The Cock-Crowing, Grass-Eating Delirium of Love


Written by S.Y. Agnon
Translated by Hillel Halkin
246 pages. Syracuse University Press. $19.95.

The rabbis of the Talmud taught that on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, hoards of Jewish women (singles all) would go out into the fields. Single men would soon follow, and try to woo the women they encountered. The faintly subtle reason for this curious ceremony, perhaps the first recorded instance of speed dating, was to promote a system of meritocratic marriage. The women would all be wearing plain white garments, so no one would be able to tell who was rich and who was poor, thereby somewhat leveling the romantic playing field.

But there were and are other ways for a man to tell whether he likes what he sees in a woman. Therefore, the Talmud writes, while pretty women would advise their potential suitors to “Regard but beauty alone, because a woman is made only for beauty,” those not so fortunately endowed would remind their potential mates to “Make your selections only for the glory of Heaven, but provide liberally for us.”

Something is curiously absent from the Talmud’s discussion of mate-choosing, though: the male perspective. This absence is strangely incongruous with many other portions of the tome of Jewish law and ethics. Here we see what the women say, how they try to court their prospective men, but we never hear how the men respond. In fact, it’s almost a seminal Jewish tradition, from Biblical times to, in some communities, the present day, not to give a damn what the man thinks in matchmaking scenarios.

This strange pseudo-tradition goes all the way back to Isaac, that passive patriarch who was almost burned by his father on an altar. Nearly sacrificing his son was not the end of Abraham’s meddling, though. Almost immediately after the Biblical story of the would-be sacrifice, Abraham (through his servant) chooses a wife for Isaac. And while this sought-after woman, Rebecca, is given a choice as to whether she will marry the future patriarch, Isaac himself is given no say in the matter. This is not necessarily to the good. Indeed, many modern commentators note that there is a marked absence of dialogue between Isaac and Rebecca, and that the relationship itself ultimately revolves around one-upmanship and rivalry instead of mutual support and love (one is reminded that it was Rebecca who ultimately tricked Isaac into blessing Jacob, her favorite son, instead of blessing Esau, whom Jacob preferred).

One still hears occasional stories of arranged marriages wherein the children have little or no say in countering or affirming the whims of their parents. In many of these situations, there is little one can do—short of hopping the next train out of town—but give in to the mores of the community, bite the matrimonial bullet, and marry the woman the folks have chosen. In fact, a distant relative of mine came to this country in order to flee from an arranged marriage in Europe (he had met the girl once, two weeks before the wedding, and was instantly and almost instinctively repulsed).

Such is the plight of Hirshl Hurvitz, the central protagonist of S. Y. Agnon’s short masterpiece A Simple Story, originally published in Hebrew in 1923, and translated crisply and honestly by Hillel Halkin 62 years later. Hirshl, a boy in an early-20th-century Galician shtetl, is in love with a girl who happens to be both his cousin and a pauper. The match, unsurprisingly, is frowned upon by the boy’s parents, especially his domineering mother, another unfortunate recurring Jewish trope. Hirshl is elbowed, cajoled, and ultimately forced—passive resistance be damned—into an unhappy marriage with a wealthy, shallow, and perhaps sexually deformed girl (at one point the narrator mentions that the “nipples of her breasts were inverted”).

The results of this union are anything but simple. To say that Hirshl takes the loss of the love of his life hard would be a mild understatement. The boy—and he is a boy, only 17 when the story begins at perhaps eighteen at the time of his marriage, barely older than Romeo when the latter killed himself over a girl he knew for a couple of days—at first not more than mildly unhappy, soon loses himself in insomnia, and then rapidly slides into what we would probably term insanity. The loss of his love (whose name, by the way, is Blume Nacht, which means, as Hillel Halkin points out in his perceptive and almost entirely on-point afterward, ‘night flower’ in Yiddish, perhaps an appropriate name, Halkin notes, for the unattainable beauty) carries Hirshl into a cock-crowing, grass-eating delirium. Hirshl is hospitalized, and the tale ends tragically.

Except that it doesn’t. It doesn’t because Agnon is a master stylist, one who, while steeped in the Jewish traditions of his ancestors (making a pilgrimage to his home in a beautiful southern neighborhood of Jerusalem a number of years ago, I was surprised to find that his library was virtually overflowing with Jewish holy books), was also proficient in the radical secular modernism inhabiting the literature and art of his own day. Agnon, then, is not out to write a conventional love story. And so Hirshl, with the aid of a doctor steeped more in the life of the shtetl that Hirshl had left than the city that the sanitarium is in, recovers completely. He returns to his life in the shtetl. And he lives a happy life.

Sort of. This is, ultimately, a modernist tale, and while Agnon turns on its head what Halkin remarks as the two conventional tellings of the story—Hirshl and Blume getting together (romance) or Hirshl destroying his life because they don’t (tragedy)—letting Hirshl lead a happy life with his unchosen wife simply wouldn’t be in the modernist spirit. Things, after all, fall apart in the modernist novel, and while the center of the literary conceit cannot hold, bringing about the unconventional ending, the idealization of shtetl life, arranged marriages and all, cannot hold either. And so, while Hirshl and the woman he is now condemned (or blessed) to spend the rest of his days with seem to be happy, the romantic in Hirshl—that which the reader, at least this reader, loved and identified with most in him—dies.

The story of A Simple Story is a great one. It carries, it practically seeps with, evocations of a world that was already dying when its original Hebrew words were being written, and which, by now, is long dead. It should be read, and treasured, for that. But the story also deserves to take its rightful place as one of the great works of early twentieth century modernism. Agnon is far too good a writer, and A Simple Story is far too powerful a book, for it to continue to be ignored, in this country, if not in Israel, in the way it has been. Halkin’s fabulous translation, which for a number of years was out of print and virtually impossible to acquire, was reissued as part of the Library of Modern Jewish Literature in 2000. It deserves to be enjoyed.