Now in his seventy-sixth year, with at least thirty books published, Isaac Bashevis Singer long ago commandingly established himself as the greatest living master of Yiddish fiction. Dipping his pen in an inkwell of demonology, he has excelled in dramatizing a varied, forceful, and frequently fantastic vision of Eastern Europe’s vanished Jewry. He and Saul Bellow are clearly the greatest contemporary Jewish writers, even though—or perhaps because—they represent opposite poles. Bellow has made the Jew into the typical American, expressing him in one of the richest media of our age: English enlivened with Yiddish dialect. Singer, on the other hand, remains ill at ease with American-born Jews in his work. Although he migrated to New York in 1935, he continues to write in Yiddish and finds his imagination most at home in the culture of the shtetl—the small Jewish ghetto village of nineteenth century Poland. It is, of course, his own culture.
Singer relates his childhood and youth memorably in a heartwarming account, In My Father’s Court (1966). The court of the title is the Beth Din, which combined attributes of a law court, synagogue, classroom, symposium, and psychoanalyst’s office. There young Isaac watched his ecstatically pious, rabbinical father judge the problems and quarrels of the bereaved, the disturbed, and the superstitious. For the son, his father’s decisions exemplified “the celestial council of justice, God’s judgment, absolute mercy.”
The dramas enacted in Singer’s boyhood home seem like scenes straight out of his mature fictions. Consider, for example, the beautiful and moving tale of an old woman past childbearing who, for love of her husband, insists on divorcing him. Isaac’s mother was outraged: “Divorce! Unthinkable! The dirty old man must be a woman chaser, a goat.” Rabbi Singer, learned but painfully shy, fled to the Hasidic study house, where he could consider the matter with sage men. One of the scholars concluded that according to the Talmud, “even an elderly man is still obligated to ’be fruitful and multiply.’” The boy, eavesdropping at the keyhole, reflects in the characteristic Singer vein: “All was mixed up together: life, death, lust, boundless loyalty and love.”
In Old Love, Singer presents what begins as a similar story of spousal sacrifice: a wife is convinced that her sister and her husband are in love, decides to die, and sews a wedding dress for her sister. The wife does die, the sister and widower do marry, but the second wife repudiates pious Jewish rituals, preferring such pagan music as polkas and mazurkas. The shtetl community is soon scandalized; the husband assumes a Gentile name, removes his son from religious school, and shaves off his beard. The wife trims the son’s earlocks and no longer keeps a kosher kitchen. Even the mother-in-law becomes deranged and insists that her dead daughter has become a dybbuk and settled in her left ear. Soon, the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated at Sarajevo, leading to World War I. That winter, the couple decides on a divorce. It is rumored that the dead sister-wife appears to them each night and insists on occupying the connubial bed. Concludes Singer, “The living die so that the dead may live.”
This tale is one of many that chronicle the collapse of the Hasidic way of life. Singer comes to it at the crucial moment when the profound, rich, intense tradition of Jewish piety and mysticism debauches into the ideological chaos of the twentieth century. By 1914, while elderly rabbis such as Singer’s father and grandfather dreamed up endless commentaries on the commentators on the law, young intellectuals were reading Dostoevski, Freud, and Marx and often sailing to New York. In his memoir Singer bitingly recounts the collapse of Poland’s eight-hundred-year-old Jewish community before the brisk and bitter winds of change during World War I.
He does likewise in his best-known novel, The Family Moskat (1949). It traces the declining fortunes of a Warsaw family, with its main narrative current flowing through Asa Heshel, the son of a provincial rabbi, who arrives in Warsaw seeking life and truth and revelation, but instead becomes entangled with the commercial, increasingly secular Moskat family. Writing as a complete insider (he was already in his thirties when he left Warsaw for the United States), Singer feels under no obligation to make the Moskats preternaturally upright or lovable. Indeed, he takes pleasure in painting their warts of greed, vulgarity, and pettiness. Asa Heshel, former Talmudist, turns cosmopolitan intellectual, marries into the Moskat clan, abandons his wife for her cousin, and has a child with each woman but happiness with neither. The novel’s sexual disarray into a welter of adulteries and divorces reflects the splintering up of the old social order. Asa’s idealistic intellectual ambitions dissipate in faithlessness to both God and women, turning into frozen distrust of the former, raging lust for the latter. The novel closes on this terminal note: “Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth.”
Singer’s natural medium is not his novels, which tend to be poorly shaped and only fitfully intense, but the short story, for his natural style is compact, coiled, and clipped. It is the rhythm of the Yiddish oral tradition—ironic, nervous, staccato, and proverbial. His greatest stories, such as “Gimpel the Fool” and “The Spinoza of Market Street,” breathe an enigmatic moral tone but also a humane appreciation of saintly...
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