October 22, 2018

Aharon Appelfeld’s Path to the Hebrew Language

Photo from Wikipedia.

“From the moment I arrived in Israel, I hated the people who forced me to speak Hebrew,” wrote Aharon Appelfeld in his memoir, “The Story of a Life.” Appelfeld’s mother tongue was German. “The effort to preserve my mother tongue amid surroundings that imposed another language upon me proved futile,” he said. “My mother and her language were one and the same. Now, as that language has faded within me, it was as if my mother (killed early in World War II) were dying a second time.”

As I contemplated composing a literary tribute to the great author Aharon Appelfeld, who passed away on Jan. 4 at the age of 85 (born Feb. 2, 1932), there were many angles I could take. His traumatic experiences as a child during the Holocaust, his coming of age into a newly born Jewish state, his journey toward becoming a writer, even his deep love for Jerusalem’s cafes (to which he devoted an entire book), all could serve as captivating themes.

But what fascinates me most about Appelfeld is that he wrote in Hebrew. Every time I read an Appelfeld novel in the original, I recall that for him, Hebrew was not “the original” until his teenage years. As a “refugee from World War II” (that’s what he called “Holocaust survivors”) and as a new immigrant in the emerging State of Israel in 1946, Appelfeld struggled to learn Hebrew. He read the current modern Hebrew literature of his day. But his struggles were more than linguistic. “Every page was a hurdle for me,” he said. “And yet I read voraciously, as if trying to familiarize myself with the strange country into which I had been thrown.” As much as he tried, Appelfeld could not connect to the characters of this new Hebrew literature, “soldiers or officers or farmers in the open fields.”

Conflicts between his German mother tongue and Hebrew are best understood through Erwin, the protagonist of his novel “The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping.” Like Appelfeld, Erwin is a “refugee from World War II” who immigrates to Palestine. Once there, Erwin is inducted into the classic Zionist lifestyle, tending the land on a kibbutz and performing guard duty. In an exchange of fire with snipers, Erwin is injured. During his recovery, Erwin spends hours reconstructing his past in his mind, all the while setting out to teach himself proper Hebrew. Eventually, he decides to become a writer.

In his 43 Hebrew books, Appelfeld sent a message that Hebrew is an ancient language that cannot be divorced from its past.

Erwin’s decision to write in Hebrew — a lens on Appelfeld’s decision — represented a plot twist in Zionism’s narrative. While Zionism prided itself on reviving the Hebrew language as part of its “negation of the Diaspora,” both Erwin and Appelfeld chose Hebrew as the language through which they would spend their lives exclusively devoted to recounting their experiences in the Diaspora.

Appelfeld’s literary journey would blossom when he learned that most modern Hebrew writers were bilingual. “This was a sensational discovery for me,” he said. “It meant that the ‘here’ and the ‘there’ were not cut off from each other, as the slogans proclaimed.” Appelfeld began to read writers such as Mendele Mocher Sefarim, Bialik and Agnon, all prolific in both Hebrew and Yiddish. “Their Hebrew was connected to places with which I was familiar, to landscapes I remembered, and to forgotten melodies that came to me from my grandparents’ prayers,” he said.

In his 43 Hebrew books, Appelfeld sent a message to Zionism, to his peers, and to his readers that Hebrew is an ancient language that cannot be divorced from its past. Quite an impressive feat for someone who once hated those who forced him to speak Hebrew.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

From dark deprecation to ‘Suddenly, Love’

Back in 1988, no less august an observer than Philip Roth described the authorial voice of esteemed Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld as one “that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory, and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history.” Anglophone readers — whether new to Appelfeld or among his longtime fans — may now experience this singular voice in “Suddenly, Love” (Schocken Books, $25), Jeffrey M. Green’s translation of the novel published in 2003 as “Pitom Ahavah.”

“Suddenly, Love” essentially traces the (re)awakening of memory and spirit of its protagonist, Ernst, a native of Czernowitz, Appelfeld’s own birthplace (then a Romanian city, Czernowitz is now part of western Ukraine). But whereas Appelfeld, born in 1932, encountered the Holocaust as a child, the somewhat older Ernst was already a married young father when his wife, daughter and parents were murdered. Ernst likely owes his survival at least in part to the fact that, as an adolescent, he became a communist and was serving in the Red Army when his family members were deported.

When the novel opens, Ernst is a divorced septuagenarian living alone in Jerusalem, retired from an investment company, spending his hours writing. He shares portions of what he writes with his caregiver, Irena, who finds it mystifying that he never mentions his parents or grandparents. Irena, who was born to Holocaust survivors in a German displaced persons camp, is an only child whose deceased parents remain “always with [her].” Indeed, the quiet, solitary Irena seems to exist in a world of her making, a world constructed around the family history and Jewish traditions transmitted by her parents.

For Ernst, heretofore prone to depression, not even serious physical injury or illness can compete with “Irena’s presence, her closeness,” which “opens corridors for him to worlds he never knew. Or if he knew of them, he was blind to them. He had never imagined such love.” Under this influence, Ernst becomes able to immerse himself in what he had resisted remembering, including childhood summers spent with his religious grandparents in the Carpathians — and the ugly anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of his communist past.

The latter strand makes it difficult to resist quoting again from Roth’s 1988 exchange with Appelfeld, in which the Israeli author revealed: “What has preoccupied me, and continues to perturb me, is this anti-Semitism directed at oneself, an ancient Jewish ailment which, in modern times, has taken on various guises. … It took me years to draw close to the Jew within me. I had to get rid of many prejudices within me and to meet many Jews in order to find myself in them.”

In general, one must be cautious, to say the least, when inferring that a fictional character mirrors his creator. But Appelfeld himself has remarked more than once on his practice of weaving his tales from life experience. To Roth, for example, he described his own return, in the emotional sense, “to the region where I was born and where my parents’ home stood. That is my spiritual history, and it is from there that I spin the threads. Artistically speaking, settling back there has given me an anchorage and a perspective.” As it does for Ernst.

It is equally tempting to attribute to Appelfeld the ideas about writing embedded within this novel. At one point, for instance, Irena notices: “Ernst doesn’t tell a story all at once. First, he prepares the heart, traces the framework, and gradually brings the images into it.” Later, as he finds his true subjects and rhythm, Ernst realizes “that extended descriptions were no longer necessary. He mercilessly uprooted words that didn’t further the action of the story. The details emerged selectively, without superfluousness, only what was most needed.” Such characterizations apply not only to Ernst’s writing, but also to his creator’s.

At the end of this spare, slender novel, both Ernst’s and Irena’s lives have been transformed. It isn’t far-fetched to suggest that, in some subtle way, the reader has been changed, too.


Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories” (Last Light Studio). Visit her online aterikadreifus.com and find her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets “about things bookish and/or Jewish.”