My wife Beth and I live in Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel. Many English speakers may be more familiar with the spelling Beersheba. It is the place in Israel where the patriarch Abraham lived. Every morning as part of the Morning Prayer, I read the story of the binding of Isaac. The story is from the bible book of Genesis, Chapter 22, verses 1-19. In the JPS Bible (1917 version), the last sentence reads, “So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.” When Beth and I were saying goodbye to one of our friends in Philadelphia before moving to Israel, the man asked us where we planned to live in the land of Israel. I said, “In Be’er Sheva, my father owns a well there.” At first, our friend looked surprised; then he laughed.
From time to time, Beth and I will hear, coming from the lane that runs by the front of our house, the cry “alte zaken.” It is a Yiddish phrase that means “old things.” In Yiddish, it is written “אַלט זאכן” and, like Hebrew, is read from right to left. Sometimes, the phrase is merely said; at other times, it is sung in a kind of lilt that reminds one of the way in which Talmud students often sing the text they are learning.
The phrase is used by junk dealers and is shouted while walking through a neighborhood to alert residents that, if they have something old that they want to throw away, a dealer is available just outside their house. Recently, we heard the cry outside our home, and Beth, who wanted to get the man’s contact information for a friend of hers, went out to meet him. The man’s name was Walid. The name is an Arabic name and means “newborn.” The junk dealer is not Jewish.
During our recent trip to Poland, Beth and I heard three languages; Yiddish was not one of them. The languages were Polish, English, and Hebrew. We spent our one Sabbath in Poland in Kraków. At the Friday evening service in the Isaac Synagogue, Rabbi Eliezer Gurary gave his talk in modern Hebrew. Most of the attendees were from Israel. It goes without saying that, after the Shoah, to be able to go to a synagogue in Poland on the Sabbath and to hear a sermon delivered in Hebrew is a miracle. But for me, at least, it also brings sadness, grief almost beyond my ability to bear it. Let me explain.
In 1998, I had the good fortune to meet the late Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld. He was giving a talk at a JCC In Philadelphia, and signing copies of what was his latest book, at the time, The Iron Tracks. I went to hear him speak, as well as to ask him to autograph my copy of his new book. During his talk, Mr. Appelfeld spoke about his decision to write in Hebrew. He could have written in any one of several languages: German, Ukrainian, Romanian, Russian, English, or Italian. Aharon Appelfeld could also have written in Yiddish, but he didn’t. He chose Hebrew, a language he learned only after moving to Israel as a teenager. Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor, said that he felt he had made the right decision. The vast majority of Yiddish speakers, he reminded us, had died in the Shoah.
Ann Parson, in an interview she conducted with Appelfeld in the December 1982 issue of the Boston Review, quotes him, concerning his decision to write in Hebrew, and not in German, as follows:
You see, it would be not only a paradox, it would be tragic, to write in the language of the murderers. Just to think about it is enough to stop it. I suffered as a Jew and I was trying to find my roots. My family were Jews, the history and culture of the Jews–naturally it brought me to Hebrew, the main Jewish language, from the Bible.
But there is another side to tell concerning Appelfeld’s relationship to German. In his book, My Promised Land, Ari Shavit, writes of the loneliness that Appelfeld, who was born in Bukovina, felt in his early days in Israel, of his uneasiness with the melting-pot ideology of the time, and of his longing to find a home.
The one place Appelfeld felt at ease was in Café Peter in Jerusalem’s verdant German colony. Here people spoke the Austro-Hungarian German of his childhood and served the Austro-Hungarian dishes of home. At the elegant tables sat elegant ladies who resembled his mother. Here there was no melting-pot edict. Here he could remember his mother and long for her. He imagined that though murdered, she would somehow return.¹
When I took my book to Mr. Appelfeld for him to sign it, he was seated at a table. I handed him my copy of his book. He looked up at me with what I have to say are, without doubt, the two saddest eyes I have ever seen in my life–deep, dark, pools. Then he spoke to me. In Yiddish.
The nearly unbearable grief I felt at not hearing Yiddish in Poland was reflected in Mr. Appelfeld’s eyes when I said to him, in English, “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Yiddish.”
¹Ari Shavit, My Promised Land (Spiegel & Grau: New York, 2013), p. 155.