Hungry in Jerusalem: 'A Whole Loaf' by S. Y. Agnon

A Whole Loaf – S. Y. Agnon

Like Agnon’s work in general, ‘A Whole Loaf’ draws on traditional Jewish religious sources, but is thoroughly modern in style and theme (particularly in the themes of anxiety and indecisiveness).  Also typically for Agnon, the story has a dream-like (or nightmare-like) quality.

The unnamed narrator is in Jerusalem at the end of a hot Sabbath day.  His family are abroad (for reasons we never learn) and he has to fend for himself, which he is doing rather poorly.  The simple tasks of procuring food and drink seem to elude him, even as the heat of the day is described in almost hyperbolic terms.  In fact, the heat is described as emanating from the ceiling, walls, and floor of the narrator’s apartment – oven-like – so that he is literally baking.

Early in the story, the narrator encounters the Moses-like figure of Dr. Yekutiel Ne’eman, who gives him some letters to deliver to the post office, after scolding him for allowing his family to be separated from him.  The narrator earnestly promises to do so, and momentarily experiences a feeling of real guilt at Ne’eman’s reproof, but mostly he seems to be motivated by “a desire to make Dr. Ne’eman feel more pleased.”  We begin to suspect that this man has shallow relationships with his fellow human beings, and that he is a rather poor judge of character.  His feelings of guilt and duty are equally shallow, and evaporate as quickly as they arise.

Agnon, as a devout Zionist, no doubt shared and endorsed Dr. Ne’eman’s rebuke, and it is safe to say that the story is, on one level at least, an allegory of the duty of the Jewish people to forsake the assimilated life of Europe with its decadent temptations and return to the Land of Israel.

(In the commentary of the translation I’m using, A Book that Was Lost, Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman, eds., there’s some exposition of Agnon’s symbolism in the story, and it’s well worth reading.  I myself am not a scholar, so I will confine myself to remarking on the plain sense of the story.)

The man resolves to take the letters to the post office, as he has promised Dr. Ne’eman, but he’s also hot and thirsty and dying for a decent meal; so he’s torn between going to the post office first or going to a hotel to grab a bite to eat, and spends most of the story dithering between these two courses of action.

“It is easy to understand the state of a man who has two courses in front of him,” he comments reasonably enough.  But here and in a number of other places, he sounds insecure and seems to solicit the reader’s (or listener’s) agreement and sympathy for his situation.  You can almost picture the guy with a pleading look on his face saying “You do understand, don’t you?”

In the second half of the story we meet Mr. Gressler, whom the narrator seems eager to please, even though Gressler is the one who struck the match that burned down the narrator’s home and books.  (The narrator lived upstairs from the apostate textile merchant – whose wares were “like paper” – so this consequence was in no way unforeseeable.)  Our narrator lets on to some mixed feelings toward Gressler following the fire, but in general seems to want to maintain cordial relations with him.  I think he puts Gressler and Ne’eman on exactly the same level in his own estimation.

(As a biographical note, the house fire was not an abstract idea for Agnon, who lost his home and library to a fire in 1924.)

The one person the narrator feels unambivalent about is Mr. Hophni, the inventor of an improved mousetrap.  (At first I thought the mousetrap detail might be the translator’s idiomatic rendering of some other phrase, since we have the expression in English, “build a better mousetrap”.  But no, the story is talking about a literal rodent-catching device.)  He finds Hophni insufferable.  In particular, he finds Hophni’s bragging about his success objectionable.  (Perhaps another measure of the narrator’s own insecurity.)

So when the narrator is offered a lift in Gressler’s carriage (a rarity in that place and time, we’re told), he happily accepts, but his happiness is short-lived when he sees Hophni coming aboard as a fellow passenger.  Our narrator, now not only irritable from hunger and thirst but further provoked by the presence of Hophni, finally loses it and grabs the reins, causing the horses to panic and overturning the carriage.  (His subsequent fear of being hit by a motorcar must be exaggerated, because if carriages were a rarity, how much more so motorcars.)

