Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

The nineteen stories of A Day of Pleasure do not provide a continuous, factually detailed account of Singer’s boyhood. Rather, they constitute a collection of mainly self-contained, but thematically related tales that, when taken together, form a literary autobiography aimed at young readers. Occasionally, the author may have creatively combined...

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The nineteen stories of A Day of Pleasure do not provide a continuous, factually detailed account of Singer’s boyhood. Rather, they constitute a collection of mainly self-contained, but thematically related tales that, when taken together, form a literary autobiography aimed at young readers. Occasionally, the author may have creatively combined separate events into one, and in recalling years long past he has invented dialogues. As a whole, however, the book authentically reflects the external facts of Singer’s boyhood, as well as the truths of life that he discovered in growing up. While his stories are set in the distinct (and for many, unfamiliar) world of Orthodox Polish Jewry—which no longer exists—their human appeal and message are universal. Singer himself writes in his preface that he wished to reveal in his book a world little known to the reader “but which is rich in comedy and tragedy; rich in its individuality, wisdom, foolishness, wildness, and goodness.”

Singer recalls his growing-up years in Warsaw with deep affection. His family was poor and often unable to make ends meet, and their apartment, lit by a kerosene lamp, had neither hot running water nor a bathroom. In addition, his strictly religious parents did not indulge his endless curiosity about the workings of the world and the secrets of nature. Nevertheless, the boy’s imagination, the reader learns, was enriched by the varied, colorful stories that he heard at home from his parents, his older brother Israel Joshua, and his sister, Hinde Esther. He himself began inventing tales of a fantastic nature at an early age, and he told them to his friends at play and at religious instruction. Some of the stories incorporate these tales as dialogue.

In the narrow, yet wondrously revealing world of Krochmalna Street, the young Singer also met Jewish folk types who deeply influenced his spiritual growth and whose humane qualities will also affect young readers. One of them, Reb Asher the dairyman (in the story of the same name) touched Singer through the inborn good-ness that led him—a simple, untutored man—to affirm his hard life and to live it “on the highest ethical plane.” In another story, “Reb Itchele and Shprintza,” Singer depicts a couple that ran a combined grocery and teahouse nearby. Without moralizing, he describes the ever-busy wife, Shprintza, as the soul of a civilized and virtuous woman who supported her family, upheld Jewish values, and freed her husband for religious study.

In one of the book’s most uplifting stories, “The Washwoman,” Singer portrays a simple Polish laundress who trudged, every two weeks, with her pack of laundry to his parents’ home. Despite old age, failing strength, and a harsh winter, this proud woman, who wished to burden no one, could not rest easy in her sickbed until she had returned her last load of wash. At the story’s end, the reader hears the voice of the mature Singer rather than that of the boy, whose perspective otherwise prevails; he is unable to “imagine paradise without this Gentile washwoman,” he tells the reader, or “a world where there is no recompense for such effort.”

For all the color and imagination that typifies these stories, Singer does not idealize or sentimentalize the world of his boyhood. The reader perceives how the values and practices of this world were exposed to threats from the modern society beyond it. The two sons of Reb Itchele and Shprintza, for example, bring grief on their parents when they rebel against their pious upbringing by refusing religious study or by profaning the Sabbath. In “A Boy Philosopher,” Singer describes how his brother Israel Joshua exasperated his parents by questioning sacred teachings and pursuing worldly interests. Later, he himself began to read secular Yiddish and Russian writers, and he came under the spell of Baruch Spinoza’s pantheistic philosophy (“The New Winds”). At times explicitly and at times through allusion, he also shows that the Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews of Poland were regarded at best as strangers or were rejected by their host society. Seen from the boy’s perspective, these attitudes seem almost benevolent when compared to what came later during the Holocaust. The mature Singer, looking back with nostalgia, remarks tersely that “the rest was accomplished by the German murderers.”

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