In 1935 Isaac Bashevis Singer, a thirty-one-year-old Yiddish writer from Warsaw, arrived in New York so unsure of his prospects that he traveled on a tourist visa. Although he was lucky to escape the German occupation of Poland and the Holocaust, he did not anticipate the destruction of Polish Jewry any more than did other Jews born into strictest orthodoxy. He had been brought up in a wholly rabbinical milieu so insulated from the common life of Warsaw, from secular Jews, their modern culture, and their struggle against established, Church-sanctioned anti-Semitism that he knew Polish life less than he did the Bible, the prayer book, and the Talmud.
The father of Isaac Bashevis Singer (and of his elder brother Israel Joshua Singer, who would write Yoshe Kalb and The Brothers Ashkenazi) was a Hasidic rabbi. He was an “unofficial” rabbi, for he had not been licensed by the Imperial Russian government; an “official” rabbi had to pass an examination in Russian and pay a call on the local governor. The father of these two remarkable novelists-to-be was so unworldly that he could barely address an envelope in Polish. When a young woman was raped and her screams could be heard all over the neighborhood, the rabbi primly shut his windows. The “world”—the great outside—was one thing; the holy life expected of Jews every minute of the day was something else.
As Singer recalled in his memoir In My Father’s Court (1966), the world itself was regarded as tref, unclean. Only God mattered, and the Law He handed down through Moses. The power of God over Jews was such an inexhaustible subject that the rabbi told his sons “every letter of the Torah contains thousands upon thousands of mysteries. Even the zaddikim, the righteous sages, did not understand a thousandth part of it. Even Moses, our great teacher, did not know it all…. But everything is just, everything is just….”
To this pious, kindly, innocent man, such a bookworm that he would glance longingly at the bookcase when kept too long by petitioners and litigants, came those medico-legal-culinary problems and disputes that could be illuminated and arbitrated only by a rabbi ordained by Jewish authorities. A young girl ran into his study—his “court”—to tell him that a meat broth had been cooking on the stove and some milk in an adjacent pot boiled over and spilled into the meat. Did this make the meat unkosher? How much milk had been spilled? Alas, said the rabbi, the meat was now unkosher. But the meat had already been eaten. Did this make the pot unkosher?
An old lady, childless after many years of marriage, insisted on being divorced so that her husband could marry a younger woman. With much reluctance, the rabbi acceded to her request, the old lady explaining that since she and her husband would lie together in Paradise, she had sewed her successor’s trousseau and cooked all the food for the wedding. There was a rabbi who six nights a week slept fully dressed, for the Messiah might come at any moment and he did not mean to lose any time joining him. On the other hand, there was no need to go to bed fully dressed on Sabbath eve, for the Sabbath was more sacred than the redemption to be brought by the Messiah.
Potted flowers were pagan, but the sight of a rainbow caused the father to recite the blessing “Who Remembereth the Covenant.” Singer’s mother, the rebetsin, daughter of a rabbi, was actually a rationalist far more “sensible” than her husband, but no less immersed in Jewish learning and no less wary of “the World to Come.” She would fall asleep and be awakened by a verse from the Psalms. Indeed, every night she woke up with a verse, at times not even knowing where it came from. Later she would locate it in Ezekiel or the Twelve Minor Prophets.
All this was in Warsaw in the first part of this century, when a Hasid could not carry even a handkerchief on the Sabbath and females were such a threat to the truly pious male that they had to be looked at sideways. The young Isaac Bashevis Singer, dutiful son, grandson, and nephew of rabbis wearing the large velvet hat and gabardine of the orthodox Hasidim, felt positively bold when he walked out on the balcony to look at Krochmalna Street—which his father never did—or eavesdropped on the lamentations and marital woes recited in his father’s “courtroom.” In fact, as Janet Hadda describes the household in her biography of Singer, the Singer family knew little domestic peace. Singer’s mother, for all the learning she had absorbed as the daughter of a rabbi, was a strong character, skeptical enough to deride her husband’s total absorption in the hundreds of observances, rituals, and prohibitions central to Jewish law. Adding to the uproar at home was the firstborn child, Hinde Esther, who, before her illness was understood to be a medical matter, not a deliberate disturbance, was given to epileptic fits.
