Cafe Talk: Aharon Appelfeld on Finding Peace Amid the Violence

By F.M. Black

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — Undeterred by the almost nonstop suicide bombings in Israel, Aharon Appelfeld, the acclaimed novelist, refuses to abandon a long-held, central part of his daily life as a writer: the cafe. “Why should I be afraid? All these years I’ve sat in cafes and worked — that’s my love,” Appelfeld told the Forward in late May. “You’re alone and with people at the same time. It’s my fate to sit here.”

Most cafes in Israel are having difficulty staying open. Between the spike in attacks on cafes and restaurants during the intifada and the economic downturn, according to the Israel Restaurateurs Association, some 1,000 Israeli restaurants and cafes have closed during the last two years.

Although the prolific Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor, rarely writes about the turbulent political realities and tensions of daily Israeli life, he spoke about them with the Forward at Beit Ticho. It is one of the few places left, he said, that remind him of the elegant cafes of his childhood near the small city of Czernowitz, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now in Ukraine.

In his 2001 memoir, “It Is Yet High Day: Jerusalem, the Memory and the Light,” Appelfeld wrote, in Hebrew: “A café is a port from which all of the gates of the imagination are open…. You sail to distant lands, reconnect with people that you loved, return and then begin it all again.”

“Only in cafés in Jerusalem,” he continued, “do I feel the freedom of the imagination — this is my point of departure.”

As a safety precaution, guards have been posted at Beit Ticho’s entrance. They search the bags of incoming customers and remain on the lookout for prospective suicide bombers. “It’s impossible to think that you can’t get on a bus or go to a cafe,” he said. “If that’s how you’re going to live, then they’ve already won, and you’ll go crazy.”

Beit Ticho — which is operated by the Israel Museum — is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Jaffa Road’s business district, providing its patrons with a tranquil retreat. For Appelfeld, it is both a refuge and an observation point, a place where he can participate in city life yet be divorced from it. Here, he said, he can socialize with friends, get lost in a reverie about people long gone or simply write.

Appelfeld usually arrives at 10 a.m., when the cafe opens, and often stays through lunchtime; it was already late afternoon, however, when he met there with the Forward. A short, compact man, Appelfeld wore a blue cap and a black- and blue-checked jacket with a thin lapel. His wire-rimmed glasses framed his round face, and his warm smile betrayed an affable yet guarded, intense nature.

In 1946 Appelfeld, then 14, immigrated to Israel and, after studying Hebrew for years, began to write in his adopted tongue — in his adoptive land — to try to recapture his truncated childhood. “Actually,” he said, “more than 80% of my writing is not about my real home in Israel but my last home: to bring back my mother, to bring back my father, to bring back my home, the landscape, my grandparents and friends. All this was lost.”

Appelfeld emerged from relative literary obscurity in 1980 with the English translation of “Badenheim 1939,” a novel about the transformation of an Austrian resort for Jews into a staging area for their “relocation” to Poland. As in much of his work, he avoided detailing the horrors of the Holocaust, which haunts his characters. In his books the Shoah often acquires a dual symbolism, representing both the bestiality of individuals and the opportunity for his characters to reconnect with their religious roots.

Winner of the 1999 Jewish Book Award, among numerous other awards, Appelfeld has written nearly 40 books, primarily novels, about the life of European Jews both before and after the Holocaust. One of the most widely translated authors in Israel, he has taught at Harvard and Yale and is a professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“His work often reads like a realistic folk tale,” said Yigal Schwartz, director of the International Research Center for Jewish and Israeli Literature at Ben-Gurion University and author of “Aharon Appelfeld: From Individual Lament to Tribal Eternity” (University of New England, 2001).

It is clear when he speaks that Appelfeld is affected deeply by Israel’s seemingly ever-present political turmoil. He lives just outside of Jerusalem and tunes in to the news three or four times a day. It’s hard for him to believe, he said, but more than 55 years of his life have been spent in Israel.

“Sometimes you feel protected here, and other times it is as if you were back in an armed ghetto in Europe” he added, “except that now the war is being fought against Palestinians.”

“We have been hated here the way we have been hated in Europe,” he said, shaking his head. “Even with the Arab nations that we have made peace, it is a very cold peace.”

Nevertheless, he said, he tries not to let fear keep him from coming to his favorite downtown haunt. It remains one of the few places where he is able to find refuge from the waves of violence eddying around him. He has patronized and written in cafes his entire life. It’s not something that he is prepared to relinquish, even under the most trying of circumstances.

“If I let it affect me too much on a daily basis,” he said, “I cannot write. Writing for me is penetrating a level of your soul, having contact with your past. I have to work as a writer every day.”

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