Decades ago, I visited my closest Israeli friend, who was spending his sabbatical leave in a nearby Boston suburb. Entering his apartment and walking toward the bustle of the living room I noticed a small silent man seated in a corner, alone. As an only child, I felt torn between respecting his evident wish for solitude and easing his discomfort in a room of strangers in a foreign place.
Hesitating, I sat next to him. After a few moments of shared silence, he spoke and I responded. We conversed quietly, until each of us retreated comfortably into our silent selves. Who, I later asked my Israeli friend, was my partner in silence? He answered: Aharon Appelfeld. I wanted to resume our conversation but the opportunity was lost. I have never forgotten our brief encounter.
With astonishing understatement and extraordinary power, Appelfeld would recount the horrors of the Holocaust that he survived as a young boy from Czernowitz (Romania), imprisoned with his father after his mother was murdered. Escaping to flee through forests and across borders, he endured three years of solitary wandering, with occasional respites when he exchanged work for food and board. “I was not myself,” he would write, “but like a small creature that has a burrow” for hiding. His life, until he arrived in Israel, “resembled that of a small animal fleeing from its hunters.”
Decades later in Jerusalem, having forgotten names, places and dates from his traumatic youth, Appelfeld was periodically reminded by rain, cold and wind of the ghetto and forests where he spent days, months and years until the war ended and he became a 14-year-old stranger in the strange land of Israel. By then, he would write in The Story of a Life, he had “lost all the languages he had spoken and was now left without language.” It took decades until memory finally became “a living and effervescent reservoir that animates my being,” bringing him deserved international recognition for the quiet power of his words.
Despite some overlap of family origins (my paternal grandparents also were Romanian immigrants, but half a century earlier and to the United States), Appelfeld and I had nothing in common. But reading A Table for One, his memoir of early life in Jerusalem, I discovered that we had often crossed paths, in places if not in person. His “happiest hours,” he wrote, were in Jerusalem cafés, described as “my lookout, my place of observation: on certain days my refuge.” There he was “best able to concentrate”; and there he did much of his writing.
In his younger years, during the 1950s and 1960s, the cafés he frequented — on Ben Yehuda Street, Jaffa Street and Rehov Karen Kayemet — were, he wrote nostalgically, “a wonderful place to concentrate, without noise, music or crowds.” Describing them as “a port to which all gates of the imagination are open,” he lamented their subsequent transformation into “large, crowded spaces invaded with violent music.” Only in their earlier incarnation, where Appelfeld wrote his novels, did he “feel the freedom of imagination.” Only there, he wrote, “had I returned home.”
Much later, during sabbatical years a decade apart, I savored my own café time in Jerusalem. If cafés were Appelfeld’s “first school for writing,” they became my first school for learning about Israelis and Arabs. Whether on King George or Ben Yehuda Street, or in the Old City, cafés offered an endless flow of intriguing strangers. By then, to be sure, they were not the quiet places that had pleased Appelfeld. My favorite perch was at an outdoor café on Keren Kayemet in Rehavia. There I could enjoy coffee and a sweet roll, watch the flow of school children and shoppers, listen to varieties of spoken Hebrew, and ponder the possibilities of relocating to this enchanting city. For various reasons, despite an offer from the Hebrew University, it never happened.
If cafés were Appelfeld’s “first school for writing,” they became my reliable observation posts in Israel. If the Rehavia neighborhood reminded him of his boyhood home, it offered me a new Jewish world that I inhabited too late to make it my home. But it transformed my life. Like Appelfeld, if in different ways, café visits in Jerusalem encouraged my propensity for “understanding through silence.” In A Table for One he wrote: “I prefer to listen rather than be listened to.” That much we shared. Perhaps that explains my enduring memory of our brief encounter so many years ago.