Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554
Yasha Mazur, a traveling acrobat and juggler, the protagonist. He is a short man, broad-shouldered, lean, blue-eyed, and clean-shaven, with a narrow chin and a short Slavic nose. He is forty years old but looks ten years younger. Yasha is considered rich by local standards. He is an escape artist and can pick any lock. He is Jewish but agnostic. He visits his wife only on high holidays. The rest of the time, he travels with his show and visits his three mistresses. Yasha is entirely self-taught, and his mother died when he was seven years old. He has many personalities, because there is always another role to play for his mistresses: religious, heretical, good or evil, false, and sincere. Although he is ready to renounce his religion, he cherishes and venerates any page torn from a holy book.
Esther, Yasha’s wife of twenty years. She is forty years old, religious, small, and dark, with a youthful face. She is loyal and devoted to Yasha. She is unable to bear children and is distressed by this inability. She insists on maintaining a Jewish household, and Yasha does not interfere. Although she knows about her husband’s infidelity, she tries to dissuade him from immuring himself. She takes up sewing to support herself and him.
Magda Zbarski, Yasha’s assistant and mistress. She is in her late twenties, swarthy, and flat-chested. She lives with her mother Elzbieta and brother Bolek. Through Yasha, she is her family’s sole support. Yasha sleeps with her in Elzbieta’s house, and Elzbeita calls him “son.” Magda, jealous and desperate over Yasha’s womanizing and his neglect of her, commits suicide.
Zeftel Lekach, the relatively young wife of the convicted thief Leibush, who escaped from prison but did not return to her. She is supported by a “pension” from a local gang of thieves. She is a plain peasant woman devoted to Yasha. She sells her belongings and moves to Warsaw to be near Yasha and to escape the boredom and drudgery of life in Piask. She falls into the hands of Herman, a pimp, and his sister, Rytza Miltz, who trade in girls to be lured to Buenos Aires as prostitutes. Herman divorces his wife and marries Zeftel. She and Herman operate one of the biggest brothels in Buenos Aires.
Emilia Chrabotzky, once the well-to-do wife of a professor, now impoverished, widowed, and Yasha’s mistress. She is Polish, a Catholic, and pretty. She lives in Warsaw with her fourteen-year-old daughter, Halina. She refuses any physical relationship with Yasha until they are married. After Yasha leaves her, she marries a widowed professor. She writes Yasha a long letter after he has become famous and respected as a holy man. Among other things, she reports that Halina has been cured of her ailments.
Kazimierz Zaruski, a wealthy usurer and miser. His servant-maid and Yadwiga, Emilia’s former servant-maid, know each other. He keeps his money in a big box in his rooms. He is asleep when Yasha enters his apartment to rob him. Yasha leaves behind a wadded sheet of paper that he had torn out of his notebook. It contains the names and addresses of prospective burglary victims as well as Emilia’s name and address.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 259
Yasha Mazur is a character for whom a reader may feel at once great distaste and great sympathy. Who has not often felt the desire for both stability and freedom? Yet how despicable is the man who causes so much pain to those nearest him, out of his own selfish pursuit of pleasure. In Yasha, Isaac Bashevis Singer has created a most appealing demon and an almost fatally flawed hero. In his evaluation of himself and his skills, Yasha is clearly a victim of hubris. Yet in his tender concessions to his wife and Magda at the beginning of the book, he reveals a genuinely caring facet of his nature.
Singer portrays Yasha’s women with restraint but also with important characteristic touches. Esther is, significantly, childless. Magda, his longest-running mistress, is “in her late twenties but appeared younger; audiences thought her no more than eighteen.” Zeftel is in her forties, has wide hips and abundant breasts, and Yasha regards her as sometimes motherly. Emilia, although she is superficially loving and caring to Yasha, is essentially compassionless: Before they can marry, she insists, he must convert, and when he appeals to her after his burglary attempt, she shuns him.
Even the most minor characters benefit from Singer’s sure use of detail. Bolek, Magda’s brother, is a terrifying and constant reminder to Yasha (and to the reader) of his sin with Magda, even though he is never actually seen. Halina’s clearly nonsexual adoration of her “Uncle Yasha” makes all the more repellent his incestuous feelings toward her.
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