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.”
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 they try, find that assimilation is a pipedream. For Singer, the Jewish heritage is both a blessing and a curse.
Singer reinforces his message through effective use of symbolism. The presence of the portrait of the satyr over the dying Simcha is only one example of his inclusion of signs that provide silent commentary on the significance of his protagonist’s futile struggle. Even more telling are references to Mephistopheles, repeated throughout the novel at key points when Max has made some further attempt to promote himself at the expense of his own people. Max is a Faustian figure, willing to sell his soul for personal enhancement; like Faust, his fate is sealed, for anyone who gives in to temptation of this magnitude is doomed.
Adding to the symbolic resonance of the novel is Singer’s representation of the city of Lodz and its inhabitants. The rise and fall of the Ashkenazi brothers are paralleled in the history of the city. Lodz stands in the novel as a symbol of the fate of the Jews when they interact with the outside world. The sleepy village undergoes a false renaissance when outside forces introduce the marvels of technology, but the city’s prosperity quickly disappears when manufacturing ceases to be profitable; the collapse of industry returns Lodz to its former state, wiser perhaps for its experience but no better off than it was before the Germans brought their machinery and modern methods of production. Singer suggests, so it is with the Jews. They may interact with the forces of history, but they will never be able to achieve permanent benefit from them. They will always be outsiders. For Singer, that represents strength as well as struggle, for that which is permanent in Jewish heritage will always permit the Jews to transcend sorrow to achieve both personal and social dignity.