Aharon Appelfeld, who didn’t even know Hebrew before his legendary writing career took off in Israel, was the subject of an “intimate” conference at the University of Pennsylvania.
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“You have made this big room into a tiny intimate space.”
Those were the words that Nili Gold, Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Language & Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, told renowned Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld to end a two-day international conference on his life and work in Philadelphia.
Appelfeld—now on the cusp of his 80th birthday—moved to Israel from Ukraine in 1946 as a teenager who didn’t know Hebrew, yet has now became one of the country’s best-known and most popular writers. His work is included on the Bagrut, Israeli high school matriculation exams required for all students.
Gold’s characterization of the way in which Appelfeld detailed his journey with gentle but sharp words can be applied to both his speech at the conference and his writing itself. Appelfeld’s conversation with Gold took place in armchairs at the front of a large auditorium at Penn, making the room feel like a living room with a conversation between two family members. The comparison is apt, as Gold’s mother came from the same town that Appelfeld did, Czernowitz; Appelfeld has taken to calling Gold “bat iri,” which means “the daughter of my town.”
Appelfeld’s work has a similarly “intimate” feel. He creates characters who can be simple yet have powerful feelings and emotions, and even when the lives of the characters are different from the reader’s, he will pull the reader to connect with them.
“Clearly, I was in awe and could not believe that this was actually happening,” Gold told JointMedia News Service, regarding her conversation with Appelfeld in the auditorium. “I was nervous at first, but his calming voice and his long, generous answers mesmerized me as they did everyone else in the audience.”
In an interview with JointMedia News Service, Appelfeld said he likes witnessing how others use his writing as a “mirror” to see themselves in it. He added that he appreciated hearing first-hand at the conference how others perceived his writing.
Co-sponsored by three departments at Penn—the Jewish Studies Program directed by its chair Beth Wenger, the Kelly Writers House, and the Middle East Center—as well as Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, which will house the Appelfeld archive after his death, the Oct. 26-27 conference included scholars from the Middle East, Europe and North America.
The familial tone was set in the opening session, which included a talk by Moshe Idel—who is also from the same region as Appelfeld and whose wife is from Appelfeld’s town—about the religious background of the town.
One of Appelfeld’s former students in a graduate class on Holocaust literature at Yale University, Risa Sodi—Senior Lector II, and Language Program Director in Italian at Yale—came from New Haven to chair a session. Sodi, now an expert on the writing of Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, told JointMedia News Service that Appelfeld “was a strong teacher but an even better listener.” Particularly when teaching his own work, Sodi said that most of the class time Appelfeld listened to the students.
Appelfeld’s modesty and ability to listen carried over into all of the conference’s sessions. In a session where two literature professors, Iris Milner of Tel Aviv University and Yigal Schwartz of Ben-Gurion University, presented papers, the last question evolved into an argument about what happened to the characters in
Appelfeld’s Katerina (Hebrew 1989; English 1992) and whether a character had reached a destination or not. Appelfeld was silent during the public part of the discussion, although another participant in the conference said that at the end, he did go up to one of the participants to explain that the participant’s interpretation was not correct.
The variety of participants and attendees at the conference speaks to the level of interest in Appelfeld from a variety of quarters. Among the presenters were two other creative writers—Leslie Epstein, director of the creative writing program at Boston University and author of 11 novels including King of the Jews (which Appelfeld included on his syllabus in the course with Risa Sodi), as well as Shimon Adaf, author of five novels and two collections of poetry at the age of 39, and a teacher of creative writing at Ben-Gurion University.
Epstein spoke about Beyond Despair (1993), a book which contains aninterview that Philip Roth conducted with Appelfeld, and Adaf spoke about Appelfeld’s “urge and inability to be a Jew,” as well as his use of language. Epstein praised the ability of Appelfeld to write of “certain privileged moments, mostly having to do with contemplating nature and reconnecting to the feeling of wonder that he experienced as a child when under his mother’s loving gaze and in her loving arms.”
There was also a movie screened, All that Remains (1998), about a visit Appelfeld made to his birthplace in search of his mother’s grave. At the end of the movie, he says: “There is nothing there. What is, I have it. That is all that remains, ruach (spirit).”
What do remain are the 40 books Appelfeld has published since his first collection of short stories in 1962. Though Appelfeld seems to have his reputation assured now, that was not always the case.
When his writings on the Holocaust and Europe appeared in Israel in the 1960’s, other Israelis told Appelfeld that he should have been writing about the kibbutzim, the army, and the state—the present, not the past. Yet, in recent years, those who earlier did not see the value of his work have come around.
Avraham Holtz, the Simon H. Fabian Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, told JointMedia News Service that at a conference a few years ago, the late Ezra Fleischer, Hebrew University professor of Hebrew Literature and poet who received the Israel Prize, told attendees that they were honoring Appelfeld’s work because the writer “did not change his name, and he did not change his soul.”
At the same conference, according to Holtz, noted Israeli poet Haim Gouri got up and said, “I apologize” to Appelfeld.
“I am the one who penned all those rejection slips from all those periodicals,” Holtz recalled Gouri saying. “We didn’t know how to read you.”
At Penn, Appelfeld read from his memoir, The Story of a Life (1999), in a “stirring, trance-like, musical performance” of a portion of the book where Appelfeld “attempts to remember himself as a parentless child nonetheless waiting for his parents to find him as a motivation for living on,” said Al Filreis, a professor of English and a member of the Jewish studies program at Penn. Those moments in his reading were “completely powerful,” Filreis said.
Those who wish to experience that same power can still do so by reading “all that remains”—in Appelfeld’s writings.