Psychologically, this is perfect:  all through the story, the guy is incapable of making up his own mind and choosing a course of action, burdened by his doubts and anxieties.  And when his frustration reaches the boiling point and he finally takes decisive action, it’s a disaster.  I think we’ve all been there.

Two paragraphs near the end of the story – set off by repeated phrases before and after – appear to form a nightmare (or nightmare-within-a-nightmare) sequence.

The narrator, having stayed in the restaurant past closing time without ever getting his food (even the “whole loaf” of the title), finds himself locked inside.  (The lock sounds “like the sound of a nail being hammered into the flesh” – a curious comparison, particularly in a Jewish story.)  He is then paid a visit by a mouse, which he seems powerless to frighten away, as if physically immobilized.  He expresses anxiety that the mouse might soon begin to gnaw on his body; from the anatomical progression envisioned in this scenario, we might suspect that there’s an element of sexual anxiety there as well.  The mouse is then joined by a cat, whom the narrator expects to save him from the mouse.  (We’re not told whether he is re-thinking his opinion of Hophni.)  But the cat and the mouse take no notice of each other, instead gnawing on the bones of the left-over food, and the light in the room fades, leaving only the green glow of the cat’s eyes.  Eventually the narrator wakens to see the cleaning staff and last night’s waiter.  (“I took hold of my bones,” he says, in a final, disquieting echo of the previous night.)

The title of the story calls to mind the baking of bread, an image reinforced by the narrator’s oven-like apartment in the opening scene.  In this reading, the man himself is the “loaf”.  (The analogy of bread to man is not unreasonable, as both are traditionally spoken of as being brought from the earth by G-d.)  But the locked room at the ending of the story – which was published in 1951 – hints at a more recent, and more ominous, use of ovens.

The story itself appears cyclical, with the closing passage almost identical to the beginning.  At the end of the story, the Sabbath has ended, but the post office is still closed and the letter remains undelivered.  The narrator is still alone.  He’s still hungry, thirsty, and very very hot.   And there’s no sign that his physical and spiritual torment is likely to end any time soon.  I think the simplest explanation is that he’s in hell.


Linkage 2020-12-27.

LINKAGE 2020-12-27 VIDEO LINKED TO NASHVILLE BOMBING. Posted to a YouTube account belonging to 'S McG'. There's also an 'S Mc G' (with a space) user account. LIFE NEAR PORTLAND'S OCCUPIED ZONE. "If you wanted them to stop, you had to negotiate with them yourselves." SARAH HOYT: NEXT YEAR IN AMERICA. "All I know is that this Christmas, like wanderers in Egypt, we are far from home. And we must go home again, however long it takes however hard it is. ..."


Linkage 2020-12-15.

LINKAGE 2020-12-15

Austin-based software company SolarWinds, which makes server and network management applications, was the unwitting middleman in a sophisticated attack targeting the US Commerce and Treasury Departments.

Almost 70 percent of ballots processed were marked as errors.

Arizona Senate will issue subpoenas to inspect and audit ballot counting machines in Maricopa County, despite denials from county election officials of any irregularities.

Rates have gone up as much as fourfold.

Graffiti inside antifa's self-proclaimed "autonomous zone" purports to give Andy's address, while cops and DA do nothing.

"Rainbow in the Dark" includes Hebrew as well as English lyrics - at Boy George's insistence.


How do we know what we know?

Why do we believe what we believe? How do we decide what is true, and what is important?

· internal consistency (details of the narrative agree with each other)
· external consistency (details of the narrative agree with information previously verified)
· insider details (information available only to an authentic source)
· dialog and dissent (narrative welcomes questions and challenges; fosters better understanding among divergent opinions)
· awareness of objections (narrative recognizes legitimate counter-arguments and seeks to refute them)
· nuance (recognition that a proposition may hold true in general and still admit of exceptions)
· the human voice (an intangible quality that may include a distinctive personality, awareness of ambivalence, self-analysis and self-criticism)

The internet is anarchical, and therefore makes great demands on the individual user in terms of critical thinking skills. How do we know to trust a site? We compare information from multiple sources, listen to different analyses, learn to weed out irrelevant input and compare the picture with what we know from our own previous experience.

