Adam Kirsch at The New Yorker:
It has been half a century since Shmuel Yosef Agnon won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet he is one of those laureates for whom the prize has not translated into universal fame. Like Claude Simon (France) or Camilo José Cela (Spain), Agnon remains largely the possession of his original audience. In his case, however, defining that original audience is a difficult matter. Agnon wrote in Hebrew—he is the only Hebrew writer to win the Nobel—and he lived in Israel, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, where his house now stands as a museum. But although Israeli readers can read Agnon in the original, today even they may have a hard time with his books.
According to Jeffrey Saks—a rabbi and the editor of a new series of editions of Agnon’s work in English, published by Toby Press—this is because Agnon assumed that Hebrew speakers would always be familiar with Judaism: its “rituals, phrases [and] concepts,” as well as with the many strata of the three-thousand-year-old Hebrew literary tradition. But, Saks observes, “this may no longer be the case,” with the result that “Agnon and the other Hebrew classics get whittled away each year from school curricula and chain-store bookshelves.” Many Israelis, in other words, no longer have the religious background necessary to grasp all of Agnon’s meanings, while the highly religious are unlikely to read a writer who, for all his deep roots, is unmistakably ironic, unsettling, and thoroughly modern.
Another way of putting this is that Agnon’s identity, like Jewishness itself, maps uneasily against modern Israeli identity.