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Family Troubles

In My Father’s Court

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 307 pp., $4.50

The memoirs collected in this new volume by the celebrated Yiddish novelist and story-writer fall into two groups. There are those referred to in the title of the book, which describe the people and the problems that came before the rabbinic court conducted by the writer’s father in a poor Jewish quarter of Warsaw more than half a century ago. The other group of memoirs simply tells us about some of the events in the childhood and boyhood of the writer; in fact, the latter half of the book, having a strong element of continuity, comes close to being a brief, informal autobiography of Singer’s earliest years. Partly because they tell a continuous story, and partly because each episode is written to rather less of a formula, the chapters of straightforward autobiography seem to me more satisfactory than the accounts of the court cases. The book as a whole, it must be said, gives an impression of slightness, even of perfunctoriness in some places; yet it does throw a light of an unexpected kind on Singer’s achievements as a writer of fiction.

By this I do not mean just that the world of the memoirs is substantially the same as the one presented in the fiction: It could hardly be called “unexpected” that the Warsaw of this book should put us in mind of The Family Moskat, or that his description of the life he found in a small town like Bilgoray should remind us of such fictional shtetlach as Zamosc, Tereshpol, or Goray. At the same time, in speaking of the relation between the memoirs and his fiction, I am not suggesting that one can find in these sketches direct correspondences between biographical facts and the events in this or that story or novel. No, what I have in mind is the question of the devious stratagems that Singer is forced to adopt, as a writer of fiction, in order to make imaginatively available to himself (and to us) the entire world of his childhood experiences—given that this world was a devout, self-enclosed, ritualistic one quite unlike our own, and that it was utterly and deliberately destroyed in his lifetime.

One can say that these memoirs, in their relaxed, folk-like simplicity of tone, their readiness to offer opinions and draw conclusions, their didacticism and discursiveness, really are what many of the stories, for their own artistic purposes, merely appear to be. It is the difference between the reality here and the appearance elsewhere which makes one realize just how tightly disciplined, how subtle and self-effacing, is the art of Singer’s finest fiction; how conscious, dedicated, and sly a craftsman he is; how great must be the effort that enables him to write in his fiction as if he takes for granted his subject matter, his audience, his language, and his relation to them all. The world he writes about is irretrievably lost; but the fictions in which he memorializes it are given an almost hallucinatory vividness by his fiercely sustained pretense that he is doing nothing of the kind. In the new book, by contrast, his impulse is frankly commemorative; and it is instructive to see that the result is a marked dilution of creative intensity.

STILL, MUCH OF In My Father’s Court can be recommended to admirers of Singer’s fiction for its own sake, and not just for the help it gives us in understanding the nature of his fictional techniques and illusions. Though Singer does not always take full advantage of the material he is presenting, his readers can be grateful to have this record both of the functioning of a rabbinic Beth Din, or court, and of the day-to-day life of the household that produced the author and his equally gifted brother, Israel Joshua Singer, whose best-known book is The Brothers Ashkenazi. Israel Joshua appears frequently in these pages: as a revered elder brother, as an unsatisfactory son, as an adolescent skeptic, as a young writer among the godless bohemians of the Warsaw Yiddish literary world, as a conscript in the Tsar’s army during the First World War, as a deserter on the run. Of the members of the family presented in the book, I would say that he emerges more clearly than the father or mother, though the latter have many more pages devoted to them.

The father was poor, scholarly, and filled with a dread of the fevers and corruptions of the world. (“In our home, the world itself was tref—unclean,” Singer writes; and then goes on, in his ironic, admonitory vein, “Many years were to pass before I began to understand how much sense there was in this attitude.”) The father’s title as rabbi had no official recognition or confirmation from the Russian government; he had no power over the litigants other than that given to him by his knowledge of Jewish Law, by his piety and sense of justice, and by the fact that the litigants had themselves chosen to come to him with their problems. They signified their intention to abide by his decisions simply by touching his handkerchief before each case began. The “courtroom” was the study or the living-room of the Singers’ tiny, bare apartment; the rabbi’s wife freely interrupted the proceedings to offer her opinions; the novelist-to-be listened at the door, or behind curtains. Sometimes he ran messages for his father while a case was going on, and thus managed to get glimpses into the homes of the people who were feuding with one another, or were in a state of confusion about some aspect of the Law which bound the minutiae of their daily lives. The Beth Din, Singer suggests in his Preface to the book,

was a kind of blend of a court of law, synagogue, house of study, and, if you will, psychoanalyst’s office where people of troubled spirit could come to unburden themselves. That such a mixture was not only feasible but necessary was proved by the existence of the Beth Din over many generations.

So the people came with their problems; some being problems that could have arisen at any time in the life of the Jews of Eastern Europe, others problems of a relative modernity, of a community disturbed by secularism, by Zionism, socialism, and emigration. An old woman asks for a divorce, not because she no longer wants to live with her husband, but because she loves him so much she feels he is entitled to a new, young wife; indeed, she has already chosen her successor for him. Another woman wants to know why two slaughtered geese “shrick” when they bang together in her shopping-basket, and whether such possessed geese could possibly be kosher. A man comes to draw up a will, because he is sure he is going to die soon; he returns year after year to revise the will, to add more and more elaborate codicils to it, still convinced each time that his death is imminent. Two business men, former partners, spend days in the Singer household, arguing their cases against each other and eating voraciously; each is accompanied by his own hired rabbi as counsel. A woman confesses that many years before she had given birth to an illegitimate child and left the baby in a basket near a church; for all she knows the boy may have grown up into an anti-Semite, and she wonders how she can now expiate her sins.

BUT IT WAS NOT ONLY with conundrums such as these that the “unclean” world intruded into the Singer household; nor did the young Singer simply wait for the world to come to him. He went out to look for it, too, as often as he could, usually just wandering around the crowded streets, but on one occasion, together with his reckless friend, Boruch-David, actually managing to get right out of the city of Warsaw and into the open country, where herds of “wild cows” were reputed to graze. The next time that the boy saw the country was when he traveled on the train to the shtetl of Bilgoray, from which the family had originally come to Warsaw. They went back to Bilgoray as refugees, fleeing the hunger and confusion of German-occupied Warsaw during the First World War. It is paradoxical that the result of this upheaval, which marked the collapse of the old European order, should have had the effect of sending Singer back into a yet more ancient period of the Jewish past, into a seclusion more profound than anything he had known in a city as large and up-to-date as Warsaw. His grandfather had been the rabbi of Bilgoray for many years; his uncle was now the rabbi of Bilgoray; the house they lived in was “an old loghouse painted white, with a mossy roof and a bench beneath the windows, near the synagogue, ritual bath and poorhouse.”

The sounds of birds, crickets and other insects rang in my ears, chickens wandered about in the grass, and when I raised my head I could see the Bilgoray synagogue and beyond it fields that stretched to the forest’s edge.

By the time he left the village, however, it was no longer isolated from the present. He was reading writers like Strindberg and Maupassant in Yiddish translations, as well as the original work of Yiddish writers; he had become a disciple of the excommunicated Spinoza; he was teaching Hebrew to a group of youngsters who had formed themselves into a Zionist society. The last picture we have of the author in the book is of him lecturing to this group; and it somehow seems entirely appropriate to one’s sense of Singer’s strange career that, being himself a rebel, and lecturing to the members of a movement whose intention was to revolutionize Jewish life, he should yet have faced his audience “in a long gabardine, velvet hat, and with dangling sidelocks.”

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