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Israel’s First Nobel Laureate

Jun 14, 2012 at 05:11:55 PM

Israelis have won an astounding 10 Nobel prizes. Can you guess which categories?

What probably first comes to mind are the peace prizes: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

Next obvious is in economics and the sciences - another six Israeli winners.

But the first Israeli to win a Nobel Prize was author Shai Agnon, who received the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature.

This month marks the 100th year anniversary of the 1912 publication of Agnon's first book, "And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight." Agnon House in Jerusalem is commemorating this landmark during the coming months with lectures and study sessions for students and tourists. Agnon House is open to the general public where visitors can learn more about the life and works of Agnon as well as visit his library of over 8,000 books, some of which date back to the 16th century.

Agnon was born in Ukraine, the son of an ordained rabbi. At age 20 he moved to Israel and adopted a secular way of life. Shortly afterwards, he returned to Jewish tradition and remained an observant Jew for the rest of his life. His writings deal with the conflict between Jewish tradition and the modern world. His books range from rabbinic lore and chassidic tales, to gothic romances and psychological dramas.

It is remarkable that Agnon was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature in Hebrew, given that much of his writing career was prior to the State of Israel, when Hebrew was primarily still a language of prayer and Torah study.

In his speech at the Nobel award ceremony, Agnon introduced himself in Hebrew: "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."

For anyone who's been to Israel, you will recognize Agnon as the person featured on the 50-shekel bill. The design includes an excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

June 14, 2012

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