Israel's last Jewish writer

A conversation with Aharon Appelfeld about his latest book, 'Laish.'

Aharon Appelfeld 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Aharon Appelfeld 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Aharon Appelfeld, one of the most celebrated and respected authors of his generation, has witnessed nearly 100 years of Jewish life. From his grandparents, who were still believers, to his assimilated parents and communist uncles, to his own childhood experiences during the Holocaust and his eventual immigration to British-run Palestine, which soon became the Jewish State of Israel, with the entirety of its relatively short but uniquely rich and complicated history - Appelfeld has not only been a part of these tremendous events and tendencies, he has formed a multifaceted understanding and identity, both absorbing this history and reflecting it through his own writing. "My first identity is European Jewishness," he explains. "I lived happily as a Jew and suffered as a Jew. Jewishness is not something I can get rid of. I am Jewishness - my body, my soul. But I come from a very assimilated home, so my second identity is that of an assimilated Jew. My third identity is that of an Israeli. I've lived here for 64 years. I have three identities - like every modern Jew." The impression persists, as was recently written in Haaretz, that Appelfeld is "the least Israeli of the living Israeli writers" because his "roots are elsewhere" and he "writes not about Israel, but about what came before." For him, this kind of sentiment is built on a misunderstanding. "Every second person in Israel is either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. It's an entire society of immigrants. I represent those immigrants. I write about rootless people. I am the Israeli writer because Israel is a society of immigrants." Appelfeld not only witnessed the creation of a Jewish state, he took part in most aspects of its development - working on a kibbutz, serving in the army (and in the reserves for 30 years), studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, teaching as a literature professor for 35 years. And yet he stresses the difference between his biography and that of sabra writers whose mother tongue is Hebrew and for whom Israel is their only environment. "I'm probably the last Jewish writer, and it's because I was born where I was born, in Eastern Europe. There was still Jewish life. I saw it. I saw the Jews in the Holocaust." His childhood in Bukovina is connected to his parents and grandparents, to the landscape, as well as to his deportation to and escape from a concentration camp in Ukraine - to all kinds of suffering that he experienced during his 13 years in Europe. "You don't have to be a Freudian," he says," to understand that childhood molds your life. All the rest is intellectual." He arrived here at 13 with no parents, no education and no language. As he explains, he brought with him life and terrible experiences. The existential question was how to express these terrible experiences when he could neither read nor write. "Fiction by its very nature means knowledge," he says. "Without words there are no thoughts. Without language your thinking is limited." Before writing, he began by copying out a chapter of the Bible every day. "It was my feeling - perhaps it was not rational - that I should affiliate myself with Jewish letters. Not to understand, but to be close to the language. The rational way is to pick up a good dictionary and learn the language, but this is not the way I did it." THIS CONNECTION to Hebrew is reflected directly in Laish, Appelfeld's most recent novel published in English (released in Hebrew in 2001). The narrator and title character - Laish, a 15-year-old Jewish orphan taken in by a convoy of Jews purporting to be on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem - is constantly torn between different masters who make him work from morning till night for his daily bread, and the old men who spend their days studying Torah and who try to teach Laish not only to read and write, but to develop the practice of studying and praying. "The Hebrew letters fill me with a zest for life," writes Laish once he is able to use the language. "A proper sentence that emerges from my pen makes me happy for the entire day." Later in the book, he reflects: "It is important that I see the Hebrew letters before I go to sleep. Hebrew letters can redeem; they have the power of a heavenly sign that induces pure sleep." But though Laish is rife with references from the Bible, Jewish mysticism, and hassidic teachings and legends (most prominently those of the Ba'al Shem Tov and Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav), there's a difference between these sources and Appelfeld's writing. The issue is especially relevant when we consider his work's fluid translatability, which can be seen thanks to the efforts of Aloma Halter in this novel, but also as far back as Appelfeld's short stories written in the 1950s. "Don't forget that Hebrew became a modern language," asserts Appelfeld by way of explanation. "Modern Hebrew became one of the modern languages. It's not only the vocabulary, but also the way of thinking that is modern. A modern Hebrew writer is sometimes more connected to modern writers than old Jewish sources." What is untranslatable, he adds, is mainly the writers still connected to Jewish sources and books - writers from two generations ago, like S.Y. Agnon and Yosef Haim Brenner, whom he says one can't read without knowing some Talmud and midrashim. But being a modern Jewish writer doesn't mean rejecting this tradition. "The modernism of [Franz] Kafka was that he never gave a divorce to the ancient Jewish sources," says Appelfeld. "He wanted to affiliate himself with them, to know Hebrew and learn Yiddish. Jewish life, education, learning - for Kafka it was an existential matter." INDEED, KAFKA seems to have served as a model for the modern Jew, initiating a literary tradition. "He had all the components of a modern Jew: uprooted from the Jewish tradition and growing up in a half-assimilated Jewish family, yet from the other