With the traditional media, this is all delegated to the editor, publisher, producer, or university. Often we have to do this, because the material is specialized or technical in nature, or because individual contributors don't have the credibility to reliably provide the information we need.


Originally posted 2004.


Recent posts.

Wasn't that long ago, I made fun of conspiracy nuts. These days, I buy ALCOA wrap according to my hat size. Times change.


Leftists love "states of emergency" because then all normal constraints and expectations are waived. Day-to-day technical and managerial competence is no longer scrutinized because "it's an emergency!" Any kind of action, no matter how ill-advised, can be justified because it's "doing something".


If you take 50 random people off the street, and you want to find out which ones are alcoholics, invite them all into a bar and buy them each ONE drink.  And then watch to see what happens.  Because some people can't stop at just one.

Those 50 people are the 50 state governors.  The COVID-19 crisis gave them their first taste of unchecked, raw, 200-proof power.  And we saw which ones got drunk on it.


The Covid scare campaign (as distinct from the virus itself, which nobody disputes is very real) appeals to a certain strain of vanity: the conviction that "I am among the selfless few, bearing the burden for an ungrateful and ignorant humanity".


The "new normal" needs to be a Big Government that has been de-fanged, de-clawed, and neutered.


The left tells you "don't have a stable family" because they want you to fail.

The left tells you "don't be active in your church or synagogue" because they want you to fail.

The left tells you "don't be on time for work" because they want you to fail.

The left tells you "don't learn history and grammar and mathematics" because they want you to fail.

The left wants to stigmatize and discredit all the things that contribute to success, because they want you to fail.


The key thing about "climate change" is that there is no quantifiable metric and therefore no target for success. If you are targeting actual pollutants, you can work for a compromise.  You can get the enviros and the suits to sit down across from each other at a big mahogany conference table and hammer out a deal that neither side is thrilled with but both sides can live with.  You can say "our goal is < so-and-so many PPM of mercury or lead or SO2" and then either you meet that goal or you don't. But with "climate change" the goal is ever-shifting and is defined by unaccountable authorities.  There is no solution because the problem is not meant to be solved.

Fundamentally it is like masking in that it disaggregates the individual actor from responsibility for individual consequences. Any act is presumed to have potentially infinite negative effects. It's an application of the "butterfly effect" to suit a particular agenda.

So with masking, exactly as with "climate change", you are expected to feel guilty literally for breathing.


There's a deliberate strategy to decouple moral reasoning from the objective, observable consequences of your actions. Global warming, pandemic masks. It's so that your sense of guilt can be properly manipulated.


'Thus the principle of the unity of humanity, so noble in theory, rapidly divides mankind into two camps:  those who are regarded as favoring the good of mankind, in they adopt the empire's categories for determining what is beneficial and right; and those who are regarded as opposing the good of mankind, in that they insist on thinking in terms of the customary categories of the tribe, which the empire invariably condemns as primitive and barbaric.' - Yoram Hazony



Behold their shining liberal utopias.

They were the smart ones, the enlightened ones, the ones with all the answers. They were going to show the way for the rest of us. Their wise governance was to be the model that would inspire emulation across the country and around the world.

So, are we impressed yet?



Fifty governors walk into a bar ...

If you take 50 random people off the street, and you want to find out which ones are alcoholics, invite them all into a bar and buy them each ONE drink. And then watch to see what happens. Because some people can't stop at just one.

Those 50 people are the 50 state governors. The COVID-19 crisis gave them their first taste of unchecked, raw, 200-proof power. And we saw which ones got drunk on it.


Recent posts.

facebook and youtube and twitter are ACTING like they've got something to hide. That's the thing. That's what they don't get. You may or may not have had an opinion about HCQ and C19, you may or may not think Stella Immanuel is a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But when the tech platforms suddenly come marching along in jackboots and disappearing articles and screaming about MISINFORMATION!!!! - they you've got to think something looks suspicious. They are showing with their own actions that there's something there.