Israel Joshua Singer, an established Yiddish novelist eleven years older than Isaac and much adored by him, had fled to America to escape the strictures that ruled the parental household. His pitiless novel Yoshe Kalb was to center on the sexual “sin” of a Jew brought up in orthodoxy. “Bashevis”—a middle name his bro-ther gave himself reconstructed from his mother’s name, based on King David’s great love and future wife, Bathseba—became worldly enough to attend the Yiddish Warsaw Writers’ Club. Forced to educate himself to escape the emphasis on Jewish holiness, he read on his own the works of Schopenhauer and the fin de siècle naturalist Knut Hamsun, whose Hunger became a favorite. He was to teach himself German and translate Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain into Yiddish. In Warsaw he published his remarkable first novel, Satan in Goray, dealing with the attraction to the occult among the Jews who were being massacred in seventeenth-century Poland. But he felt wholly removed from the endless political squabbles at the Writers’ Club, and his obvious gifts, plus his strange interest in “spirits and demons,” exposed him to the kind of envy concealed in ridicule from other Yiddish writers that was to become routine when in America Singer eventually became the one Yiddish writer with a large audience in English.
His first years in New York were not happy. His brother Israel Joshua had coldly steered him to the Jewish Daily Forward, a socialist paper, to which I.J. had contributed, and whose masthead read “Workers of the World, Unite!” It was the most popular Yiddish daily in the world and a center of immigrant life in New York. In the European tradition it regularly published fiction and literary articles. Its editor, Abraham Cahan, spoke Russian at home, and was so gifted a novelist in English that William Dean Howells thought him the equal of Stephen Crane; but as editor of the Forward he insisted on the socialist gospel then expected by its mostly working-class readers. Singer in New York, as in Warsaw, had no interest in the political messianism that devoured so many immigrant Jews. His disputes with Cahan comically turned into bitter exchanges on the literary correctness of his Yiddish. “Don’t tell me how to write Yiddish!” he finally shouted at Cahan.
Before long Singer became such a fixture at the Forward that he needed two pseudonyms—“Bashevis” and “Varshavsky” (the man from War-saw)—to accommodate his articles as well as the fiction he serialized in the paper. The “unheard-of” sexuality in his fiction fed the resentment of his obviously superior gifts—a compositor on the Forward once refused to print a Singer story, saying he was too shocked. When in 1974 the paper finally moved uptown from its many years on East Broadway, a disgruntled employee threw out a great mass of Singer manuscripts “with the garbage.” But thanks to his gift for enlisting interesting young women as translators, Singer soon commanded so appreciative an audience in English that he could joke that he wrote in two languages.
Singer became an “American” writer with Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpel the Fool,” the marvelous story of a cuckold who was also a saint. It appeared in Partisan Review. Before long Singer was being published “everywhere,” from The New Yorker to Playboy, and lecturing to Gentile audiences more triumphantly even than to Jewish ones. He had become America’s favorite guide to the “old country,” to the necessary myth of a uniformly sacred Jewish past.
It was eagerly lapped up by American Jews without any strong religious belief who were now expected to establish their “Jewish identity” in the light of the Holocaust and the State of Israel. What had been religion and the most primitive superstition in Poland was in America charming folklore. Singer was unfashionably derisive of Israel, while evangelical Christians were enthusiastic about it, and about Singer himself. If Jews all returned to Jesus’ own homeland they could be converted en masse! They relished Singer’s tales of Jewish spirituality in the Poland destroyed by Hitler. I once traveled with Singer to Texas Christian University, where he was to get an honorary degree and I was to give a lecture. This unexpected approval of Jews astonished me more than it did Singer, who chortled over it. About the sudden vogue for Jews and their nostalgia, he said, “We’ve oversold them.”
This was true so long as he stayed in the Polish past, away from the helter-skelter erotic life he was actually living in New York. (His biographer describes how he “eventually found himself entangled with three different women at the same time.”) His stories for children put a golden haze on Yiddish folklore in old Poland. He was so sure of his audience that he left posthumous novels entitled simply Scum and Meshugah. But in Enemies, A Love Story (1972), where a Jewish refugee finds himself caught between the wife he thought he had lost to Hitler, his new wife, and a mistress, Singer showed that he could confront in all its cruel detail a New York spiritually alien to him, a city where he could not enter the subway without being amazed by “wild faces” never seen in Warsaw.
