In Aharon Appelfeld’s Laish, a young orphan, probably in his early teens, tells the story of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by a group consisting partly of elderly, devout Jews. A number of merchants, called “dealers,” are also included in the wagons that wend their slow and weary way from the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe to a port on the Black Sea. There, the group plans to take ship for Palestine and their final destination: the holy city of Jerusalem. Women and children, apparently the wives and offspring of some of the men, make up the rest of the entourage.
The time of the pilgrimage is indeterminate but most likely it begins near the end of the nineteenth century and originates in the Ukraine. The convoy travels for a considerable time along the Prut River, which borders Romania and what is now Moldava. Progress is very slow. En route, the dealers trade and bargain with the peasants and townspeople they encounter, whereas the old men spend time studying Torah and praying. Old Avraham takes Laish (from the Hebrew word for “lion”) under his wing. He teaches the boy to pray and impresses on him the importance of study.
The pilgrimage is nothing if not dangerous. Not only are the wagons frequently beset by thieves, but also the dealers transport contraband and accordingly have to evade the legal authorities. Money passes from hand to hand and is sewn into the men’s coats for safekeeping. As Laish describes the goings-on, there is great tension between the dealers and the old men. Adding to the difficulty of the journey are the wagon drivers, men of crude disposition who drink heavily and also steal, especially when the group arrives at some of the bigger towns on their route, such as Sadagora, Czernowitz, Vishnitz, and Galacz. In Laish’s view, “Here, everyone’s a thief.”
Fingerhut, who appears early in the novel, is seriously ill and has Laish help him as he lies swathed in blankets and writhing in pain. At one point, he tells Laish that he no longer believes that Jerusalem will heal him; he dies shortly thereafter. The wagon driver Ploosh then forces Laish to work for him and treats him badly, until Ploosh is arrested for murdering one of the dealers to whom he owed money. Sruel takes over Ploosh’s duties as wagon driver, further angering the imprisoned Ploosh, who does not think Sruel knows how to handle horses well enough. When Ploosh escapes from jail, he seeks out Sruel, who kills him with Ploosh’s revolver during their fight.
Ploosh turns out to be quite wrong about Sruel’s ability to handle horses. Sruel proves equally adept at handling people, and he gradually becomes a leader of the pilgrimage. Along with Old Avraham, he takes special care of Laish. He shows the boy how to catch fish in the Prut River that they use to feed the pilgrims, and he advises Laish in many other ways. He is a tall, strong man with a much gentler disposition than the other wagon drivers. He even has a falcon who perches on his shoulder and sleeps in his lap at night after flying aloft during the day. Earlier in his life, Sruel was convicted of murdering two peasants who had attacked his father; as a result, he served thirty years of a life sentence before being released. He is the most remarkable character in the novel, revealing depths of his nature to Laish, who learns to admire and respect him highly.
Laish reveals other sorts of tension in his narrative, including some that directly involve him. For example, when the convoy arrives in Czernowitz, he is taken to a nightclub by several dealers. There, he meets Maya, evidently a barfly or prostitute, who captivates Laish. Although she does not look Jewish, she tells Laish that she is and calls him her “cub.” She is unlike any of the women in the convoy, whom Laish describes as embittered and without charm, casting a heaviness and gloom on one’s heart. By the end of the evening, Maya has thoroughly “ruined” Laish, who up to then was most likely a virgin.
(The entire section is 1,341 words.)