Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734
Singer was born in Leoncin, a Polish village only a few miles from Warsaw, but lived there only until 1908 when his family moved into the city. His older brother, Israel Joshua, once the more famous of the two writers, later described the village of their youth in Fun a velt vos iz nishto mer (1946; Of a World That Is No More, 1970). Isaac Bashevis Singer worshiped his older brother, whom he regarded as a mentor and whose literary influence he repeatedly acknowledged. In My Father’s Court treats the period from 1908, when Singer’s father established his court in Warsaw, to 1918, when the end of World War I seems also to mark the end of Isaac’s boyhood. The city remains the setting for the greater part of In My Father’s Court; only in the last eight episodes does the scene shift to Bilgoray, the girlhood home of Singer’s mother. The memoir ends with the teenage Isaac’s account of the first of the four years he would eventually pass in the village.
The Warsaw that provides the setting for 265 of the book’s 307 pages consists almost exclusively of the Jewish quarter in which the Singer family lived. Rarely does young Isaac venture far from the family flat at 10 Krochmalna Street; still more rarely does he leave the familiar confines of the Jewish neighborhood. The geography of In My Father’s Court reflects the alienation of the Jews from Polish society at large. Even within the Jewish community, the Singers frequently seem isolated by the parents’ extreme piety and unworldliness. Many of the episodes detail their religiosity, charity, and scrupulous honesty in the face of relentless poverty. The note of deprivation—of food, of clothing, of coal—is struck repeatedly. Yet the outward barrenness of family life seems congruent with Rabbi Pinhos-Mendel’s holiness, as if it would be inconceivable that such a man should grow rich. The action of those episodes which form the structural backbone of In My Father’s Court revolves about the various litigants who come to Pinhos-Mendel’s court for judgment. That they come to 10 Krochmalna Street in the first place validates the reputation of the rabbi’s beth din, since the concept behind this ancient Jewish institution is “that there can be no justice without godliness, and that the best judgment is one accepted by all litigants with good will and trust in divine power.”
So closely is the Singer family identified with the beth din that “it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.” Nevertheless, In My Father’s Court contains, in addition to the material related to the beth din, a record of the personal growth of Isaac Bashevis Singer: his first brushes with sex, disease, and death; the sporadic onset of religious doubt; the conflict between Orthodox injunctions and secular attractions; and always the mounting reading list of both religious and secular books.
Like most of Singer’s works, In My Father’s Court plays out its familial and personal histories against the backdrop of Jewish, Polish, and even world history. All of these various strands come together most obviously in the last quarter of the memoir, beginning fittingly enough with the episode entitled “The Shot at Sarajevo.” World War I, the most important historical event in the book, breaks out just after the Singers move from 10 to 12 Krochmalna Street. From this point onward, the decline of family, Jewish, and Polish fortunes parallels the course of the war. The Singers reach the brink of starvation in their freezing flat, Jews are forced into the Russian army and prosecuted as “spies,” and Poland is torn asunder by competing military powers. In 1917, with typhus and typhoid raging in Warsaw, the Singer family separates, Pinhos-Mendel and Israel Joshua remaining in the German-occupied city, Isaac and younger brother Moishe departing for Bilgoray with their mother. It is in Bilgoray that Isaac experiences the “world of old Jewishness” and uncovers a “spiritual treasure trove.” Yet he also experiences a sharpening of the conflict between his rediscovered heritage and his gathering artistic and sexual urges. In “The New Winds,” the concluding episode of In My Father’s Court, World War I ends and the fifteen-year-old Isaac, his mind filled with novels and poetry, is “prepared for the turmoil that writers call ‘love.’”
At the heart of In My Father’s Court lies an attempt to explain the world. Pinhos-Mendel’s beth din is not only the symbolic center of Singer family life but, ideally, of the Jewish worldview as well. The beth din, claims Singer, “could exist only among a people with a deep faith and humility, and it reached its apex among the Jews when they were completely bereft of worldly power and influence”—that is to say, in such a place as the Warsaw of In My Father’s Court, although practically any time and place in Jewish history could serve as well. Perhaps their long history of powerlessness explains the Jewish reliance upon the divine power which inwardly animates Rabbi Pinhos-Mendel Singer and outwardly expresses itself in his beth din. After a case was decided in a beth din, the litigants touched the judge’s handkerchief “to signify their acceptance of the judgment.” This handkerchief, the judge’s sole “weapon,” stands in symbolic opposition to the many institutions which, unlike the beth din, employ force.
