June 2005

Joey Rubin

nonfiction

Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple

Usually, a schlep is not a journey. An uphill walk to the market or a downhill walk in the snow? That's a schlep. Having to go somewhere you don't want to go -- and with too much to carry? A schlep for sure. But a trip of discovery, introspection and self-realization? Not a schlep. At least not for a reader Schlepping Through the Alps with Sam Apple, in his recent book of that title. The actual experience may have been a schlep for Apple, a young journalist who traveled from childhood memories to adult neuroses and from urban New York to the Austrian countryside on a search for an understanding of his own Jewish identity. But the book that came of his journey has nothing schlep-like about it -- and even the titular begrudging trudge through Austria's tallest peaks comes off the page seeming quite fun.

Apple's book, part travelogue, part memoir, part politico-cultural reflection, uses magazine-friendly prose to tell the true story of Apple's own attempt to understand his Jewish identity in the face of the lingering anti-Semitism he's never really experienced, but is certain must exist. The stage Apple set for this exploration is, indeed, the Austrian Alps, and the Yiddish that adorns the title is not just for kicks: it is Hans Breuer, Yiddish folk singer and "last wandering shepard of Austria," that inspires, enriches and facilitates Apple's trans-Alpine journey.

Apple's initial interest in Hans Breuer is due to the novelty of his work -- he alternates between singing Yiddish folk songs while leading hundreds of sheep across Austria and singing Yiddish folk songs to paying audiences while showing slides of his sheep. Curiosity as to what sense Apple will make of this combination (what does sheep herding have to do with Yiddish folk music?) creates a real sense of suspense and pulls the reader briskly through the book. How Apple manages to seamlessly tie shepherding and Yiddish into his questions about post-war Austria and contemporary anti-Semitism in Europe is impressive and ultimately satisfying.

Unlike many memoirs, Schlepping doesn't fall inward, but takes the time to contextualize -- historically, culturally and personally -- each moment of Apple's discovery. Anecdotes from Apple's childhood intermix with clear and unembellished explanations of Austrian political happenings. Interviews of Austrian political leaders are narrativized alongside a subtle but growing friendship between the characters Sam and Hans, and between the characters Sam and Irene, a young Austrian activist with which he becomes involved.

Ultimately, because the book dramatizes each moment of research, each internal aside, each formative conversation and consecutive revelation, it reads almost like the diary of a journalistic expedition; as if Apple did all the work to produce a magazine feature but chose, instead, to write about the process along with the findings. And yet it is the characters, the relationships, the palpable growth Sam experiences and Apple presents convincingly alongside the journalistic journey that makes Schlepping a memorable book and a consistently intriguing story to read.

In the end, while Sam may not have found his calling, stick in hand and surrounded by wandering sheep -- he's definitely comfortable wielding a pen. And this makes for a reading experience that is at once frankly educational (he offers no thesis, just explains), candidly enjoyable (I mean, shepherding? The potential for hilarity is not squandered), genuinely moving (though never sappy, Apple doesn't shy away from the heartstrings primed to be tugged) and regardless of Sam's allergies, asthma and anxiety, never a schlep.

Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0345465032
288 pages