Shosha

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Shosha is not so much a book about Shosha, the child-bride of the narrator, as it is his fictional autobiography. The narrator, Aaron Greidinger, is Singer’s own alter ego, resembling him not only in his intelligence and artistic gifts but also in appearance (balding red hair).

Shosha is Aaron’s childhood friend, his next-door neighbor at 10 Krochmalna Street in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw. In Bashevis Singer’s writing, this locale becomes a mythic world. It is not the conventional nostalgic world of childhood, but a tragic world which has been brutally destroyed, its only traces to be found in literature such as this novel. This is an enclosed world, a Yiddish speaking island in a Polish speaking city with a hum of life all its own.

From early childhood, Shosha is considered by those around her to be feeble-minded, and she is sent home from school because of her inability to master basic reading skills. Her figure contrasts sharply with that of Aaron, the brilliant boy-scholar, reaching prematurely into the forbidden realms of philosophy and the Kabbalistic occult. Their common meeting ground is on the plane of the imagination, where his love for spinning a tale matches her naïve eagerness for stories.

The contrast between the two extends to their family backgrounds. Hers is an easygoing artisan family, while his is a rabbinical family, proud of its learning, austere in its observance of religious law. It is only in Shosha’s house that Aaron can indulge in storytelling and in drawing pictures; in his own very orthodox home, inventing stories is seen as frivolous, and the making of images is prohibited by divine commandment. Bashele, Shosha’s mother, is always associated with a warm, moist atmosphere, and with delightful smells of cooking. Aaron’s mother warns him not to eat anything at their neighbors’ because she suspects the food there is not strictly kosher.

Not bright to begin with, Shosha’s development is arrested as a result of trauma, when one of her sisters dies in an epidemic during World War I. She is slightly mentally retarded, and completely dependent on her mother, whom she is unable to leave for any length of time. Physically, she is nearly flat-chested, has never reached womanhood, and is apparently unable to have children.

Aaron’s love for Shosha transcends all these drawbacks. He chooses her over the other women in his life, and marries her, taking upon himself the responsibility of looking after her. In many respects this step is a retreat into the womblike comfort of the childish past described in the opening sections of the novel. Shosha’s only real dowry is her mother, Bashele, who now cooks and cares for Aaron as for a son. This seems to be a fulfillment of his childish craving for her warm motherliness in comparison with his own mother’s coldness.

In a way, the narrator’s faithfulness to Shosha is a faithfulness to his origins. He might rebel against his father’s orthodoxy, but he always acknowledges his roots in the world of his childhood, in the Yiddish language, and in Jewish culture.

Practically all the other characters in the book regard Aaron’s liaison with Shosha as the height of folly, and as totally inexplicable. Aaron is a young and promising Yiddish author, well-received in the circles of the Jewish intelligentsia, especially by the women. He has unbelievable prowess as well as the good luck that his various girl friends are not unduly jealous of one another. In addition to Shosha, there are Dora Stolnitz, the Communist; Celia Chentshiner, the wealthy patronness of the arts; Betty Slonim, the actress from America; and Takla, the gentile peasant girl who works as a maid. Reviewing his success with women, the narrator remarks ingenuously: “In all the novels I have read, the hero desired only one woman, but here I was lusting after the whole female gender.”

Aaron is only a fledgling writer when Betty Slonim and her millionaire lover Sam Dreiman arrive in Warsaw and bring him good fortune. They have come from America in search of a suitable Yiddish play which will expose Betty’s talents at their best....

(The entire section is 1703 words.)