The disparity between “us”—the powerless Jews huddled together in the Krochmalna Street ghetto—and “them”—the surrounding hordes of violent Gentiles waiting to pounce—is everywhere apparent in In My Father’s Court. For Rabbi Pinhos-Mendel Singer, the world beyond his balcony is uniformly tref (unclean). Speaking not a word of Polish or Russian, he rarely leaves the family flat which young Isaac soon comes to describe as a “stronghold of Jewish puritanism, where the body was looked upon as a mere appendage to the soul.” So pronounced is Pinhos-Mendel’s unworldliness that he spends thirty of the fifty marks given to the hungry Singers on publishing his rabbinic commentaries.
Hardly less contemptuous of the world than her husband, Bathsheba does not, however, share his blind faith, which extends to the literal belief in miracles. Herself descended from a line of illustrious rabbis, Bathsheba is nevertheless a rationalist. The views of husband and wife collide in “Why the Geese Shrieked.” Pinhos-Mendel takes the shrieks emitted by dead geese for evidence of otherworldly intervention, whether on the part of God or Satan. Bathsheba silences the geese by removing their windpipes: a momentary victory for reason. The terrified young Isaac who witnesses this scene and prays for his father’s view to prevail will later fall increasingly under the spell of the rationalism bequeathed to him by his mother.
In the overall design of In My Father’s Court, faith and reason are not antithetical but complementary attributes, each contributing to the Jewish explanation of the world. It is only when the skepticism which is reason’s handmaid threatens to undermine a Jew’s faith that reason itself is suspect. Because young Isaac instinctively understands that his father’s piety and his mother’s rationalism are not mutually exclusive, his faith is unshaken. As the maturing Isaac continues to play out the drama of moral choice so crucial to spiritual autobiographies, however, the apostasy of his revered elder brother shakes the foundation of Isaac’s Jewishness. The artist’s studio into which Israel Joshua moves is the real and symbolic antithesis of the 10 Krochmalna Street flat. In the episode entitled “The Studio,” the behavior of Israel Joshua and his bohemian cohorts who “acted as freely as Gentiles” constitutes a shocking epiphany for Isaac. So persistent is the memory of that moment when he first became fully aware of the chasm dividing his brother’s studio from his father’s that the Isaac Bashevis Singer who writes In My Father’s Court half a century later still eddies in his stories “from the study house to sexuality and back again.”
One of Singer’s literary strategies, here and elsewhere, is to associate belief with details of appearance, dress, and language. Invariably, apostate Jews shave off beards and sidelocks, discard long gabardines for modern dress, eat forbidden food, and speak Gentile languages in addition to or in lieu of Yiddish. Thus, Isaac feels conspicuously Jewish in the artist’s studio despite his fascination with the life-style of his brother’s friends. Soon after the studio episode Isaac is forced to spend eight days under observation in a disinfecting station during a typhus epidemic. There he is divested of sidelocks and Hasidic garments and eats double helpings of nonkosher groats, actions that seem to dissolve his Jewishness. This “introduction to a non-Jewish world,” coming hard on the heels of his studio visit, loosens the hold of his father’s court and thus symbolically of the Jewish ties that bind.
Still another threat to Isaac’s orthodoxy is posed by the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, whose idea that everything is part of the divine essence and that absolute morality does not therefore exist proves seductive to Singer’s fictional characters as well. Spinoza’s teachings, anathema to Hasidic Jews such as Isaac’s father, are reductionist in the sense that they seem to atomize God. Within the context of In My Father’s Court, attraction to Spinoza’s philosophy marks the first stage of apostasy. To Spinoza, “God was the world and the world was God.” To pious Jews on the order of Rabbi Pinhos-Mendel Singer, however, the heresy of locating the attributes of God in a world so patently unclean is inconceivable. The very reading of secular texts is forbidden to such Jews. Isaac’s insatiable appetite for learning, which takes the form of devouring sacred and profane books indiscriminately, symbolizes his growing awareness of the limitations of the traditional Jewish life represented by his father.
It is fitting that “The New Winds,” the concluding episode of In My Father’s Court, should picture Isaac, still wearing the long gabardine, velvet hat, and dangling sidelocks of the Hasidic Jew and teaching Hebrew in remote Bilgoray, yet dazzled by a girl’s “indescribable smile” and straining eagerly toward love. The last pages of In My Father’s Court therefore remain faithful to the overall design of the memoir, still juxtaposing conflicting worldviews neither of which can claim Isaac Bashevis Singer’s undivided allegiance.