“And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight” is a brilliant book by the Noble Prize Winner for Literature, S. Y. Agnon. It is typical of his ironic style. Despite its title, the crooked is not made straight in this novel – just the opposite. The book was published in Hebrew in 1912. It was Agnon’s first full-length novel. It was deservedly praised when it appeared. A reviewer, Fischel Lachower, wrote that the book is “a treasure trove of Jewish legends, parables, modes of speech and thought, of gesture and expression.” The famed Gershom Scholem wrote “it is not so much in the style of the old devotional books [but] as in the style their authors would have used had they been great artists.” The story is very enjoyable on a simple level, as an interesting very engaging tale, and when the irony is recognized, it is thought provoking.
The book is one of Toby Press’ over a dozen Agnon novels. Most are new translations. Each has notes that explain some Agnon ideas, and his mention of past events, places, and people that the average readers may not know. The books also contain detailed commentary explaining the novel.
In this tale, a husband and wife become impoverished and the two decide to have the husband travel from town to town begging for money. The husband gets a letter from the local rabbi that identifies him, the beggar, as a righteous person who deserves help. Unfortunately, matters do not go as planned, the letter gets into the hands of another man, the husband’s travels are pitiable, humiliating and often humorous to the reader, he loses the money he collects, he does not return home for many years during which time his wife is abandoned and fettered.
What was it that caused the husband to fail? As Michael P. Kramer points out in his Foreword to the tale, it was the result of the piety of the time that taught passivity, timidity, impotence, and an inability to assert himself and act, his weak and cooked heart. From the very start of the novel, while he attends the synagogue and spends time studying ancient texts, it is his wife who “put all her efforts into running their business, presiding over everything that had to do with the shop.”
Unfortunately, this failing is still the piety of too many Jews today, and the crooked has not been made straight.