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Shosha is a realistic novel that is undisguisedly based on Singer’s own life. The protagonist, Aaron Greidinger, is the son of a rabbi. Aaron’s younger brother is named Moishe. The family even lives first at the actual address of the Singer family in Warsaw, number 10 Krochmalna Street, then later in rural Galicia. Like Singer, Aaron is an aspiring writer. He moves to Warsaw, becomes a proofreader and translator, and becomes involved with a Communist girl. In the 1930’s, like all the other Jews in Poland, he is living from day to day, waiting for Adolf Hitler’s invasion and probably for death.

There are, however, important differences between Singer’s life and that of Aaron. Perhaps the most crucial difference is that, in the novel there is no older brother to guide Aaron, to help him in his career, and eventually to make it possible for him to escape to America. In contrast, Aaron must rely on friends and lovers for affection, for companionship, and for encouragement. Shosha is really the story of how Aaron’s life and thought were influenced by his relationships with five women and one man.

The man is Dr. Morris Feitelzohn, a philosopher without a university, a nonstop talker with encyclopedic knowledge, and a noted lover of women, whom Aaron meets at the center of bohemian life in Warsaw, the Writers’ Club. Aaron’s discussions with Dr. Feitelzohn, who has an opinion on every subject, force the young man to think deeply. Furthermore, although Dr. Feitelzohn has no money and even borrows from the impecunious Aaron, he knows everyone. Several of his friends have an important influence on Aaron’s future.

One of these friends is Celia Chentshiner, the wife of a wealthy man who encourages her extramarital affairs as long as she continues to mother him. Aaron soon discovers that Celia’s only real interests in life are erotic. Even her passion for literature and the arts is based on the fact that cultural conversations with gifted men such as Dr. Feitelzohn and Aaron stimulate her sexually. Celia’s affairs with them and with others, however, are in actuality an attempt to conquer boredom. Like many of Singer’s characters, she is alienated from her traditions and unable to find anything to replace them.

Another of Dr. Feitelzohn’s friends is Sam Dreiman, a wealthy American, whose mistress, Betty Slonim, is an actress. Unlike Celia, Betty is interested in men primarily so that she can advance her career in the theater. Encouraged by Betty, Sam becomes interested in a story that Aaron intends to write and pays him to write it as a play, with Betty in the starring role. The advance solves Aaron’s financial problems; however, the play is no good, partly because Aaron has had to change it radically in order to please Betty, and partly because he has spent so much time with women, including Betty, that he has not really done it justice.

Another of the women who is important in Aaron’s life is Dora Stolnitz, a fanatical Communist. Even though his mind tells him that he could well be imprisoned if the police raid her apartment, he cannot prevent himself from spending the night with her. Unfortunately, there is no place in her life for Aaron, who is an anti-Communist.

Tekla, the kind and cheerful Polish maid in Aaron’s apartment house, is important primarily because of what she represents to Aaron. Unlike Celia, Betty, and Dora, all of whom make demands on life, Tekla wishes only to give of herself. It is people such as Tekla, Aaron decides, who enable one to believe in the goodness of...

(This entire section contains 768 words.)

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The woman with whom Aaron falls in love is in many ways like Tekla. Shosha lives on Krochmalna Street, where she and Aaron were childhood playmates. She is neither intelligent nor well educated, but she is totally devoted to Aaron. When, to the horror of his friends at the Writers’ Club, Aaron marries Shosha, he is perhaps attempting to return to his childhood and to a world without ambivalence, governed by common beliefs and by unalterable rules.

Thirteen years later, some time after the end of World War II, Celia’s husband and Aaron meet in Israel and compare notes about their friends and relatives, most of whom, including Shosha, were either murdered or died of hardship. As the book ends, the two men are still unable to find an answer for the question that Dr. Feitelzohn posed so many years ago: Why, if there is a good God, does He permit such suffering?