“Laish” by Aharon Appelfeld

It might seem that Aharon Appelfeld’s novels are mystical. Yet, with the enchanting characters – whose blindness, deafness, muteness, psychic unrest, vulnerabilities of age, and moral defects serve to “exaggerate purposely, to make things visible” (as a character says in a different one of his novels) – there is the splendorous reality of the human condition on full display.

In Laish, an eclectic caravan of Jews is wandering through European forests on a pilgrimage toward Jerusalem. Highly imaginative in style, it might not have required as much imagination as it seems for Appelfeld who, after escaping a concentration camp, wandered forests for two years, among other twists and turns in his life, before eventually emigrating to Palestine in 1946.

Appelfeld says in his memoir, Table for One, that all writing is from experience, just not in the order that it took place. It is quite moving to get to know him and his experiences through his novels that cannot help but be imbued with biographical insight. I am now convinced that this is why Appelfeld has captivated me so much, and why I hope to read everything he’s written.

Back to this novel… Laish is a fifteen-year-old orphan boy who accompanies the peculiar cast of characters on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These Jews have a lot of defects; they lose their temper, they kill, they steal, they are stingy, they refuse to give charity, they are lazy, they get drunk, they go to prostitutes, they are fearful.

But nevertheless, what makes them undeniably endearing characters is drawn out in every connection the misfits have to their Judaism: in their morning and evening prayers, in finding some merit in sickness, in Hebrew letters that fill a person with zest for life, in the things done for the sake of the elderly, in deep attentiveness to the Torah, in the keeping of God always before them, in fasting on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, in their attitude that it’s forbidden to be ungrateful, in the conviction that a life without prayer is meaningless, and in their sense that there are things for whose sake life is worth living,

As one character puts it, “We may be Jews who’ve gone bad, but we’re all still Jews.”

To get a sense of the novel, here’s one passage that particularly struck me:

It was already night. We settled the wagons not far from the graveyard. People lit bonfires and prepared coffee. As after every funeral, this time, too, grief was mixed with a selfish satisfaction that we were still alive. I have noticed that the barrier between the living and the dead rises quickly. We buried the dead and immediately began to prepare coffee for the mourners. The aroma of the coffee gave us a thirst for strong liquor.

The caravan is destined for Jerusalem, which holds a paramount allure. One character says that an hour in Jerusalem will be worth seven years where they came from. All their hope and longing is bound up in the idea and the destination of Jerusalem. But, as Appelfeld artfully shows, the truest destination is less a place to covet and more a certain way of being a wanderer.

And so the novel works on you with all of its touchstones of familiarity, moments of reverence, and instances where the protagonist simply notes with awe-filled appreciation, “I am moved.”

The question that lingers: Can the people become worthy of their pilgrimage?

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