Shai Rudin


Mothers in the darkness - the centrality of the figure of the mother and the theme of motherhood in Appelfeld’s fiction


Aharon Appelfeld is one of the most worldwide acclaimed Israeli writers. His wide-ranging writing has inspired a great number of research studies aimed at analyzing his distinctive poetics. The most recent approach taken into researches aims not to reduce the view of Appelfeld to a "Holocaust writer"  but it sets out to discuss his work while examining aspects hitherto untouched.This research shall aim to offer a new perspective into approaching Appelfeld's writing. The study adopts a gender position to investigate the features of the character of mother as it emerges from scrutiny of selected works of Aharon Appelfeld; it probes the "feminine-masculine" dichotomy in the context of the character of mother. In addition to that, the notional aspect surrounding this character in Appelfeld's work is subject of the study, as well as its link to Jewish and universal social contexts.


For this purpose the author has applied a radical feminist reading to four of Appelfeld's works translated from Hebrew: Tongue of Fire (1988), Until the Dawn's Light (1995), All That I Have Loved (1999), and Blooms of Darkness (2006). Proposed reading refers to the Appelfeldian mother, a character present in many of his writings; so far, the manner in which Appelfeld chooses to construct it has not been a subject to any research.


Aharon Appelfeld is consistent in his choice of mothers as carriers of the plot and the central idea in many of his works. The ones chosen for this research are those in which the "motherly manifestation" is the most extreme in the corpus of writings wherein mothers appear. This extremism stems from the encounter between two central elements: the subversive traits of the Appelfeldian mother, which break the cultural stereotype of the mother concept, and the objective distress with which the mother contends. This distress has two following facets:


a) The national-cultural-religious-historical dimension. Appelfeld anchors most of his writing to the historical era before the Holocaust, nevertheless, by various devices, the writer hints at the Holocaust period itself and the destruction anticipated afterwards. In the historical time described, the hatred of Judaism and Jews is transformed from latent to active anti-Semitism: from verbal violence to pogroms and annihilation. In the setting of this critical period, the Appelfeldian mother is forced to act for her own and her child's survival, a constraint that "stretches" the limits of her motherhood. In the time of intensification of the crisis between Jews and non-Jews, not only the Jewish mother must solidify patterns of action that will help her to survive, but so must the non-Jewish mothers, whom Appelfeld has chosen to place at the center of some of his novels as well. These mothers face obstacles and difficulties imposed on them because of their being out of place in their milieu. In this state of affairs, a connection, woven between them and the Jewish mothers, is founded on solidarity and comradeship. 


b) Personal distress. This consists of a continual threat to the mother's life because of her being a woman in a patriarchal world. Here the Appelfeldian mother is forced to contend with physical and sexual violence and humiliating occupations, and she has to adopt survival tactics in the male world that threatens her existence. Like the national-cultural-religious-historical collapse, so the personal distress induces a non-stereotypic construction of the character of the Appelfeldian mother. This character is not built on a gender dichotomy but is created by the fusion of different gender behaviors with the mission of surviving.