Despite his good fortune in America, Singer had never left off being homesick for a world to which there was no return. In the Fifties the Forward serialized Shadows on the Hudson, a bitter novel about New York in the late Forties which has now finally appeared in English. It is repetitious in its serial form, and gives the impression that writing it must have been disturbing for Singer. I do not know why he left the Yiddish text in the files of the Forward before he died in 1991, but I suspect that he did not want his doting American public to know just how meaningless he found life in America. The book is remarkable for its fierceness about the Jewish condition in the new state of Israel as well as in postwar New York. Appropriately enough, it appears at a time when the “Jewish Question” now calls for an answer by Jews who no longer know what they stand for and can’t believe that Judaism once postulated the immortality of the soul in “the World to Come.”
In the coda of Shadows on the Hudson, Singer has his main character, Hertz Dovid Grein, retire to Israel in order finally to reject the eroticism that has driven him crazy, dividing him, like the hero of Enemies, A Love Story, between three women. He says he is now in favor of the strictest Jewish law.
The Torah is the only effective teaching we have about how to bridle the human beast. No one has better tamed that beast than the Jew—I mean the true Jew, the Jew of the Scriptures, of the Gemara, of the Shulhan Arukh, of the books of ethical instruction. The Christians have a handful of monks and nuns. We created an entire nation that served God. We were once a holy nation. Thank God, a remnant of that nation has remained.
But the reader knows this profession of faith is quite hollow, since Grein doesn’t care “who gave us the Torah”—he just wants to be saved from his sexuality. He will never love any one woman more than another. But he despises Israelis as assimilationists who “imitate the Gentiles at every turn” and whose books and plays “are filled with idolatry, adultery, and bloodshed, not to mention slander, gossip, obscenity, mockery and idle talk.”
This Israel is the counterpart of the New York in which Singer’s Holocaust survivors actually live. The novel unfolds as a series of personal disasters affecting a gallery of characters including a businessman, a physician, an actor, a psychoanalyst, a dealer in mutual funds, several Communists, a mathematician who is taken in by the psychic phenomena staged for the credulous by a woman dentist with a fake Wasp name, an unsuccessful painter who joylessly turns Christian. Running through it is Singer’s debate with himself whether such survivors have any free will left or are just determined, like everyone else, by heredity and the cataclysm of history. It is quite evident that Singer’s early secular reading made him a determinist for life. He wishes it were not so but for him the Jews are the products of their history. Nowhere else in his work does Singer make it so clear that persecution does not improve the character.
Singer’s characters are all so marked by their early religious training and their frantic escape from the Nazis that they are unable to shake off the Jewish God even though they are unbelievers. They don’t know whether to thank God or to curse Him. They have gone from Warsaw to Berlin and, after Hitler took power, from Paris to Casablanca and Havana, and finally to New York. And Singer describes these survivors with such biting emphasis on their physical crudity, intellectual vanity, ideological fanaticism, and sexuality clouded by remembrance of warnings against pleasure absorbed in childhood that I can well believe Singer did not want to tell some of his American readers what he thought of them.
His Jews in New York routinely re-call sacred lines from their early ye-shiva training. Boris (formerly Borukh) Makaver keeps his own prayer house in his apartment, at 86th and Broadway (the Belnord), where the courtyard “arouses European thoughts…full of youthful longing.” But he is as frantic to get rich again as he is intolerant of his daughter Anna’s infatuation with Hertz Grein, whom she has just met again after twenty-three years. Professor Shrage, whom Boris supports, assists the Polish Jewish woman, the dentist with a Wasp name who fakes séances. Dr. Zadok Halperin is a freethinker who laughs at Boris Makaver’s ostentatious piety. “Believe me, if Moses were to arise from the dead and take a good look at those primitive Williamsburg loudmouths in their black coats, always waving their arms about, he would curse them. Remember, Moses was a prince of Egypt, not a shmegege with sidelocks.”
