A Little Boy in Search of God/A Young Man in Search of Love/Lost in America

by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Ira Moskowitz, Raphael Soyer
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1791

In each of these three books, Singer has focused on one philosophical problem, as well as the period in his life when that problem was central. The first book, as do the others, ends with the restatement of the dominant problem, emphasizing the fact that although he may have learned more about it, Singer has not come any closer to a solution. In the succeeding book, he does not discard the theme of his previous book; instead, he simply subordinates it to his new preoccupation, hoping that new experiences will bring answers for his increasing burden of unsolved riddles. By the third book, then, he is dealing with an accumulation of increasingly complicated uncertainties; indeed, it is clear that in that confusion Singer has reached his definition of life.

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The first book, A Little Boy in Search of God, focuses on the relationship between Isaac and his God, whose ways seem unjust, whose world seems to be dominated by cruelty and evil. In the introduction to the book, Singer speaks of himself as a mystic, not a member of a religious group—in other words, as a religious individualist. A mystic will ask hard questions of his God, and from his early childhood Singer has done so. It is appropriate that the first book deals with the search for God, for although other matters are often stressed in the latter two books of this series, there is never a time either in his fiction or in his autobiographical works when Singer is not at least subconsciously concerned with his spiritual quest.

Because, as a mystic, Singer defines life in terms of the spiritual rather than the material, these three volumes give far more attention to internal developments than to external events. In A Little Boy in Search of God, for example, he devotes as much space to his discovery of the cabala books in his father’s library as he does to the dislocations and terrors of World War I, as much attention to his visit to a library as to the revolution at the end of the war.

The reason for Singer’s rather unusual emphasis is that for the first two decades of his life he was testing the theories he encountered in his attempt to understand and to approach his God. At first, he was influenced by his father’s Orthodox Judaism; the boy, however, could not reconcile the just and good God of whom the Scriptures told with the cruelty of the human beings He had created in the brutal and bloody world which He controlled. In the mystical books of the cabala, Singer hoped that he would find more satisfying answers; indeed, he responded to the beautiful faith of those writers, who insisted that God was in all things and that all things were godly. Nevertheless, such theories only intensified the problem of evil. What kind of god would collaborate in the deliberate torture of animals or in men’s murderous attacks on other men? When Singer found his way to the library, he was sure that somewhere in those books he would find the solution to the mystery of life. Yet in the books on science and philosophy which he read over the next several years, he found no more answers than he had in the Scriptures or in the books of the cabala.

Singer’s emphasis on his spiritual and philosophical development rather than on external events is typified by his treatment of World War I and its aftermath. While most autobiographers would have described in detail the dramatic and fearful events of the period, Singer is more interested in the various responses of those close to him; these included the prayers of his parents, Rabbi Pinchos Menachem Singer and his devout wife, Bathsheba Zylberman Singer, and the scientific skepticism of his older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, a position to which for a time Isaac himself was drawn. Neither satisfied him. While his suspicion that the world is a slaughterhouse was being proved daily by the events of the external world, internally Singer was if anything less secure than ever; sometimes he wondered if the God in Whom he believed was simply indifferent.

In the final chapters of this book, Singer describes his discovery of uninhibited sexuality, when as a nineteen-year-old he was taken into the home and the bed of Gina Halbstark, a thrice-married older woman who was unimpeded by traditional Jewish moral standards. At first it seemed a perfect situation, but after some months Singer discovered that although he had not accepted the faith in which he had been reared, he could not deny the demands of his Jewish heritage for restraint in sexual relationships. Thus, at the end of his youth, Singer found that he could not free himself from the religious and ethical heritage he had absorbed in his childhood. Yet despite his attacks of guilt, he was neither willing nor able to avoid involvements with women.

Singer’s second book illustrates the fact that the quest for love was not as simple as it seemed. In the conclusion of A Little Boy in Search of God, Gina, unaware of Singer’s philosophical problems, suddenly announced that she wished to have her lover’s baby. It is appropriate that the book titled A Young Man in Search of Love begins with Singer’s admission that in a weak moment, forgetting all of his scruples about the relationship with Gina, he had actually promised her a baby. It was only by chance that she did not become pregnant.

