Unto the Soul Essay - Critical Essays

Aharon Appelfeld

Unto the Soul

UNTO THE SOUL is Aharon Appelfeld’s tenth novel (including FOR EVERY SIN, THE HEALER and THE IMMORTAL BARTFUSS) that deals with Jewish problems. In UNTO THE SOUL, Gad, a young Jew, inherits the guardianship of a remote Jewish cemetery in western Ukraine from him Uncle Arieh. Amalia, Gad’s younger sister, accompanies him to the house attached to the cemetery, and it is here that they stay, cut off from their community during fall and winter, and left alone at the end of summer by the Jews who visit the cemetery.

In their loneliness, Gad and especially Amalia remember their past in Zhadova, their birthplace, where their father was weak-willed, their mother always furious with Amalia, and the grocery store they inherited from their parents a failure. Although their purpose in living on the remote mountain where the cemetery is located is Jewish, the seven years they stay there gradually turn them into reflections of the peasants who originally slaughtered the Jews in the cemetery. Gad sleeps with several peasant women in the village he goes to for supplies, he and Amalia turn into alcoholics on slivovitz,and eventually they become lovers.

If in spring the arrival of Jews invigorates Gad and Amalia as Jews themselves, with a fulfilling of ritual tasks to perform, their delivery is short-lived. The pilgrims leave, the cemetery is desecrated, and Amalia (who is pregnant by Gad) comes down with typhus.

From this point on, their Jewishness seems remote, though Gad tries to return to Zhadova with Amalia. While Amalia seems little more than a dying animal, Gad seems as much a peasant as the one who ferries him and Amalia about in his wagon once they leave the mountain and the cemetery, for he can drink and cope with bribery as well as any peasant in his world.

Appelfeld seems to be saying that, removed from their community and the wisdom of its elders, Jews are at the mercy of their darkest feelings.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, January 15, 1994, p. 897.

Boston Globe. March 29, 1994, p. 70.

Chicago Tribune. January 16, 1994, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, December 1, 1994, p. 1474.

Library Journal. CXIX, January, 1994, p. 157.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, January 23, 1994, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 29, 1993, p. 54.

San Francisco Chronicle. March 20, 1994, p. REV6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, February 20, 1994, p. 11.

World Literature Today. LXVIII, Summer, 1994, p. 629.