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Gefen Bar-On Santor

The sniffer and the bread-giver

Source: iStock; Stephen Barnes
Source: iStock; Stephen Barnes

I would like to share one of my favorite quotes from the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018) and explain why I find it meaningful.

Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Bukovina, now in Ukraine.  When he was nine years old, Appelfeld’s life was disrupted by the Holocaust.  Escaping from a labour camp, he fended for himself in the forest and sheltered with people in the countryside.  In 1946, he came to the British Mandate of Palestine, and ultimately became one of Israel’s greatest fiction writers—with the Holocaust being the focus of his work.

Appelfeld’s mother tongue was German, and he learned Hebrew only as a teenager.  The severe disruption of his life during the Holocaust means that his formal education was a far cry from what it could have been.  These rough and fractured circumstances made Appelfeld vulnerable to snobbery as he was working to become a Hebrew writer.

In Story of a Life, Appelfeld writes about some of the struggles of his creative journey:

“I felt that, were I to cast in my lot with the scholars, they would open the doors to the Temple of Literature. . . and that their approval would ensure that my path would be strewn with roses. I eventually learned that they were incapable of friendship; they were much too occupied with themselves, with maintaining their own status and honing their own words, to be able to give something to anyone else. Now, when I try to remember what D. said to me, I can recall only the flow of his mumblings; everything is abstract, and no one clear picture emerges. The fate of abstractions is that they grab you for a moment and then evaporate. Only words that create pictures can be retained. The rest is chaff. It took me years to understand this, to free myself from the false power of the sneering smile. It took me years to return to the embrace of my loyal, good friends, who knew that a person is no more than a bundle of weaknesses and fears, and that there’s no need to add to them. If they know the right word to say, they hold it out to you like a slice of bread during a war. And if they don’t, they sit beside you in silence.” (p. 158)

Reflecting on this quote over time has helped me to form two concepts of human behavior that I like to keep in mind—even though abstraction is by nature simplistic.

These concepts are the sniffers vs. the bread-givers.

The term “sniffer” materialized in my mind after a conversation I once had in which a person chatted with me and asked me questions that seemed directed toward mapping my status (spoiler alert—I am at the hard-working bottom of the academic hierarchy)—and I got the feeling that I was being sniffed rather than engaged with for what the human interaction could offer.

Sometimes we indeed sniff each other for signifiers of status (position, real estate, etc.) that we consider to be desirable. And if people who sniff you do not smell what they are looking for, you will be discarded during their journey up the slippery pole or their retreat into their comfort zone.

The signifiers are not necessarily ones of status. They may be signifiers of “normalcy,” of attractiveness, of good chemistry, and so on.  The sniffer who rejects quickly and moves on when they do not find what they are looking for may cause some sadness or emptiness—but they are ultimately an honest person.  In a sense, we all engage in “sniffing” as we try to live meaningful lives and surround ourselves with compatible people.  This kind of sniffing is unavoidable, given our mortality and limited time and resources.

But there is also the sniffer who seeks not to find compatibility but to figure out whether you might be available for exploitation—of your labour, of your resources, of your good will, of your emotions.  In the hands of such a sniffer, you will be used as long as you are of value—but ultimately discarded if you challenge them, disobey them or do not provide the labour or satisfaction that their sense of entitlement inclines them to expect.

In this often confusing human landscape, who are the bread givers?  Where are those who see you as a fellow passenger rather than a potential opportunity? And how do we find the bread givers in a world in which some of those who sniff for exploitation sense your eagerness and may misleadingly appear as bread givers?

Sometimes, the bread-giver brings you soup when you are sick.  They can enrich your life with material beauty and comfort—but their essence is not material in terms of what they give or what they expect.  Rather, they respect your liberty, as well as their own liberty, while seeking interconnectedness.  They are willing to listen and would like to be listened to without an agenda beyond the human need to not be alone, to give and to receive—without a “what can I get out of this?” extractive appetite, without cultivating the fantasy that you are an ATM machine and that when they enter the right code cash will come out.  They give you conservative and cautious advice that does not embolden delusion or conflict—but they are mostly just there for you as fellow travelers who genuinely mean well and genuinely love liberty and healthy boundaries.  They are a gentle spring that quietly reminds you that there is fresh water coming out of the ground.

Giving bread to a starving person in war can be a hierarchical, albeit well-meaning, act of charity.  Charity is not the same as friendship. In its own way, generosity can be emotionally exploitative and patronizing toward the person presumed to be in need of charity.  It can also make the charitable person vulnerable to exploitation.  Ultimately, real charity means providing fair, non-exploitative opportunities.  But when we keep in mind that we are all struggling—against our mortality, against our own flaws—then we remember that the bread giver is never just a giver; they must also be a recipient of bread.

As Appelfeld said, “a person is no more than a bundle of weaknesses and fears, and . . .  there’s no need to add to them.” Interactions among sniffers can ultimately add to our weaknesses and fears. Therefore, as much as possible, we should strive to not be sniffers, especially of the exploitative variety, and also to not take to heart those who sniff and discard us or who stay for longer to try to exploit us.  What Appelfeld writes about condescending language is also true about human character: “The fate of abstractions is that they grab you for a moment and then evaporate. Only words that create pictures can be retained. The rest is chaff.”  The dynamics of sniffing fill life with chaff—when what we need is the sustenance of bread (in my case gluten free).  We should never despair of finding it.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at https://oldwildhorses.substack.com/.
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