Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Trump’s you-know-what countries, and one great Jewish writer

Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018)

Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018)

We need to talk about what President Trump said last night about those “s-hole countries.”

The inhabitants of which just happen to be black.

As opposed to Norway.

The inhabitants of which just happen to be oh, hmnn — white.

About as white as it gets.

Nordic supremacy, anyone?

Simply put: Aharon Appelfeld would be screaming right now,

Aharon Appelfeld, who published more than 45 books in Hebrew and which were translated into many languages, and whose most recent book was published three months ago, died last week at the age of 85. Among his best known books are: The Age of Wonders, Badenheim 1939, To the Land of the Cattails, and The Healer.

I already miss him. I already miss his voice. Right now, he would be screaming.

Yes, Appelfeld was a “Holocaust writer.” But, he was not like any other Holocaust writer.

Appelfeld was born in Romania-now-the Ukraine. His mother was murdered by the Nazis when he was about 8 and he and his father were sent on a forced march to the Transnistria labor camp. Appelfeld escaped the camp and hid for two years.

In the words of my friend, Thane Rosenbaum:

He lived among and was helped along by horse thieves, fortune-telling Gypsies, self-described witches and working-girl prostitutes. He became a shepherd and a caretaker of lame horses. Later he worked as a cook for the Soviet army. All this before a bar mitzvah he was still too young to have and, given everything else, God would not have noticed.

A prostitute became his surrogate mother. Each night, he once told me, in a studio flat through the scrim of a hanging bedsheet that separated his tiny bed from the larger one of his caretaker, all made luminous by ambient light, he watched his guardian angel sexually satisfy her drunken clientele — the boy observing through the projected screen, hearing the moans and grunting sounds, seeing shadowy movements that ushered him into accelerated puberty. In the upside-down world of the Nazis, this kindhearted prostitute became his Mother Theresa.

He then joined the Soviet Army, where he traveled to Bulgaria. Following World War II he spent time in a Displaced Persons Camp in Italy, and then joined a group of children with no parents in immigrating to Palestine in 1946.

Appelfeld won the Israel Prize for literature in 1983, and twice received the Prime Minister’s prize, as well as with the Brenner Prize for literature in 1975, and the Bialik Prize for literature in 1979. He was shortlisted as a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize for 2013.

But, there is far more.

As far as I can tell, only Thane Rosenbaum has noticed what distinguished Appelfeld from other writers on the Holocaust. Simply put: he did not focus on the horror. Mostly, on the pre-horror.

His characters are assimilated, affluent, mostly central European Jews — as were his parents. In his words:

My parents, they were Jewish people, they have never denied that they are Jewish, no. But then they were, they were somewhere else, it was not even an openly critical stance. They said, leave me alone. I cannot go to the synagogue, I cannot pray. Leave me alone.

My parents were people with a split, maybe many splits, in their lives. From one side, they were devoted to the German language, German culture. Both of them completed the Latin gymnasium. So they could read Latin texts and Greek texts. They were rooted in the history of that. But on the other side, they also wanted to be rooted somewhere in Jewishness.

Appelfeld’s characters believe themselves to be too rich, too comfortable, too cultured, to confront the coming horror. They simply cannot get their minds around what is happening, or is about to happen.

To quote Thane:

Appelfeld’s characters live out their days in advance of the oncoming devastation, seemingly oblivious to what lies ahead, naively focusing on trivial details instead of the Nazi menace that would soon nearly erase all of Jewish life in Europe.

It can’t happen here. Oh, not to us. We would never, ever elect someone who would say such a thing.

Just go to the Torah portion, Vaera, which begins the narrative about the plagues that hit Egypt.

You know the drill: dam, blood; tzfardea, frogs; kinim, locusts…..

We always translate tzfardea as “frogs, ”but that’s not exactly right.

Va-taal ha-tzfardea vatkas et eretz Mitzrayim – literally: “And the frog arose and it covered the whole land of Egypt.

Not “frogs,” but “frog.” One frog!

The rabbinic interpretations are either delightful or monstrous

Rabbi Akiba said: “It was one frog that appeared, but it gave birth to countless other frogs that soon filled every part of the land of Egypt.”

Rabbi Elazar said: “Actually, it was one large frog that made a rather harsh croak, and countless hidden frogs suddenly appeared and covered all the land.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b)

The frog of racism and bigotry is making a very loud croak. It starts as one frog, and then it multiplies.

Aharon Appelfeld would have understood.

Do we?


About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • “As opposed to Norway.”

