasant atmosphere the book emanated.

The plot of the story sounds simple; a group of Hasidim make aliyah, emigrate to Israel. On one hand this does not sound too exciting; after all, nowadays lots of people travel, emigrate or even make aliyah. On the other hand we have to consider that these travelers made their journey back in the day, when traveling was a much more arduous process. Furthermore, making aliyah is not just any journey, but THE journey for a devout Jews of the 19th or any century, it requires as much spiritual preparation, strength and persistence as physical. Agnon’s story draws a clear parallel between the physical, spiritual and lifelong journey. By the last I mean that it is possible to read the book at a deeper level as a metaphor for life journey. We start out somewhere low and as we aspire to higher ground, we do everything we can to get there. What we strive for more of is not material wealth, but getting closer to G-d. This is Agnon’s main point in my reading.

Another focus is that the journey cannot be done alone. The value of community is essential for our travelers. They would not be able to survive alone. They value each other and each others’ differences. The group develops from a band of travelers to a close-knit congregation through their tribulations.

There are two literary connections I could not escape noticing. Joseph Campbell described the monomyth, aka the hero’s journey, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a tri-stage process,

" A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

In this case (most of) our heroes do not return, but they definitely follow the rest of the pattern Campbell recognized. In this sense Agnon’s book is a typical monomyth.

The other famous book where ten people travel together and tell stories to each other is Boccaccio’s Decameron. It is mostly known for its erotic and tragic content, but that too deserves more attention. There the characters escape from the Black Death. Here they are not escaping from death but going towards fulfillment of their lifelong dream. There Lady Fortune, aka fate, is the decisive factor of what happens. Here divine authority saves or condemns people, who have the power through their actions and prayers to influence their life. Rather different outlooks, wouldn’t you say?

Just last week I wrote that I like reading fiction books for their plot and character development. I forgot to mention that I enjoy descriptive just as much. Shmuel Yosef Agnon is a master of that. (I spelled out his first and middle name on purpose, because almost all the time he is referred to only as S. Y. Agnon. He deserves his full name to be known. And not just because the Nobel Prize for Literature he won in 1966.) Here is the very opening of the book, setting the tone for the rest,

"Just before the first of the Hasidim went up to the Land of Israel, a certain man named Hananiah found his way to their House of Study. His clothes were torn, rags were wound around his legs, and he wore no boots on his feet; his hair ad beard were covered with th dust of the roads, and all his worldly goods were tied up in a little bundle which he carried with him in his kerchief."

I cannot omit mentioning the work of I. M. Lask, who magnificently translated the book from Hebrew to English. T. Herzl Rome illustrated the book with nine pictures. His style of drawing with simple, yet powerful lines fit well the book’s theme.
1 vote break | Jul 23, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shmuel Yosef Agnonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lask, I. M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Just before the first of the hasidim went up to the Land of Israel, a certain man named Hananiah found his way to their House of Study.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0299207048, Paperback)

In the Heart of the Seas is a sophisticated fantasy that tells the story of a pilgrimage of a group of Hasidim to the Holy Land. During an early decade of the nineteenth century in Bucsacz, S.Y. Agnon's actual birthplace, a small group of pious townspeople decides to sell their property and belongings, put aside their business affairs, and make their way to the Holy Land to spend the remainder of their days in study and prayer.
    The pilgrims are joined by a simple Jew by the name of Hananya, who carries all of his possessions in a kerchief and who has encountered many obstacles and privations in his longstanding efforts to reach Jerusalem. He not only completes their minyan but also drives one of the wagons and provides the practical know-how that enables the faithful to negotiate the long journey from Eastern Europe to Constantinople.
    Along the way many Jewish settlements are encountered and described and many legends about the Holy Land are told. Hananya is late to the ship's departure from Constantinople to the Holy Land because he is busy reading the Agunah, and unaware of his absence, the faithful embark upon the tempest-tossed voyage without him. When they arrive in Jaffa, Hananya is there before them, having flown over the seas transported on his "magical" kerchief. Settled in Jerusalem, the members of the group experience a mixture of fates, and it is only Hananya who lives to a contented old age.

Named by Harper San Francisco one of "The 100 Best Spiritual Books of the Twentieth Century" and among Harold Bloom's selections for The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.

The Wisconsin edition is not for sale in the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, or the traditional British Commonwealth (excluding Canada.)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:37 -0400)

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