side with a lot of longing for the real Jews of Eastern Europe." Appelfeld explains that a story like "In the Penal Colony," which was a nightmare for Kafka, was for him a reality. "I came from such a reality," he says. He describes Kafka's "fantasy of the absurd" as "a presentiment," particularly as three Kafka sisters died in either the ghettos or the camps. "There's no question that Kafka understood we are going to hell." In Laish, the force of human wickedness seems both inescapable and inexorable. "For the sake of the elderly we should move faster," says Laish, "but laziness and sheer wickedness hold us back. The old men plead and clench their jaws, but the force of wickedness is stronger than everything." And while its presence remains throughout the novel, Appelfeld says that he doesn't know how to define either wickedness or evil because by nature he is not a moralist. As he puts it, "Moralists have never been my favorites. I never declare, 'He is good, he is bad. You should be like those, or those.' Human beings are good and bad in the same body. We are not angels and we cannot be angels. We are what we are." He says that perhaps this element is a part of his book because during the war a group of Ukrainian criminals adopted him for a year and a half. "Criminals are not something unknown to me." The criminals in Laish, however, are Jewish. They are an integral part of a motley convoy that includes wagon drivers, dealers, cooks, religious elders, women with children, musicians, paupers, invalids. "Common needs bring them together," explains Appelfeld. "The old men cannot be alone, and the criminals also need them. They are a kind of social organism that has everything in it - good, bad, ignorant, stupid, crazy. They cheat each other, love each other, hate each other. It's Jewish life. And all of them are going to Jerusalem. Or at least that's what they say." INDEED, AS the Prut River is a physical and even spiritual setting for the convoy's travels - Appelfeld calls the river a "being" and "almost the main hero" - so the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the convoy's physical and spiritual goal. Appelfeld points out that the commandment to see Jerusalem three times per year - on Pessah, Shavuot and Succot - is a spiritual goal from the Bible. Then Jerusalem became more a of a place for longing after the destruction of the Second Temple. And later mystics, including Yitzhak Luria, came to live in Eretz Yisrael, in either Jerusalem or Safed. "The pilgrimage to Jerusalem is an eternal way," he says. "You should always got to Jerusalem even when you live in Jerusalem. It's very difficult to reach Jerusalem. It means, in other words, to be close to God." This is what makes going to Jerusalem an eternal goal. "This particular convoy of Laish's has a tradition," continues Appelfeld. "It's not something arbitrary - to purify yourself and live a holy life in Jerusalem. But it's a convoy of human beings, with all the flesh and blood, with a lot of weaknesses - hidden and open. Of course there are attempts to overcome those weaknesses - the elderly group, of course, and even the simple people understand they have to purify themselves on their way to Jerusalem - but money and passions are obstacles." But while Appelfeld weaves many themes into his fiction - tradition, weakness, wickedness, purification, faith - he also claims no rabbinical or philosophical authority. "I'm not dealing with abstract questions," he says. "I'm dealing with emotions, thoughts, the stream of life." One motif that arises repeatedly is who and what is a Jew. The book describes many kinds of Jews, and ways of being Jewish. Impious Jews sanction other impious Jews - as one murdering character says, "We may be Jews who have gone bad, but we're still Jews." According to Appelfeld, this has to do with the emphasis in Hassidism on finding the good point in a person. "In a human being there are many, many things. One should emphasize the good. It's dangerous if a man says to himself that he cannot change." He explains that by emphasizing the good in someone, you make him good. "By saying 'You are Jewish,' it means that even if you committed a crime, you still belong to a society with values." Otherwise, he adds, you lose the sinner, who should not be excluded. "He is a sinner, but he is still a human being, and he is still a Jew." ANOTHER IMPORTANT motif is exile, which is a kind of simultaneous burden and relief. As Appelfeld explains, in theological terms we are all in exile, which means we are not living a full life. "We should strive more and more to come to Jerusalem - to the city of God - to be close to God. Otherwise, as human beings, we are in exile by definition." He adds that we have to struggle to take ourselves out of exile. "But we never reach our goal. It's like Kafka's castle - you can be around it, but not inside it." And yet exile is a kind of haven where one can live an impure life without the pressure of the Holy City. The process of purification, which can begin in the Diaspora as well as Jerusalem, involves innumerable preparations, which can become too difficult. Partly because of this, a number of characters in Laish flee the Jerusalem-bound convoy along the way and stay in the Diaspora. "People are afraid," says Appelfeld. "It's too high for them. They prefer to stay where they are and live a sinful life." One character, Reb Pinchas, tries to convince the others that they'll travel to Jerusalem simply to gather strength as they prepare a choir and a trio of musicians, and then "go forth and travel throughout the Diaspora, which is full of darkness and sadness and is in need of a little happiness," and at the end of each tour the group will "return to Jerusalem, until we have saved them all." This attitude comes in part from a kind of exhaustion and despair, which Laish narrates "was rooted in impurity." As Appelfeld explains, the characters have gone through so much, even in their attempts at purification, they can't imagine another preparation. "Reb Pinchas believes that in Jerusalem all the promises are fulfilled, you do not need to purify yourself. But this is a misunderstanding." A THIRD