(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1734 words.)