Aharon Appelfeld’s Jewish Values and His Literary Style

Jan. 19 2018

On January 4, the acclaimed Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld died at the age of eighty-five. Jeffrey M. Green, who translated several of Appelfeld’s works into English, reflects on the man and his work.

Many of Aharon’s characters are assimilated Jews of his parents’ generation who are unable to draw upon their Jewish roots but also unable to live comfortably in the Gentile world. Ironically (and Aharon was a master of irony), these people are often linked to their Judaism by Gentile women, servants in Jewish homes who have imbibed Jewish values. For Aharon, Jewish values are synonymous with human values. The only thoroughly Jewish characters in his fictional world are those of his grandparents’ generation, the pious parents of the confused assimilated Jews, observant old people living in villages high in the Carpathians, surrounded by forests, close to God and to nature, at peace with their Gentile neighbors, and silent. These mountain Jews no longer exist, and only through Aharon’s visions of them can we know them. . . .

His style is deceptively simple, and one must read him very closely to avoid overlooking its special flavor. He wrote short sentences and avoided unusual words. His Hebrew almost never resonates with biblical or rabbinical overtones. The only way in which his style might be called biblical is in its sparseness. He scrupulously avoided writing superfluous words. . . .

He was [also] a devoted husband and father, a man who lived in contemporary Israel, who traveled to Europe and the United States, and who had political opinions, none of which appear directly in his work. Shallow critics reproached him for that. He dismissed such criticism with impatient annoyance and continued to write exactly the way he wanted to write. As he said to me more than once, people who want literature to be journalism simply don’t understand what literature is.

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More about: Aharon Appelfeld, Arts & Culture, Hebrew literature, Israeli literature

 

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays