Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

At first glance, Israel Joshua Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi appears to have many of the qualities typical of the historical fiction of writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, who intermingle the lives of fictional characters with those of real personages, usually during periods when important events are affecting the future of a region or a nation. Seen in that light, the novel is a study of what happens to individuals when they are forced to act in response to, or in an attempt to influence, larger historical forces. Such a description could be misleading, however, since Singer’s work is not simply a historical novel. Rather, it is a novel about history, a study of the way the historical process affects, or fails to affect, the lives of the Jewish people. Singer contrasts the prevalent view of world history, which is often described as a linear process, with that of Jewish history, which Singer represents as being cyclical. Anita Norich has said that in The Brothers Ashkenazi Singer tries “to come to terms not only with the tension between Jewish society and the Jew but also between Jewish society and its broader environment,” thus highlighting “the similarity of Jewish experience in every age.”

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The lives of the brothers Jacob and Simcha Ashkenazi mirror the linear notion of history. Though radically different in temperament, both prosper in the city of Lodz, which is itself undergoing a renaissance as a result of the influx of foreigners who bring with them technological improvements. Whereas Jacob succeeds by looks and luck, Simcha relies on his cunning and his renunciation of traditional Jewish and family values to manipulate others to his advantage. In fact, Simcha is almost a stereotype of the Jew as he has been viewed by Gentiles throughout history, one who takes advantage of others’ misfortunes, including those of close relations. Trying to distance himself from his heritage and become accepted by the non-Jewish community where he sees the opportunity to make his fortune, Simcha engages in a conscious attempt to achieve assimilation, a phenomenon rejected by more conservative Jews for centuries. He glibly changes his name to the more Germanic “Max” and, with almost equal ease, puts aside his wife when he learns that he can gain monetary and social advantage by taking a Russian bride.

What both Jacob and Simcha learn is that regardless of their actions, it is their fate to be Jews. When both are threatened by the Russian guards during World War I, they learn that their social status is no shield for anti-Semitism. Jacob is heroic in accepting his fate; he dies celebrating his Jewishness. Max, on the other hand, denies his heritage and escapes death but then finds little solace upon his return to Lodz, where he cannot avoid his lineage. His final, poignant scene in the novel shows him near death, sitting under a portrait of a satyr (the symbol of pagan pursuits of pleasure), reading from an old Hebrew Bible the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes about the vanity of human wishes.

Singer’s lesson is not intended simply as a critique of Simcha. Readers are to understand that the novelist is making a comment on a much larger issue, the fact that there is no safe place for Jews in the larger world. Certainly Max is intended as a symbol of the fate of Jews who, no matter how hard...

(The entire section contains 880 words.)

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