The Brothers Ashkenazi

by Israel Joshua Singer

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106

Abraham is a pious Jew and a good businessman. General agent for the Huntze mills, he is greatly respected by the community. He always spends the Passover season with his beloved rabbi in a town some distance from Lodz. One year, his wife protests more than usual at being left alone because she expects to be confined soon. She knows the child will be a boy, for she feels stirrings on her right side. Abraham pays no attention to her.

When he returns, he finds two sons. The older by several minutes is Simcha; the younger is Jacob. Simcha is the smaller of the two and shows a meaner spirit. As they grow older, Jacob is the happy leader of neighborhood games, the favorite of all. Dinah, a neighbor girl, has worshipped him for years. Simcha seldom plays with anyone, and he has no stomach for even minor physical pain.

In school, however, Jacob is an amiable dunce, whereas Simcha is the scholar. Before long, Simcha is recognized as a genius. At an early age, he cites the Talmud and disputes with his teacher. When he is ten years old, he is sent to a more learned rabbi, Nissan’s father. His new teacher is more moral and uncompromising, and Simcha’s glib smartness often leads him into disfavor. Moreover, here he has to take second place to Nissan.

Simcha keeps his leadership by running gambling games during class hours, and on holidays he leads his schoolmates into gambling houses. Simcha always wins, even from the professional gamblers. Nissan has no time for gambling, but his sin is even greater: He reads secular books on chemistry, astronomy, and economics. When Simcha betrays him and his father casts him out, Nissan becomes an apprentice weaver.

Because of Simcha’s growing reputation for acuity, a marriage broker is able to arrange an advantageous engagement. At the age of thirteen, Dinah and Simcha are betrothed. Dinah is miserable. She is blonde and educated in languages; Simcha is unprepossessing and educated only in the Talmudic discipline. The marriage, which takes place several years later, is never a happy one, for Dinah never forgets Jacob.

Simcha, with a clever head for figures, keeps the accounts at the mill belonging to his easygoing father-in-law. By convincing the older man to sign promissory notes, Simcha soon becomes a partner. Although the family resents Simcha’s hard dealing, he is grimly intent on making money. By shrewdness and trickery, he becomes sole owner of the mill in a short time. His father-in-law’s mill, however, is only a handloom establishment; Simcha sets his sights higher.

The biggest steam mill in Lodz is owned by a crusty German named Huntze. Simcha’s father is general agent, and the mill has a high reputation. Huntze’s profligate sons want a title in the family, but old Huntze will not spend the money for one. Wily Simcha lends great sums to the Huntze boys, enough to buy a title and more. When their father dies, the sons recognize the debt by appointing Simcha their agent. Abraham is dismissed and thereafter counts his older son among the dead.

Jacob marries Pearl, the anemic daughter of the great Eisen household in Warsaw. Pearl saw Jacob at Simcha’s wedding and fell in love with the ebullient younger brother. Jacob easily sheds his Jewish ways and becomes Europeanized. Because Pearl is sickly, she cannot keep up with her vigorous husband, and Jacob spends much time in Lodz. Eventually, to Simcha’s chagrin, Jacob is made agent for the Flederbaum mills, a rival establishment.

When a depression comes, Simcha adulterates his goods to keep...

(This entire section contains 1106 words.)

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going and then decides to cut wages. Under the leadership of Tevyeh, a fanatic, and Nissan, now a well-educated weaver, the men strike. Simcha resists for a long time and then breaks the strike by bribing the police to arrest Nissan and Tevyeh. The two are sentenced to exile in Siberia.

By paying close attention to sales and by sweating his labor, Simcha makes money. He travels to the East and increases his market enormously. He is recognized as the merchant prince of Lodz. During the Russo-Japanese War, he makes great profits by selling to the military. Throughout these years, the trade union movement grows, however, and Nissan, back in Lodz, becomes a highly placed official in the revolutionary society. When the workers strike again, the unionists are too strong for Simcha, and his factory stays closed for months. This time the strike is broken only by military action, which turns into a pogrom against the Jews. Nissan is again sent to prison.

To increase his holdings and to get sufficient capital to buy the entire ownership of the Huntze mills, Simcha divorces Dinah and marries a rich widow. Jacob, matching his brother’s affluence by becoming the lover of one of the Flederbaum girls after Pearl divorces him, is made director of the rival mill. Simcha’s daughter Gertrude, a headstrong modern young woman, wills Jacob to fall in love with her. He marries her because she reminds him of Dinah.

When World War I breaks out, Simcha moves his factory to Petrograd and so misses the German occupation of Lodz. Russia goes through a revolution, however, and the workers come to power. Once again, Nissan meets Simcha, but this time Nissan is the master, and his party confiscates Simcha’s property. When the ruined Simcha tries to get out of Russia, he is betrayed by a fellow Jew, arrested, and jailed.

Back in Lodz, Jacob still maintains some position in the community, and Simcha’s second wife manages to hold on to some wealth. Jacob goes to Russia and by judicious bribery frees his brother, who is now a broken man. When the two brothers attempt to reenter Poland, anti-Jewish feeling is strong. The border guards force Simcha to dance and grovel and shout a repudiation of his religion and race. Refusing to truckle, Jacob strikes a captain. Jacob is shot to death, but Simcha is permitted to live.

Simcha apathetically stays for a time with his wife, his divorced wife Dinah, his daughter Gertrude, and his granddaughter. Gradually, his cunning returns. He makes a trip to England and arranges for a substantial loan to rebuild his looted factory. He induces his long-forgotten son to come back from France. Ignatz brings his French wife with him. Simcha suspects darkly that she is not even Jewish, but he does not inquire. When the postwar depression strikes, Simcha is reviled by his fellow merchants for bringing in English capital. Commercially, Lodz is almost dead when Simcha dies.