In any case, Singer eventually broke off with Gina. Naively, he did not anticipate her reaction. When he saw how heartbroken she was, he learned an important lesson about sexual intimacy: It rarely remained at the level of pure pleasure but generally came to involve the deepest of human feelings. People could be cruelly hurt by love.

Fortunately, Gina was able to accept the breakup by believing that it was the result of the difference in their ages; Singer was free to continue his explorations of the world of love as well as of the world of literature and philosophical speculation, while he also looked for way out of Poland, which was increasingly unstable and therefore increasingly dangerous for Jews. For a time, it looked as if Singer would become a temporary husband for Stefa Janovsky, a wealthy Jewish girl who wished to go to Palestine. Like Gina, Stefa lived by her own rules. Singer was fascinated by her outspokenness, her modernity, her rejection of her own heritage; then again, he was fascinated by many women, and as a result his life was becoming more and more troublesome. Involved with Stefa, with the maid in his rooming house, even with Gina, who continued to call him back to her, and eventually with Lena, a Communist, he wrote not only to pay the expenses of love but also to escape temporarily from the complications of love. By now it was obvious that while love was pleasurable, it could not be the purpose of man’s existence.

Again Singer pondered his spiritual questions. When his father visited him in Warsaw, he posed the questions still troubling him: Who is God? What does He want of man? Why does He permit suffering? The rabbi’s answer was the traditional one: It is all a mystery. Then he asked where he might go to say his prayers.

Like the first book, A Young Man in Search of Love has an ironic ending. Although Singer seemed to have realized the foolishness of his search for perfect love in human form, he was more besieged by women than ever. In the final pages, Stefa, now married, came to tell Isaac that she could not forget him; the reader has no doubt that his response was extremely accommodating.

Singer’s third book in this series, Lost in America, covers a much shorter period than the other two and, unlike them, is dominated by the historical period in which it is set. Neither the search for God nor the search for a perfect love could cause even Singer to ignore the fact of Fascism, with its malevolent intentions toward the Jews. In the first section of Lost in America, Singer re-creates the mood of the 1930’s, when Jews trapped in Poland swung from one extreme to another, trying to convince themselves that they would after all be safe, trying desperately to find an escape, then, hopeless, plunging into feverish pleasure or into the paralysis of despair.

If Singer’s autobiographical volumes had concentrated on external events, this final book could have ended happily after the fourth chapter, when the writer managed to make his way to the United States, where his brother was already established. Certainly he was relieved to have escaped the rapidly approaching Nazi bloodbath. Nevertheless, Singer had not come to the New World as a new man, ready to be reborn an American optimist. With him he brought his old questions abut God as well as his susceptibility to women. Furthermore, despite his brother’s kindness, Singer felt completely lost in the society which was so different from that which he had known.

Two sections of Lost in America are especially effective in dramatizing the alienation which is central to this book. The first described the voyage to the United States, when Singer literally lost his way; having ventured from his cabin, he had the greatest difficulty in finding his way back to it. Unfamiliar with shipboard customs, unable to understand English or French, he later managed to be confined in his cabin, where he was served prisonlike fare until a young woman, Zosia Fishelzohn, took him under her wing. The second episode occurred when Singer, accompanied by Zosia, traveled to Toronto, where he extracted the maximum of fear and confusion from a simple arrangement which would enable him to remain in the United States. Comic as these episodes are, they explain what may be difficult for native-born Americans to understand: The adjustments to a new way of life, even to new freedoms, are not easy. Again, the conclusion of Singer’s book brought together the still-unanswered questions from the past and the added uncertainties of the present. God was permitting Joseph Stalin’s massacres; Singer had just lost his job; Lena was wiring from Greece, asking for money; and the sky above New York was dark. The writer had been lost in Europe; now he was just as lost in America. It was obvious that Singer was no closer to communion with God or to the achievement of a perfect human relationship than he had been earlier and that evidently feeling lost was simply the human condition.

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