Only the physician Dr. Solomon Margolin, who shares early yeshiva memories with Boris, is portrayed as a physically attractive person with a degree of self-control. Singer describes the others with a sort of horror. Hitler has stunted them physically and morally. Anna Makaver’s first husband, the stand-up comic Yasha Kotik, who was thought to have died but has actually survived Stalin’s camps as well as Hitler’s, has turned up in New York and boasts of destroying Anna’s happiness. “Well, the daughter of a Hasidic family, the child of a wealthy man, came on the scene and I ruined her. In those days, I wanted to ruin everything. It was a sort of ambition with me.” Anna’s unfortunate present husband, Stanislaw Luria, who lost his first wife in the Holocaust,
was short and broad-shouldered, and had an enormous head, no neck to speak of, a disheveled shock of brown hair streaked with gray, and a face that was either bloated or swollen by self-importance. His thick eyebrows overhung yellow eyes set in blue pouches flaked with crud.
From his early days in the Yiddish Warsaw Writers’ Club Singer had found Jewish radicalism intolerable. In the Sixties he called the young zealots leading the insurrection at Columbia stupidly ungrateful for the safety Jews enjoyed in America. Here he has his fun with Herman, who fought in Spain with the Loyalists, and will soon go to the Soviet Union only to disappear. He tells Stanislaw Luria that “until Stalingrad, the Allies hoped for a Soviet defeat.”
The novel for all its acerbity has wonderful comic touches. In Miami Beach, Morris Gombiner’s termagant wife, who is always saying “you shaddup!” to her meek little husband, turns out to be an unstoppably vociferous Red when she is not handing out business advice. Her version of D-Day: “It was only after the masses had stormed Washington and threatened to lynch the President that he ordered the invasion. But it was all a bluff! On the quiet, they tried to save Hitler so they could wipe out the workers.”
Similarly, the main action of the novel—Hertz Grein’s movements back and forth between Anna and his longstanding mistress, Esther, and his wife, Leah—is comic because this former Hebrew school teacher now making money in mutual funds is always arming himself with Biblical quotations against his own state of confusion. Absurd to himself, always failing one woman or another, he escapes to Israel, where he forces himself to lead the life of a Hasid and condemns everything in Israel but the super-orthodox “remnant.” For Singer he is acting out the part of the faithless Jew in a world where to “belong,” you just have to remain “attached,” and actual faith is unnecessary.
Was it all really so different in Singer’s youth, in pre-Hitler Europe? Singer achieved his popular success, and not only in America, by picturing a Poland in which Jews saved themselves internally only through their faith and trust in God. The more they were hated by the goyim, the more Hitler murdered even their children, the more they clung to their God. The Swedish Academy awarded Singer the Nobel Prize in 1978 for “an impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life.” Singer was not the only Jew who must have wondered what of Jewish faith, of supposed Christian compassion, was reflected in “universal human conditions.”
Long before he received the prize, Singer, in Shadows on the Hudson, powerfully described New York as the capital of modern degeneracy:
A boyish irresponsibility possessed Grein: God had abandoned the world. It was once more the domain of idols and idol worship.
The car passed Lincoln Square and continued to roll down Broadway. Although this was no longer Broadway but a thoroughfare in the most pagan of ancient cities: Rome, Athens, or even Carthage. Here the idols had their worshippers and priests. Their effigies stared down from snow-covered billboards—raging murderers, naked whores. In front of a theater, young women jostled and shoved. They were waiting to see an idol. In a window, a man clad in white garments and wearing a tall white hat roasted meat over glowing coals…. Cacophonous music—screams of lust and the shrieks of the tortured—blared from an open door…. The air stank of smoke and slag, of booze and burning.
The Jews who felt trapped in this emptiness never stopped trying to refute one another’s claim to a way out. The world has been too terrible. But in his portrayal of Hertz Grein’s external piety in an altogether worldly Israel Singer seems to show the absolute desperation of an answer that his characters disprove over and over again. Perhaps there is no way back. “To believe in God one had unquestioningly to believe that God had directly revealed Himself to man, and that consequently every law, every restriction, every verse of sacred teaching was unalterably true.”
Singer died in 1991. In 1996, after Prime Minister Rabin had been assassinated “in the name of God” by an inflamed nationalist, an Israeli army private, outraged that Arabs and Jews might equally have access to Hebron, shot and wounded five Palestinians at random. “When I heard,” he said, “that the agreement was about to be signed to surrender the holy city bought for 400 shekels of silver by our forefather Abraham, I decided that this can’t be passed over in silence.”
April 23, 1998