Shavuot When One Learns All the Jews in One’s Town Were Killed

Rhododendron in bloom, May 2009
Rhododendron in bloom, May 2009
What do blooming garden flowers and the shocker I used for a title have in common?

In S. Y. Agnon’s short story “The Sign” the main character learns that all the Jews in his hometown in Europe have been killed by the Nazis. He learns this at the same time his house in the Land of Israel has been decorated for Shavuot in the traditional way, with flowers and plants:

The sun shone down on the outside of the house; inside, on the walls, we had hung cypress, pine, and laurel branches, and flowers. Each beautiful flower and everything with a sweet smell and been brought in to decorate the house for the holiday of Shavuot. In all the days I had lived in the Land of Israel, our house had never been decorated so nicely as it was that day. All the flaws in the house had vanished, and not a crack was to be seen, either in the ceiling or in the walls. From the places where the cracks in the house used to gape with open mouths and laugh at the builders, there came instead the pleasant smell of branches and shrubs, and especially of the flowers we had brought from our garden. These humble creatures, which because of their great modesty don’t raise themselves high above the ground except to give off their good smell, made the eye rejoice because of the many colors with which the Holy One, blessed be He, has decorated them, to glorify His land, which, in His loving-kindness, He has given to us.

A little later in the story Agnon teaches us a little of the halachot (laws) of Shavuot:

Although on the Sabbath and festivals one says the evening prayers early, on Shavuot we wait to say Maariv until the stars are out.

For if we were to pray early and recieve the holiness of the festival, we would be shortening the days of the Omer, and the Torah said, “There shall be seven full weeks.”

Later, the main character is standing in the synagogue, facing the six memorial candles shining among the roses and the wildflowers and the garden flowers that have been used to decorate the sanctuary. “Is it possible that a city full of Torah and life is suddenly uprooted from the world, and all its people—old and young; men, women and children—are killed, that now the city is silent, with not a soul of Israel left in it?”

Who is S. Y. Agnon? Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in Buczacz, Galicia. In 1908 he immigrated to Israel and in 1913 he went to Germany, where he married his wife. He returned to Israel in 1924. If you have heard of Saul Bellow or Isaac Bashevis Singer, S. Y. Agnon won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, years before Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer won their Nobel Prizes. Agnon wrote his stories in Hebrew, one of the first modern writers to do so. I hope one day to read his stories in Hebrew, as one loses a lot in translation.

Many thanks to Lorri (Rayna Elianna) for recommending A Book That Was Lost: Thirty Five Stories (Hebrew Classics),a lovely book of short stories. The holiday of Shavuot, which is a major Jewish holiday (as opposed to say, Chanukah, which is only a minor holiday) begins on Thursday night, May 28th. It is traditional to decorate one’s home with flowers, to stay up all night learning Torah, and to eat dairy dishes (we’ll be having ice cream for dessert).