Reprinted from The [New York] Jewish Week with permission of the author. Visit www.thejewishweek.com.
A Review of Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past by Sam Apple (Ballantine, 2005).
You might think a Yiddish-singing shepherd would become farblondjet, mixed up and lost, in the Alps, but Hans Breuer skillfully leads his 625 sheep on an annual circuit through Austrian mountains, valleys and meadows. He shares his philosophical thoughts with them, serenades them in Yiddish, and even gives Yiddish concerts in the historically anti-Semitic villages they traipse through.
New York journalist Sam Apple joins Breuer in his Alpine adventures, a long shepherd's stick in hand. In his debut book, Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd (Ballantine), Apple tells Breuer's uncommon true story, delves into his own past and observes Austria's legacy of anti-Semitism.
Schlepping Through the Alps introduces two new voices: There's Sam Apple, the narrator, a neurotic urban Everyman who's certain he has rabies after a farmer's dog nips his hand at the outset of the trip. More likely adept at dodging several lanes of traffic across Broadway than urging hundreds of sheep across a mountain road, Apple's a young Woody Allen in the Austrian Alps; it's as though somehow the soundtracks of "The Sound of Music" and "Fiddler on the Roof" have suddenly gotten mixed up in the background.
And there's Breuer: He's a leftist activist turned shepherd. Just speaking about Yiddish makes this rugged Austrian turn tender. Breuer grew up in Vienna, the son of a gentile mother who was tortured by the Gestapo for her activism with the Communist underground and a Jewish father, a Communist who was arrested by the Austrian fascists but fled to England before the Nazis arrived. The 51-year-old Breuer fought the lingering Nazism in Austria as a youth. He didn't learn any Yiddish from his father, but first heard Yiddish songs from some farmers in Finland and learned more from shepherds in Germany, when he was working and training with them. He quickly memorized more than 100 songs.
For Breuer, the Yiddish songs were "like a postcard from a sunken world." Even though as a German speaker he didn't understand most of the Yiddish words, he felt their meaning.
Apple first met Breuer in 2000 when the shepherd was giving a concert at NYU, where he showed slides of his sheep and sang songs from the shtetl along with Yiddish show tunes. The following day, Apple interviewed him for a newspaper article but realized the story was much larger. When he asked Breuer about reactions to his Yiddish concerts in Austrian villages, he replied that he is viewed by the local people as their beloved shepherd. Many of them never heard Yiddish, and Breuer said he wants them "to confront for the first time this culture that their uncles and fathers destroyed."
In 2001, Apple traveled to Austria to visit Breuer and his sheep. Upon his arrival, Breuer treats him with warmth, like a member of his disjointed shepherd family--including his ex-wife, kids, girlfriend and local farmers--and was also interested in the young man's own story. Apple quickly realizes he doesn't need to play reporter all the time, that he should let the relationship develop naturally. The first night, Breuer checks Apple's blankets as he's going to sleep. "I pictured Mike Wallace being tucked in by one of his subjects after a long day of reporting. I felt ridiculous, but I was touched."
Among Apple's reasons for going to Austria, in addition to his great curiosity about the shepherd and his country, was that in learning more about Yiddish culture and about European anti-Semitism, he'd also be furthering his understanding of the world of his grandmother Bashy. Growing up in Houston, Apple spent a lot of time with his Lithuanian-born grandmother who embraced him with love, sang Yiddish lullabies and shared her fears of gentiles and potential pogroms.
"I had every reason to be comfortable in my American skin," he writes, "and yet deep down I knew that 99 percent of the people I saw on a daily basis were playing for the other team." Unlike Bashy, he saw the absurdity of this thinking but couldn't escape her worldview: "The distinction between Jew and goy was as sharp in my mind as it was in the mind of any self-respecting anti-Semite."
While in Austria, Apple interviewed blatant and more covert anti-Semites, human rights workers, leaders of the Jewish community and others about their views of Jews, Nazism and hatred. He saw little willingness among people to confront the role of Austrians in the Holocaust, and he also found philo-Judaism, with a woman kissing him on the street when she learned he was Jewish. Recognizing his lack of political expertise, Apple offers an impressionistic view.
With the sheep, Apple grows in his role, mostly nudging the stragglers along. To his disappointment, he didn't get to see any lambs born or any shearing. In the course of his wanderings, he encounters a young Austrian woman and learns a thing or two about love.
About Breuer, Apple tells The Jewish Week, "One of the paradoxes of his life is that being a shepherd is a perfect job for him--he gets to reject society. But it also makes him a bit of a celebrity."
Last month, Breuer was in North America, accompanying Apple on his book tour, singing Yiddish in his shepherd's hat alongside the author reading. While here, Breuer also attended synagogue, went to his first Passover seder, spent time in the YIVO library and joined a Yiddish singing duo to perform at a bat mitzvah. Apple explains that he took great interest in street musicians and in all things Jewish, and was delighted to learn that according to Reform doctrine, he's considered a Jew.
In an e-mail exchange with Breuer now back in Austria--yes, shepherds have Internet access--he said, "New York is the most sympathetic city in the world, perhaps after Montreal." He loved the diversity of people and found New Yorkers more respectful of each other than people in Vienna. He really enjoyed singing Yiddish to Jewish audiences who "understood the meanings and got the right feeling for my messages and emotions." On his flight over, he wrote a new Yiddish song, "Volknpasterkh," Shepherd of the Clouds. (Copies of Breuer's CD are available through the book's Web site, www.samapple.com)
Apple's grandmother Bashy is a Jewish literary celebrity of sorts. She is the daughter of the real-life grandmother and grandfather portrayed in the memoirs I Love Gootie and Roommates by the distinguished writer Max Apple.
Sam is the son of Max Apple, to whom Schlepping is dedicated. The younger Apple explains that writing was the only thing he could do. "I would have preferred that it wasn't the same thing my father did, but that's how it worked out." Readers might see some parallels in their writing and their self-deprecating humor, although Sam is quick to point out that he is not on the same level as his father.
Sam's next book also has a parallel to his father's work. The younger Apple is writing a book about circumcision called In Search of My Foreskin; Max Apple wrote a well-regarded story related to the same subject, titled "The Eighth Day."
Unlike many writers, Apple doesn't reject the label Jewish writer, although he understands why some writers who are Jewish might find it confining. "Maybe because it's my first book. That anyone calls me a writer at all makes me feel good."
Apple, who served as director of the Jewish Student Press Service and editor of New Voices magazine, earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University. In an unusual and creative book promotion, he created an animated Passover greeting, "Who Let the Jews Out?"--a comic clip circulated on the Internet. Featuring the pipe-smoking sheep featured on the book jacket, the clip was viewed over one million times. Readers can view it at passovergreeting.com.