Aharon Appelfeld. Image: kellywritershouse/flickr

Aharon Appelfeld, the Israeli novelist, died last week at 85. He taught me Hebrew in Jerusalem when I was 20 and he, 30. We studied a novel by Nobel Laureate, S.Y. Agnon: (Bilvav Yamim) In the Heart of Seas. It told the tale of pious Jews journeying to the Holy Land centuries ago. It was a simple story, simply told, perfect for young learners.

It also suited Aharon, though he didn’t mention that. When he was nine, fascist troops occupied his Romanian hometown and murdered his mother. He and his father entered a concentration camp; he escaped alone. For three years he wandered as a “feral” child, tending sheep, joining robber bands, being sheltered by a prostitute.

Then he encountered the Soviet army and became a cook. At war’s end he made his way to Italy, then Palestine, joined the army, learned Hebrew, began writing. Years later he found his father, also in Palestine. Jews on journeys that they don’t comprehend are a leitmotif of his novels.

He wasn’t hardened, he was infinitely gentle, like those simple souls in the book. I’d encounter him as I explored older parts of the city, after class. Yisrael, he’d call to me, from the wide windows of cafés, where he wrote.

He seemed to pervade the city, discovering what others didn’t. He said he’d seen me dancing through the streets on the giddy festival of Simhat Torah, after bursting from the Rav Kook synagogue. You had true hitlahavut, he said. It’s a term for religious fervour, literally “enflamedness.”

He wasn’t a traditional believer. He said (years later) that some Holocaust survivors turned, paradoxically, to orthodoxy, trying to make sense of their horrors. He couldn’t but he wished to understand. Maybe he was intrigued by a young Canadian who searched out forms of Jewish religiosity without those motives.

He wrote dozens of books, mostly novels. (He also appears in Philip Roth’s novel, Operation Shylock, as a character named Aharon Appelfeld.) Unlike others who wrote about Israelis, he portrayed mainly European Jews and their lost world. I used to think it was nostalgia, or an urge to commemorate. But that wasn’t all. He wanted to understand what had happened and for that it was necessary to return to the source of those mysteries and riddles: Europe. He revisited it compulsively because the answers were hidden there. He said reality didn’t have to explain itself; it just was. But in fiction you need to find causes.

We met again in the 1990s, at Toronto’s Harbourfront festival. He wanted to buy gifts for his family so we went to The Bay. He looked around and asked, “Is there a basement?” There wasn’t so I took him to Tip Top Tailors on Spadina. It was perfect. When we finished he said, “Now I would like to go where I can see Jewish people.” So we crossed College St. to The Bagel.

Like him, the request wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. He’d grown up in an assimilated family; being Jewish wasn’t central. Yet his Jewishness determined his and their fates. Ever after, he sought to understand what Jewishness meant, and what it required of him and others.

At The Bagel, we talked about writing. I said that after I was his student, I’d considered moving to Israel and writing in Hebrew. He nodded empathically and said, “When I sit down to write, I feel I am sitting at the top of a mountain of Hebrew books 50 miles high.” I said I understood that. What I didn’t understand was why I’d chosen to be a Canadian writer instead.

He said, “Oh I understand.” I begged him to explain. “In the modern world,” he said, “every choice to be Jewish is a paradoxical choice.”

That’s all he said but I understood instantly. In my case, what had drawn me to Jewishness was its marginality, even a sense of scandal in it. But in my lifetime, Jewishness had gone “mainstream” (like Roth). Canadian though — was still marginal. Being a Canadian writer was somehow my way of retaining what I understood as Jewish.

He was kind, bold, accepting, and unflinching. He embraced everything that being Jewish could possibly mean — or at least reached toward it. How do you come to be that way after undergoing what he had? Fortunately, it was his real life, so you don’t need an explanation. He just was.

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star

Image: kellywritershouse/flickr

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.