I can still trace my fascination with Jewish writing to the day I picked up a dog-eared copy of S.Y. Agnon’s Twenty-One Stories at a used bookstore in downtown Toronto. I was eighteen years old and pursuing a career in the theatre, reading Flaubert and Dostoevsky in breaks between rehearsals. I thought that somewhere between French romanticism and Russian despair, I would find clues to a meaningful existence. Though I was born Jewish, I had looked down at my middle-class Jewish background as hopelessly shallow and unsophisticated. But discovering Agnon’s writing turned all those presuppositions on their head. Why hadn’t anyone told me that I could find beauty and wisdom in Jewish literature?
Meanwhile, I was now acting in a new play, this time beside Gilda Radner—she, a rising star, and me, a shy kid trying to get noticed. When the play ended its run, I decided to leave behind the unforgiving lights of the theatre in search of another type of light. I enrolled in a Jewish philosophy class taught by Emil Fackenheim at the University of Toronto. After that I was hooked. I took courses in every Jewish Studies subject I could find that fit into my schedule. Two years later, I transferred to Brandeis University in Boston where I immersed myself in the writings of the great Jewish novelists and poets of the 19th and 20th centuries. But S.Y. Agnon was still my man. He was a master of language, a wellspring of textual knowledge–a writer whose sparkling imagination was as deep and varied as the sea.
In the coming years, I eventually completed a doctorate in Hebrew literature. I wrote my dissertation on (who else?) S.Y. Agnon, eventually publishing it as a book called Not a Simple Story with Lexington Books. Later returning to Canada, I took up a teaching position at the University of Toronto in modern Jewish literature. It was then that I started a new project: translating the poems of Hava Pinhas-Cohen, a contemporary Israel poet whose work I deeply admired. Syracuse University Press subsequently published the collection as Bridging the Divide.
Yet despite my growing academic career, something was missing. As much as I loved being a professor and scholar, an intense desire to compose my own stories stirred inside of me. It was at this point that I tried my hand at writing fiction, and as soon as I started, the words seemed to pour out of me. Before long, I had written the first chapter of what would later become my debut novel Come Back for Me–the story of a young Holocaust survivor who goes to Israel after the war in search of his missing sister. Along the way, he falls in love, struggles with loss, and gets caught up in the tumultuous events of emerging statehood. It is ultimately a story about the redemptive force of Israel in the life of the Jewish people.
After numerous rewrites, the novel was finally finished and eventually acquired by a publisher. It still sometimes surprises me that what started in adolescence with a single collection of stories by the Hebrew writer Agnon has led me to a lifelong engagement with Jewish literature. Although I have left Agnon behind for now, my desire to emulate his example has never waned. Whether I am teaching Jewish literature or creating it myself, I continue to draw from the well of Jewish knowledge, with the rapt awareness that, like Agnon’s imagination, it is as deep and varied as the sea.
Sharon Hart-Green’s debut novel Come Back for Me is a story of trauma, loss, and the redemptive power of love set in the aftermath of World War II. Published in June 2017 by The New Jewish Press, it was chosen as an Editors’ Choice Book by the Historical Novel Society.