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Penn to Celebrate 'Quintessential' Israeli Author

October 18, 2011 By:
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Aharon Appelfeld (Photo by Frédéric Brenner)

 

"He's a firsthand witness -- and a very sensitive and able one," she said.
 
Gold, who has written an acclaimed biography of the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, has a special connection to Appelfeld, who has long been considered one of the significant chroniclers of the Holocaust experience.
 
Not only does she know him personally, but her mother came from the novelist's hometown of Czernowitz in Bukovina, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now part of Ukraine.
 
"When we were first introduced many years ago, and Appelfeld heard about my mother," said the Israeli-born Gold, "from that time on, he called me 'bat iri,' 'the daughter of my town.' But I said, 'Appelfeld, I've never been in Czernowitz.' He said it doesn't matter."
 
The conference is being co-sponsored by Ben-Gurion University, where Appelfeld teaches, and the Jewish Studies program at Penn, among other university entities. Subjects such as Bukovina's Chasidic past, the novelist's connection to cinematic Holocaust testimonies and who owns the Jewish story (Jew or Gentile?) will be examined by such academic heavyweights as Moshe Idel of Hebrew University, novelist Leslie Epstein, Yale University's Millicent Marcus and Penn's own Beth Wenger and David Ruderman.
 
In addition, Appelfeld will be giving a reading at the Kelly Writers House on campus (invitation-only), and Gold will interview the novelist to close the festivities. (For more information on the conference, contact Chrissy Walsh at chwalsh@sas.upenn.edu or call 215-898-6654.)
 
In Gold's view, the author's work has evolved in a "remarkable" way. "If you read his early stuff and his later work, it's like a different writer."
 
For example, said Gold, even though Appelfeld has often been called by critics the most European of Israeli writers, a recent novel called The Skin and the Gown, which has yet to be translated into English, takes place in Israel, not somewhere in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, as is usually the case with his work.
 
An even newer book, also yet to be translated, deals with an Israeli child of survivors. "This man's parents have distanced themselves from the old world, but after they die, the child goes to Europe in search of that world and of himself."
 
This connection between Israel and Europe in Appelfeld's work is something completely new, said Gold.
 
"Israelis were first so busy creating their identity separate from the European past that that aspect became known or accepted in the world," she said. "But I would say now that the Israelis are becoming more like Appelfeld. If he was the only one in the 1960s who spoke about Europe, I would dare say that [Amos] Oz is becoming more European, especially if you read A Tale of Love and Darkness," she said, referring to Oz's memoir. "He spends a lot of time and energy telling you that, 'Yeah, maybe I was born here but I grew up among Europeans.' " This element did not exist before in Hebrew literature, added Gold.
 
She said that even Amichai, "who was someone who tried to convince people that he was the quintessential Israeli -- even Amichai near the end became more gemütlichkeit," she said, using the Yiddish for "accepting."
 
"His wife could kill me for saying such a thing, but it happened."
 
Asked what she hopes conference attendees might learn about Appelfeld, Gold said that they should understand that he is, first and foremost, an Israeli author.
 
He also depicts "a different kind of Israel," she said. "I think Americans -- Jews and non-Jews -- are into the image of the macho, Mossad kind of Israeli, but I want them to know that Israel is made up of pieces and fragments. Israeli novelist Amir Gutfreund has called the Holocaust the big bang, which created these fragments that were splattered all over. And we Israelis are some of those fragments.
 
"Now, these fragments belong in Israel but they have this terrible past. Oz once said that there are more nightmares within a square mile in Israel than anywhere else."
 
With this in mind, Gold said, she wants those who come to the conference "to have a more forgiving view of Israel, maybe to understand a little bit about what makes up this psyche that is not at all this aggressive, male, domineering Israel."
 
Gold added that she would like people to see Appelfeld "as an artist of universal dimensions. Yes, he's an Israeli author who writes in Hebrew, but I think his writing is relevant to humankind.
 
"His works are specifically Jewish and specifically Holocaust-related, but if you read them, you understand just what the human mind -- the human psyche -- is capable of: not only evil and good but the strength of the human spirit. And also that someone can survive all that evil and still become an artist."
 
 

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