Remembering Aharon Appelfeld
A decade ago my closest Israeli friend, on sabbatical leave and living in the Boston suburb of Brookline, invited me to a gathering of fellow Israelis. Haggai had many friends and by the time I arrived the living room in his small apartment was packed. Since my Hebrew language skills were limited — and true to my upbringing as an only child I avoided noisy crowds — I went directly to the only empty chair to watch and listen.
I sat next to a small, silent Israeli who seemed equally uncomfortable with the bustle and noise. We exchanged a few words before reverting to our protective comfort as quiet spectators. The next day I asked Haggai who my partner in silence had been. He is, he told me, the renowned Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld. I wished that we could have had a longer conversation.
Several years later his book, “A Table For One,” was published. The title alone was sufficient to engage my interest and his opening pages immediately drew me into his penchant for solitude and silence. It was, he revealed, a consequence of his horrific boyhood experiences during World War II. He survived “the hardships of the ghetto” and the murder of his parents before he was sent to a concentration camp as an eight-year old. His escape into the forest, where he spent three years in hiding and “my life resembled that of a small animal fleeing from its hunters,” enabled his survival. He had learned “to be suspicious, to be wary and keep my distance from human beings.”
Curiously, although Appelfeld believed that “silence is preferable to speech,” his writing was done in public places. He described his favorite Jerusalem café as his preferred site for creativity. It was there that he learned how “to live in silence” yet achieve fulfillment as a writer. In a café there could be “a living dialogue … between a man and himself.” Only there did he feel “the freedom of imagination.” He would work from nine in the morning for the next six hours. “If I was lucky,” he wrote, “I might end up with only a single good sentence.”
Appelfeld’s first chosen café was located in the beautiful and quiet neighborhood of Rehavia that I knew well from having lived there during two sabbatical years. It was only there that he could “write steadily for hours on end.” The café became his home. “When I write,” he would explain, “I feel anchored to a time and a place; but when the writing no longer flows, it is as if a cloud descends and my world darkens and narrows.”
“Every few years,” he wrote, “I find myself a corner in a new café.” But, he said, “not every table is advantageous for writing. It’s preferable that you can see from your corner, without being too exposed. If you are exposed, you’ll be seen, you’ll be watched, and eventually you’ll be disturbed.”
He “learned from experience that it is hard to concentrate in a café that is too public, or too brightly lit; far better to be somewhere with the light soft and dim.” It was in one of those quiet corners in a Jerusalem café that I spotted him, decades before our paths converged in Haggai’s home. In Jerusalem as in Brookline he sat alone, watching and listening.
Yet in “A Table for One” Appelfeld recounted his strong attraction to the teeming ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. He saw people whose resemblance to his grandparents was riveting. “Here, and perhaps only here, people speak, pray, and study exactly as they used to in the shtetls and cities in Eastern Europe.” Although I could make no such claim, when I discovered Rehov Averbuch in Mea Shearim I sensed that I, too, might have family ancestors here.
Aharon Appelfeld died in 2018. I will always cherish the memory of my brief moments with him.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of twelve books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019