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  • The Language that was Lost on the Roads: Discovering Hebrew through Yiddish in Aharon Appelfeld’s Fiction
  • Shachar Pinsker (bio)

One of the guiding principles of Chana Kronfeld’s work as a scholar, teacher and translator is the absolute necessity of understanding modern Hebrew literature in its multilingual contexts. This principle is clearly at work in her magnum opus on Hebrew and Yiddish modernist poetry,1 as well as in numerous articles and lectures. In one such lecture, the 2005 keynote address at the conference of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, Kronfeld suggested that “the first Israeli phase of modern Hebrew poetry (known as the “Statehood Generation”) may have been mediated by, indeed partially modeled on…the once-flourishing international Yiddish modernism.”2 She ended the lecture claiming that such “submerged connections can only have stayed invisible all these years because of the blinders, the restricted vision that was imposed by a monolingual pseudo-nativist historiography, where Yiddish and Hebrew literary histories, even when they involve the same trends (haskala) and the same cast of bilingual writers.…We stand to lose a lot if we don’t start reading modern Hebrew literary culture in its multi-lingual articulations.”3

This assertion, while hardly new to anyone familiar with Chana’s work, resonated with me, because I had just begun working (at that point, without knowing about Chana’s work on “Likrat” and Yiddish, but clearly influenced by her writing and teaching) on a research project examining the crucial, yet often submerged role of Yiddish in Israeli-Hebrew writers. One of the writers I am engaged with in this project is Aharon (Erwin) Appelfeld, undoubtedly one of the most well-known Hebrew writers in Israel and around the world. Born in 1932 in the city of Czernowitz (then Cernăuţi, Romania), he survived World War II in concentration camps in Transnistria, and then in the forests of Ukraine. He arrived in Palestine in 1946 as a refugee after spending time in displaced persons’ camps. Appelfeld began his literary and critical activities in the early 1950s, as a poet and critic (his first poems and essays were published in 1952), while a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Appelfeld came out of relative obscurity only later, however, when his first collection of stories, Ashan (Smoke), was put out in 1962 by the small publishing [End Page 129] house Achshav (Now), which was associated with the avant-garde journal of the same name.4

A number of critics have identified in Appelfeld’s stories a clear departure from Hebrew fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s.5 One of the most penetrating early readings of these stories was by Israeli-Yiddish writer Leyb Rokhman. In a review published in the New York Yiddish newspaper Forverts, Rokhman identified Appelfeld as a “new star in Hebrew literature.” Rokhman highlighted the fact that the young writer was the first to write Hebrew stories from the point of view of a refugee and a Holocaust survivor, something that was, as Rokhman hinted, not so unusual in Yiddish literature written in Israel during these years.6 Appelfeld acknowledged his debt to Rokhman more than once, regarding him as a father figure and mentor:

I had some great mentors, but with Rokhman I walked the longest path… Not everything he could give me I was able to take. Nevertheless, my entire awareness came from the days I spent with him...Through his memories, I was able to wander throughout Jewish Poland, spent many days in Mińsk Mazowiecki, Otwock, the [Hasidic] courtyards, as well as in Tłomackie 13 [The Yiddish Writers Union in Warsaw.] In these journeys, I encountered many books and writers that without Rokhman, I would probably never know about.7

Despite this acknowledgement of Rokhman’s crucial role in his life and development, relations between Appelfeld and Yiddish, as well as between Appelfeld’s fiction and Yiddish literary traditions, remain unclear and unexplored.

Linguistically, Appelfeld’s Hebrew fiction sounds to the Israeli ear as though it were inflected with Yiddish and/or German, a fact that added, for better or worse, to the impression of “foreignness” in his stories and novellas...


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