    Some reactions from Norway

    “Of course people from #Norway would love to move to a country where people are far more likely to be shot, live in poverty, get no healthcare because they’re poor, get no paid parental leave or subsidized daycare and see fewer women in political power.”

    “Of course people from #Norway would love to move to a country where people are far more likely to be shot, live in poverty, get no healthcare because they’re poor, get no paid parental leave or subsidized daycare and see fewer women in political power.”

    Sorry Trump supporters, there is no defense to the president’s remarks which can be seen as sane, honest or make one not look like a bigot.

  • “So Catholicism is spreading like wildfire in Africa. It’s retreating like trump’s hairline in a lot of other places, all traditionally catholic, like Brazil. Or any place in the CIVILIZED WORLD [emphasis mine].”

    Signed, Ben in Oakland.

    Is an “uncivilized” country anything like one of those “s-hole countries,” I wonder???’

    The inhabitants of which just happen to be black.

    Is there anyway to spin such a comment to make it seem sane, honest, or not bigoted?

  • The writer Steven King said, “Why would anyone from Norway want to come here? They have good health care for everyone and they live longer than we do.”

  • I see you aren’t defending the president either. Just going with whataboutism in response. OK.

    I would have used the term “developing world” instead. Because the term has to do with economic and political conditions without aspersions to demographics (something you just assumed there to be cheeky).

  • Nice try, Lare. But no dice. You can excuse “s-hole” as “economic and political conditions” as easily as you can excuse “uncivilized.”

  • ” You can excuse “s-hole” as “economic and political conditions” as easily as you can excuse “uncivilized.””

    Not at all.

    It was not the use of the word “S-hole” which was truly offensive. It was the very notion that immigration from poor and troubled countries is something to be avoided.

  • Trump missed a real solution to the Mid-East crisis:

    What he should have said:

    “American Muslims should agree to leave the United States in a one-for-one exchange for Jews from Israel. Dismantle Israel. Problem solved!”

  • “It was not the use of the word “S-hole” which was truly offensive.” That’s not what the Haitian ambassador said. He said that the remark was “based on stereotypes” and indicated misinformation and/or miseducation.

    But the left are certainly not averse to stereotypes and bigotry.

    Entertaining, though, that you excused your buddy Ben with the exact same excuse that Trump’s staffers are offering. Good work.

  • It was that too. The two are not mutually exclusive. What offended me and what offended the Hatian Ambassador can be two things. Unless you assume we are the same person.

    Frankly I can’t possibly give a crap about what you think “the left does” or “what Ben did” It’s not the subject here. Just deflection.

    So aside from nonsense hair spliting and whataboutism, what is your take on Trump’s statement?

  • Speaking of frogs.

    What do you call a frog that croaks a lot bouncing in the Potomac River?

    Bob Jeffress.

    Speaking of brother Bob.

    “Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment,” Jeffress told CBN News. “As commander-in-chief, President Trump has a responsibility to place the interests of our nation above the needs of others”

    Hey Bob, I appreciate you reminding us we don’t elect a pastor-in-chief. But do we have to settle for a s-head of state?

  • After hearing your VERY profound explanations and excuses for stereotyping entire nations of mostly a single race, I suppose I shall have to revise my previously uncharitable “take.”

    Thanks for my best chuckle of the day. You always come through for me on that, Lare.

  • I did nothing of the type. I am also not trying to divert the conversation with whataboutism either. Asking you to stick t the subject. Still no personal take on the president’s remarks from you.

    Its obvious your posts here were just a spineless way to support his offensive and boneheaded statements.

  • I dislike Trump and did not vote for him (or Hillary). His description of Haiti as a “shithole” country was insane but based on the CIA’s World Facts, it is a country geographically unsuitable for human habitation, a tough situation to solve. Any suggestions?


    ” Poverty, corruption, vulnerability to natural disasters, and low levels of education for much of the population represent some of the most serious impediments to Haiti’s economic growth. Remittances are the primary source of foreign exchange, equivalent to more than a quarter of GDP, and nearly double the combined value of Haitian exports and foreign direct investment.

    Currently the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with close to 60% of the population living under the national poverty line, Haiti’s GDP growth rose to 5.5% in 2011 as the Haitian economy began recovering from the devastating January 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of its capital city, Port-au-Prince, and neighboring areas. However, growth slowed to below 2% in 2015 and 2016 as political uncertainty, drought conditions, decreasing foreign aid, and the depreciation of the national currency took a toll on investment and economic growth. Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, made landfall in Haiti on 4 October 2016, with 140 mile-per-hour winds, creating a new humanitarian emergency. An estimated 2.1 million people were affected by the category 4 storm, which caused extensive damage to crops, houses, livestock, and infrastructure across Haiti’s southern peninsula.

