The Sound of Yiddish

Sam Apple's new book explores the life of a shepherd who wanders the Alps armed with 625 sheep & a repertoire of Yiddish songs.

When writer Sam Apple first met Austrian shepherd Hans Breuer in New York in 2000, he didn't imagine at the time that he would eventually travel to Austria to wander the Alps with Breuer and his 625 sheep. But after talking with him, Apple discovered that Breuer, who bills himself as Austria's last wandering shepherd and sings Yiddish songs to his sheep, had a unique story to tell, not only about shepherding, but about Austrian anti-Semitism and the country's gradual coming to terms with its Nazi past. The result of Apples' travels are chronicled in his funny and moving book, "Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd." He has recently completed a nationwide book and concert tour, featuring readings from his book and songs sung by Breuer, and also launched a web animation based on the book. Beliefnet editor Rebecca Phillips, a longtime friend of Apple's, sat down with him to discuss Yiddish folk-singing, anti-Semitism in Austria, and how wandering with hundreds of sheep impacted his own Jewish identity.

How did you first find out about Hans?

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I first met him in 2000 in New York City. Hans was first discovered by a traveling Yiddish theater group in Austria. They invited him to a klezmer festival in Canada, and from there, a small group called Yugntruf brought him to New York to do a concert. A friend of mine happened to be on their email list, so I attended the show and ended up writing a short piece about Hans for the Forward. It was based on meeting him then that I decided to travel to Austria the next year, in 2001. The book is about my travels during that summer.

What was it about Hans that was so intriguing that you felt like you wanted to learn more?

First, he was a wandering shepherd who was also a Yiddish folksinger--that alone is fairly intriguing. I was interested in the novelty. But when I interviewed Hans at length, I realized he was more than a novelty, that he had a pretty fascinating story to tell. Hans grew up in Vienna, the child of communist parents. His father was Jewish. He grew up in a society that was full of unreformed Nazis, and this completely shaped his childhood. He spent his childhood fighting what he perceived as lingering Nazism in Austrian society. That stance eventually led him to become, in 1968, a radical. It was only years after that that he ended up a wandering shepherd.

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