The Brothers Ashkenazi

by Israel Joshua Singer

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597


*Lodz (lewj). Industrial city in central Poland, about seventy-five miles southwest of Warsaw, in which the novel is set. The growth of the city from a sleepy village to the center of Poland’s textile industry is important to the novel. During the nineteenth century, the Russian government encouraged weavers in Germany and Moravia to come to Poland, where they were given free land, special conditions, and ready markets. The government’s goal was to establish an industry that could take advantage of Poland’s natural resources. As a consequence, many weavers settled in Lodz. As the textile industry expanded, Lodz’s Jewish community rose from a few dozen people to thousands as Jews arrived from Poland’s countryside and Russia—from which they were expelled. Some of these people prospered in the weaving trade; most, however, remained poor and lived in Balut, an impoverished, working-class section of Lodz, which author Israel Joshua Singer describes as “Russia’s greatest manufacturing centre of textiles and revolutionaries.”

The novel ends shortly after the Soviet Union comes into existence, and Poland struggles to regain its independence. Meanwhile, Lodz experiences alternating periods of boom and depression, and the novel ends with a period of great depression as Polish independence means that Lodz loses its vital Russian markets for its textiles. The workers’ movements that arise do not win new rights for the workers but instead engage in pogroms against Lodz’s Jewish community.

The Ashkenazi brothers, Simcha Meyer, later known as Max, and Jacob Bunim, later known as Yakob, are born in Lodz and live most of their lives there. Both survive the pogroms and economic downturns and make fortunes. At one point, Max becomes so wealthy and powerful that Singer calls him, the “new king of Lodz.”


*Petrograd (PEH-treh-grad). City in northwestern Russia also known as St. Petersburg and, after the Russian Revolution, as Leningrad. Throughout most of the novel, Petrograd is the capital of Russia. Max Ashkenazi travels there to bribe government officials to achieve his goals as an industrialist. During World War I, shortly before the German occupation of Lodz, he moves his factory to Petrograd and establishes the “new Lodz-in-Petrograd,” of which he is hailed the “uncrowned king.” However, the Revolution ends Max’s good fortune, and he is thrown in jail.

Railroad station

Railroad station. Station several miles inside Poland where Yakob is killed by police while he and Max are trying to change trains while returning to Lodz from Petrograd. Because they are Jews, Polish policeman arrest them and order them to shout, “To hell with all the Yids,” and to dance. Max complies, but Yakob does not and is shot.


*Warsaw. Capital city and cultural center of Poland to which Yakob goes to live with his new wife’s wealthy family. However, because he spends much of his time in Lodz, he eventually divorces his first wife and marries his niece. Warsaw is also the city to which Max’s son Ignatz goes with his wife at the same time Max is trying to get Ignatz to take over his textile business in Lodz. However, Ignatz feels oppressed in Lodz, which he considers a cultural wasteland, and believes that Warsaw is somewhat like Paris, France—to which he and his wife eventually return.


*Carlsbad. Austrian vacation resort and watering place where many wealthy Jews from Lodz spend their summers, taking the baths, gambling, and otherwise enjoying themselves. Yakob goes to Carlsbad, but Max, seeing the place as an example of terrible waste, refuses to accompany his wife and in-laws there.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 263

Howe, Irving. Introduction to The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer. 1st ed. New York: Atheneum, 1980. Provides an assessment of the work as a historical novel and relates it to other examples of the genre. Claims that Singer adopted the Marxist notion that the sweep of history determines the lives and actions of individuals.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. Links Singer with Scholem Asch as being Yiddish writers who achieved fame by writing in the tradition of European novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Compares his techniques in The Brothers Ashkenazi with those used by Thomas Mann.

Norich, Anita. The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Focuses on cultural dimensions of Singer’s writing. Offers a sensitive reading of The Brothers Ashkenazi and discusses the tensions Singer creates by contrasting the “extraordinary changes of the period he is depicting” with the static nature of the Jewish fate.

Schulz, Max F. “The Family Chronicle as Paradigm of History in The Brothers Ashkenazi and The Family Moskat.” In The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Marcia Allentuck. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Compares Singer’s novel to one by his more famous brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer, showing how each adapts the conventions of the family epic to the demands of a public attuned to the complexities of the historical process.

Sinclair, Claire. The Brothers Singer. London: Allison & Busby, 1983. Extensive analysis of major characters in The Brothers Ashkenazi. Pays special attention to the political and historical dimensions of the work.

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