New Jersey Jewish News
My son, the shepherds apprentice
The journey that became the thought-provoking, altogether delightful Schlepping Through the Alps began in 2000 when Sam Apple, a recently minted MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University, wrote a 1,000-word piece for the Forward about a man named Hans Breuer. Breuer is what people in the newspaper trade call good copy, not only because he is an Austrian- Jewish shepherd but also because he often sings Yiddish lullabies to the 625 sheep under his care.
Apple was fascinated and felt (rightly) that there was more, much more to this story.
So he sent Breuer a copy of his Forward article and asked if they might meet in Vienna. Breuer, who clearly enjoyed seeing his name in print, agreed and the rest is the story of how a young Jewish journalist made his way through the Alps. As the books opening sentence puts it: If youre traveling the Alps with a Yiddish folksinger who also happens to be the last wandering shepherd in Austria and he assigns you the task of talking behind his flock of 625 sheep, youll discover that the little lambs sometimes tire out and plop down for naps. Thats when an apprentice shepherd quickly learns that you must approach the sleepy lambs with confidence, a shepherds stick, and the ability to pronounce Hop! Hop! (rhymes with rope) correctly.
The sections about Apple and the sheep are simultaneously clear-eyed and funny. For example, there is nothing especially lovely about their smells much less about the smell of their excrement, but Apple, a city boy, is not entirely immune to the charms of a shepherds life. At the same time, however, he cannot quite resist the temptation to think of them as more than their wooly coats and ever-present bahs.
The comparing of Europes Jews to sheep walking to the slaughter is well-known, the preferred metaphor of some Zionists who saw the unwillingness of most of the Nazis victims to fight back as a sign of weakness. I find the comparison offensive, but the image didnt fade quickly. For the next few minutes of reading, the sheep were Jews.
Apple would probably lose in an arm-wrestling match with George Costanza, the world-class neurotic on TVs Seinfeld, but no matter: He is neurotic enough to make the differences between himself and his shepherd subject clear. For Apple, hitching up with Breuer turns out to be no walk in Central Park. Where Breuer is rugged, Apple, as he makes sure we know, is a bit of a wimp: He chokes on a drag of marijuana and reminds us that he once became seriously dehydrated during a hike in northern Israel. Apple blames exercise-induced asthma for his troubles, but the point is that Apple is a good enough writer to know that humor is an important ingredient of most nonfiction, and that the best humor turns its guns inward.
Breuer, in many respects a simple man, has a sophisticated agenda: He gives Yiddish concerts because he loves the language and its folksongs but also because, in his words, I wanted that [Austrias non-Jews] should come and listen and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, hear that there was Yiddish language . I want to make them confront for the first time in their lives this culture that their uncles and fathers destroyed.
Apple is obviously fascinated by this one-of-a-kind eccentric and travels to Austria in an effort to understand what had driven him to a life of wandering and to make sense of Breuers Jewish identity . This is a tall order but one that Apple amply fulfills. We end up knowing a flesh-and-blood Breuer, with his warmth as well as his warts. We also come to know Sam Apple, who learned from his grandmother not only Yiddish but also how and why one should never trust a non-Jew. Apple embraced the former lesson but always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the latter. Significant portions of Schlepping Through the Alps portray his coming to terms with the tricky subject of Jewish identity. Breuer, for example, has a great deal of difficulty even pronouncing the word Jew because in his world the term was roughly equivalent to the N word in America.
Readers who find themselves hooked by Apples opening sections about Breuer and his flock and who imagine that the entire book will be a day-by-day account of his schlep through the Alps will, Im afraid, be disappointed. Why? Because Apple includes what might be called side excursions into the history of the wandering Jew and the political history of Austria from the Anschluss onward. Curiously enough, nine months before Apple had his first meeting with Breuer in Vienna, Austrias far right Freedom Party took 27 percent of the national vote and then joined forces with the Peoples Party to create a coalition government with deep Nazi roots. The European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria, and Israel pulled its ambassador out of Vienna, but, given Austrias long history of anti-Semitism, nobody should have been surprised.
Because Apple packed journalistic credentials, he was given extraordinary access to a wide variety of interview subjects. The result is that we learn about what it is like to be a Jew in contemporary Austria from a broad range of voices. One of the most important turned out to be the writer Doron Rabinovici, widely regarded as the man with the deepest understanding of the Jewish experience in Austria. Apple describes him this way: He was thin, with close-cropped brown hair and small black-framed glasses that gave him the air of a cutting-edge intellectual, the kind of guy you suspected of writing academic jargon in the margins of nonacademic books. Rather than one more piece of padding (a term that might be used by those who feel that Apple has lost his focus on his Jewish shepherd), what Rabinovici adds to the ongoing discussion of Jewish identity is as interesting as it is important:
In other big cities, you live in the Diaspora, but theres still a large Jewish community youre not you people. In Vienna youre always some kind of last member of a murdered people . To be a Jew in Austria after the war and not feel that you are a Jew would be very, very strange.
Sam Apple creates a rich tapestry that both surrounds and enriches the story of Hans Breuer and his sheep. What may have begun as an odd, altogether exotic tale ends up as a book that raises important questions about what it is like to be a Jew in the 21st century.
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