    US economic engagement under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA) and the 2008 Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE II) have contributed to an increase in apparel exports and investment by providing duty-free access to the US. The Haiti Economic Lift Program (HELP) Act of 2010 extended the CBTPA and HOPE II until 2020, while the Trade Preferences Extension Act of 2015 extended trade benefits provided to Haiti in the HOPE and HELP Acts through September 2025. Apparel sector exports in 2016 reached approximately $850 million and account for over 90% of Haitian exports and more than 10% of the GDP.

    Investment in Haiti is hampered by the difficulty of doing business and weak infrastructure, including access to electricity. Haiti’s outstanding external debt was cancelled by donor countries following the 2010 earthquake, but has since risen to above $2 billion as of December 2016, the majority of which is owed to Venezuela under the PetroCaribe program. Although the government has increased its revenue collection, it continues to rely on formal international economic assistance for fiscal sustainability, with over 20% of its annual budget coming from foreign aid or direct budget support.”

  • I didn’t bring him up in the first place.

    Spineless Shawnie can’t be bothered to address the topic. Oh well.

  • You didn’t bring him up — you just unwittingly attacked his comments as racist. Not the first time, either.

    Got a lunch date with the hubby. See you, Lare.

  • The whole point of the statement was to say that people from poor countries are worthless to the US in his eyes. Mentioning Haiti and Africa was to inject a racist element to it as well.

    This is the same president who is letting a US territory of over 3 million people turn into a tropical Mad Max film out of indifference and malice.

  • You didn’t read this post. Appelfeld’s parent were middle class assimilated non-religious Jews and it didn’t help them, because all Jews in Western & Eastern Euroope became a “shithole people.” Even in America Jews were a “shithole” people. We didn’t let in refugees from Nazi Germany even the wealthy educated Jews were not allowed. That wouldn’t solve the problem. I wouldn’t be living in America if Israel didn’t exist.

  • Nigeria is a modern country with modern cities. Nigerians, even the poor ones, don’t live in huts. Trump[ is just too ignorant to be president. He has not desire to learn anything new either. I would add that the problems of Africa and Central and South America have been made worse by American intervention.

  • What about spots in California or in Florida where people should not be living? Gobal Warming is going to raise the coastline. Pretty soon some areas along the East Coast shoreline and some islands are going to beocme inhabitale.

  • That was two and a half months ago and still next to nothing substantial has been done there. Trump had to be shamed into even that much. Even now recovery is half baked. It’s Katrina on steroids.

  • Ones that do not involve the US constant intervention. We have done enough damage to that place.

    Not my point. To desire turning people away from there out of racism is unamerican. America is the place where people from all per he world make a better life for themselves. Trump has no respect for this nation and what it stands for.

  • Look into the history of American involvement with Haiti. We have invaded them at least three times, supported dictators there, siphoned off what little resources they have. No wonder so many Haitians make their way to the US!

  • $13 Billion for earthquake relief and billions more for hurricane relief . And your suggestions to help them besides that are ?

  • Not relevant to this discussion. Your guess is as good as mine. Invasion and occupation for a fourth time does not seem to be a working solution.

    The issue was the president insulting people coming here from all over the world seeking a better life. He used Haiti as an example to give an especially racist dimension to what started out as a just nativist rant.

  • I don’t see four USA invasions in Haiti’s complicated history. but indeed a lot of interaction over the years to include occupation from 1915-1934

    “According to the 2012 U.S. Global Leadership Report, 79% of Haitians approve of U.S. leadership, with 18% disapproving and 3% uncertain, the highest rating for any surveyed country in the Americas”.

  • Holy crap. The last invasion was in 2004. Before that 1995.

    It’s a bit early for revisionist nonsense.

  • No one is saying that Haiti is a wonderful place to live. The fact that DT cannot find more respectful and professional language is ridiculous for a man in his position. The main point is that he is saying that the US does not want immigrants from Haiti because Haiti is poor. That is the point.

    Every group of immigrants – all of our ancestors – who have ever come to the this country since it was first settled have been fleeing something – poverty, oppression, etc. and looking for a better life in America. That is what immigration is all about.

  • Vs. getting doctors and computer scientists from India and Poland?.

    Just so many jobs for the uneducated and I believe those jobs are fast being turned over to robots.

    Tough problem is Haiti and analogous countries. One could say education is the answer but when earthquakes and hurricanes rip apart the country every 5 to 10 years, such education is not sustanable. Suggestion: convert Haiti to a global park distributing the current residents to all the other countries of the Americas. Your suggestions?

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