November 22, 2018

Aharon Appelfeld’s Path to the Hebrew Language

“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.