central motif in the book is death, not just in the spiritual sense, but also in constant burial, in laying the dead to rest and the responsibility to give a Jew a proper Jewish burial, in living and dealing with death. As Laish narrates, "As after every funeral... grief was mixed with a selfish satisfaction that we were still alive. I have notices that the barrier between the living and the dead rises quickly. We buried the dead and immediately began to prepare coffee for the mourners. The aroma of the coffee gave us a thirst for strong liquor." Appelfeld says that people become afraid because death is something that brings them to thinking. "Death is not the end of life," he reflects. "A funeral is a kind of preparing for eternity. Therefore when we speak about death, there is a ritual, a funeral. It means life is going on." Though Laish describes the "organism" of a Jewish community and its "stream of life," it is also about a teenage boy faced with different options about how to conduct his life. Still, Appelfeld insists that it is not a sociological book that represents the conflict between the old and young generation. There are many characters, he says, and the question is: With whom is Laish going to affiliate himself? "Most of them live an existential life," he says. "The elderly try to be affiliated to a religion, to understand and give meaning to what's happening to them. They are the only ones. They are constantly reminding [the others] that they live in a world where God exists. It's not a godless world. And they tell them: Behave according to this fact." He adds that the book isn't an idealization of Jewish society. But it shows the conscious and unconscious inside of it. "If you wish, this is a kind of dreamlike convoy, dreamlike stream, it goes on. Sometimes you have a feeling it's going to Jerusalem. But sometimes you feel: Is it going?" This vagueness pervades the book, in which nothing remains one single thing. Everything - from the behavior of characters, to the changes in climate, to the plenitude of the Prut River - is in constant flux, shifting its nature, giving once and taking next time. "For a moment it seems [the members of the convoy] help each other," says Appelfeld, "but then no, they're devoted permanently to themselves." He says that "paradox" is the name of this book. "There are a lot of paradoxes and contradictions, including Judaism." THOUGH THE book does not situate the historical date exactly, we know it is set at the end of the 19th century, falling on the border between ages - as Eastern European Hassidism was already in the process of losing its younger generation to the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), before modern Zionism but already at the advent of communism. Almost the only information we get about Laish's parents is that they were "called communist" - a revelation that leads Laish to speak of redemption through "stand[ing] up for the rights of the weak." Laish doesn't know what communism is, Appelfeld explains, but his intuition gives him the sense that it can redeem human beings, a claim communism did in fact propound. The book also reconnects today's readers with the roots of Hassidism at a time when animosity is rising between haredi and less religious or secular populations, especially in Jerusalem. "[Hassidism] is a wonderful source," says Appelfeld. There is less ritual and more spirituality, he says, and it deals not only with the individual, but with the elevation of the entire community to a spiritual feeling. "[Martin] Buber dealt with it a lot because this was how he connected himself to Judaism," he says. According to Appelfeld, what Hassidism emphasizes all the time is that God is everywhere, even in inanimate objects, but also in every in every individual, and therefore we should treat each person as a creation of God. He adds that the idea isn't totally new, but says that "a modern Jew looking for spirituality will find a lot of interesting sources in Hassidism. It's not a godless society, but a God-ful society, universal." Laish is written in a mesmerizing flow between present and past tense, the changes always smooth and caught between time. Appelfeld explains that writing in the past all the time gives the feeling of a historical novel, something the book is not and doesn't pretend to be. "You see immediately when a writer is writing with historical details - his fiction is bad. Fiction is never history. War and Peace is not history, Dead Souls is also not history. Fiction by its very nature has the mask of the past, but it's never past. Fiction is always the present." The story makes no attempt at being realistic. "It's not history, it's not memoir, it's not reconstruction of an event. It's a mythological convoy." Another of the book's methods is repetition and reiteration. Each time the old men are awakened by Laish for morning prayers and afterward brought black coffee by him - something that happens repeatedly - it is an event both familiar and new. Characters change, then revert to their old selves, then change again. The wagon drivers spend their nights in debauch, until the convoy falls ill and they care for the sick, but even before everyone is well, they return to their drinking. People abandon the convoy and return, only to make another escape. APPELFELD SAYS that Laish, like his other novels, is part of a saga covering 100 years of Jewish loneliness. Though each novel is a complete work, no novel is completely autonomous, each is a chapter in this saga and is associated with the before and after. "Every writer has very limited subjects," explains Appelfeld. "Mainly the painful subjects." He says that a writer doesn't write a different subject every two years, that only the bad writers write about everything, know everything, give advice about everything. "Think about Kafka. He has one subject: father and authority. Think about Dostoyevsky: the decadence of the Russian intelligentsia, all their illnesses." Appelfeld maintains that good writers are limited to a biographical pain. "Actually, every writer has one major theme. The question at the end of the day is: How deep was it? How deep was his digging?"