The Brothers Singer

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Clive Sinclair is also a young British writer of fiction and criticism. Besides shorter journalistic pieces on Isaac Bashevis Singer, he has published an interesting introduction to a recent translation of Deborah (first published in Yiddish as Der Szejdym Tanc, 1936), an autobiographical novel written by Esther Singer Kreitman, the Singer brothers’ sister. Sinclair is particularly fascinated by the literary impact of Hasidism, and in his work on the Singer brothers this preoccupation is clearly evident.

The Brothers Singer, stresses Sinclair, “is a book about literary relationships.” The work is thus not a careful investigation of the intertwined biographies of Isaac Bashevis Singer and his elder brother, Israel Joshua. To obtain clear familial chronologies, key facts about the two men’s lives in Poland and the United States, a sense of their circles of friends and relations—one must search elsewhere. Sinclair’s first chapter, “Fathers and Sons,” does provide useful background material, but even here his determination to maintain a literary focus is evident. The Singer family’s odyssey from the 1890’s through the 1930’s is viewed through the lens of the various autobiographical works later produced by Esther, Joshua, and Bashevis. In many cases, these works are infused with a fictive literary intentionality that makes them difficult sources. Sinclair copes with this problem mainly by attending to the inner dramas of the family’s life; the year-by-year sequence of outer events is rendered impressionistically, if at all.

One can, however, piece together the general picture: a Hasidic rabbi father, impractical and creative; a strong, skeptical, fretful mother; before World War I, life lived in Russian-governed Polish villages; in the interwar period, Warsaw, literary careers, the coming of Fascism, emigration to the United States. Joshua was born in 1893, Bashevis in 1904. Besides Esther, the eldest, there was also young Moshe, who starved to death during World War II. (While Sinclair has much to say about Esther, he devotes exactly two sentences to Moshe.) Conscripted into the Russian army, Joshua eventually deserted, hid out in Warsaw, and then, in order to see the Revolution at close proximity, lived for a time in Kiev. By the mid-1920’s, he was a rising literary figure in Warsaw. As coeditor of a journal, he supplied the young Bashevis with a proofreading job, “thereby rescuing him from the ’half-bog, half-village’ in Galicia” where their father was rabbi. On the strength of a volume of short stories, Joshua became the Polish correspondent of Der Forverts, (Jewish Daily Forward), the largest Yiddish newspaper in the United States. Sent on assignment to the Soviet Union in 1926, Joshua developed a distinct hostility to the Soviet experiment. His subsequent series of political novels were searching criticisms of various movements of political salvation by a skeptical, self-consciously Jewish leftist intellectual. Joshua’s death in 1944, after five major novels, ended prematurely a career which had inspired and then nourished that of the brilliant younger brother.

Sinclair’s foremost concern in The Brothers Singer is to detail the divergent responses of the two brothers to the problem of the Enlightenment. Basically, this was a complex structure of ideas and attitudes: the scientific method, rational skepticism, the progressive nature of historical development, evolution through natural selection, materialistic modes of explanation, Deism, political Liberalism, and natural rights. Nevertheless, for Central European Jews, the Enlightenment always meant something more than mere ideas. Embodied as Napoleon’s armies, the Enlightenment led to the razing of ghetto walls, the possibility of citizenship and assimilation, the reign of toleration, the promise of wealth. As such, it was Janus-faced. Rationalism threatened the revealed authority of the Pentateuch and the Talmud. Evolutionism undermined the presiding immanence of a sovereign God. Assimilation and citizenship attacked the organic unity of the chosen people. Skepticism played havoc with pious worship.

In the Singer household, the conflict between Enlightenment and tradition was embodied with an astonishing purity in the relationship of Bathsheba and her Hasidic husband, Pinchas Mendel—she,...

(The entire section is 1809 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XXI, December, 1983, p. 581.

Commentary. LXXVII, February, 1984, p. 75.

Contemporary Review. CCXLIII, July, 1983, p. 52.

Esquire. CI, February, 1984, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 11, 1983, p. 4.

New Statesman. CV, May 13, 1983, p. 28.

Time. CXXI, October 17, 1983, p. 95.