A lot of young people and wanna-be young people came to Portland from small towns out of state, and bought into the hipster myth. Their conservative old towns and churches and families weren't cool enough for them. They deserved better. So they set about the task of making over themselves - and the city - into something ever more exciting, exotic, glamorous, and dangerous. And we've seen the result.


My observations about debating. (1) All of us have a filter in our brain, like the spam filter in your email inbox. What looks like junk, gets filtered out. If they are programmed to filter out your message, all the facts and logic in the world will be of no avail. Their thinking will not change until they update their spam filters.

(2) Visibility is the key thing. The left used its influence to exaggerate its own numbers, and to keep conservatives believing they were few and isolated. When this illusion collapses, the left's power to shame disintegrates.

3) At the end of the day, people go by experience. When day-to-day experience conflicts with the accepted narrative strongly enough and consistently enough, the narrative will have to go. People can only watch riots and Bible burnings for so long. At this point, a coherent, articulate alternate narrative will help them make sense of their world, and will be welcomed.

(4) Putting all of these factors together, what's going to win the day is for all of us to keep speaking out, courageously and clearly, and putting the lie to the leftist establishment's castle of illusion.


"Stay home, stay safe." Because if we could come out of hiding, we might learn how many more of us there are. And then their spell of fear would lose its power.


If I convince myself that most people are ignorant bigots, then I get to feel "special" just by not being a bigot.

If I believe the other guy is a nazi, then I only have to be 1 percent better than a nazi to be the good guy.


You put a whole population of law-abiding citizens under indefinite house arrest, sooner or later incarceration is gonna lose its value as a deterrent.



I'm on social media.






Tech censorship.

facebook and youtube and twitter are ACTING like they've got something to hide. That's the thing. That's what they don't get. You may or may not have had an opinion about HCQ and C19, you may or may not think Stella Immanuel is a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But when the tech platforms suddenly come marching along in jackboots and disappearing articles and screaming about MISINFORMATION!!!! - they you've got to think something looks suspicious. They are showing with their own actions that there's something there.


Recent posts.

The riots were never about a police killing, and the lockdowns were never about a virus.

Institutions and their petty rules are the refuge of the emotionally immature and the mentally unstable. They look to bureaucracies for the validation they are unable or unwilling to find in healthy human relationships and community.

The filter. We all have an information filter in our brain that acts like the spam filter in your email program. Its purpose is to filter out junk information so that your processor doesn't get overwhelmed. What looks like junk, gets ignored. It is the reason we screen out noise like the crazy guy ranting on the street corner. And thank G-d it's there, because we wouldn't be able to function without it. But like the spam filter in your inbox, you have to check it once in a while, because its algorithm is not infallible. You have to update your assumptions about what's reliable and what's junk; otherwise you could miss important information.

I don't have a lot of specialized expertise. Instead, I look at what I can observe directly. What I can observe directly is the people in power and their actions; what I can observe directly is the media and their actions.

The left used its influence in culture and social media to inflate its own numbers and to create the illusion that conservatives were few and isolated. They got into trouble when they started to believe their own propaganda. There were never as many of them as they wanted everyone to believe, and their Potemkin village has collapsed like a house of cards. Their tactic of shaming and ostracizing their opponents will backfire: in the end, they will be the lonely ones.

Dismantle systemic leftism.

Your body is made of bones and flesh; a robust system includes a rigid component and a flexible component.

Time is an economic good: a scarce commodity with alternative uses. Use it wisely.

If the hipsters would just stick to the things they do well - brewing craft beer and riding unicycles - it'd be great.

The leftists are destroying their own centers of power. It's almost as if they already know they've lost - like a retreating army burning everything behind it.

Covid doesn't scare me; contact tracing does.

Establish good habits - it's easier than breaking bad ones.

They say history is written by the victors. I say history is written by people who can write.