The Mimic Men
Much of American writing at present is Jewish, and one of the probable reasons for this is that being a Jew gives one something definite to write about. The dissolving of beliefs and traditions has left modern life so flavorless that the flood of pornography we now endure was predictable all along: the sexual life still has conflict and urgency, pathos and comedy, which could hardly be said for anything else likely to be encountered in the plastic landscape we have made for ourselves. The Jew, whether orthodox or not, has to make up his mind among conflicting loyalties and values, and this gives his life a spiritual content capable of being explored in such a traditional medium as literature, whereas the puppet-movements that pass for action among the rest of us are best handled by television and the tabloids.
Of all American Jewish writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer is the least assimilated; the son and grandson of rabbis who came to America as a mature man, he has dealt with modern western life only by implication. His work is set in the past, and describes the Eastern European Jewish community in its own language, Yiddish. Its power of implication, however, is considerable enough to make it fully contemporary, and we turn with quickened interest to the figure of the Jew, who has clung to belief and ritual, a sense of man’s dialogue with God, and has endured persecution for the sake of these things because the alternative, of losing his identity and sinking down among the innumerable grains of dust, has frightened him still more.
In The Family Moskat, Singer dealt with a Warsaw Jewish family in the first forty years of this century. The Manor goes further back. It begins after the Polish insurrection against the Russians in 1863, which achieved nothing except to lose the Poles their remaining liberties and turn the country definitely into a Russian province. There was, however, industrial expansion; money flowed in, people worked hard and were enriched. The Manor takes account of this situation in its opening. Count Jampolski, a landowner, is banished and his estate given to a Russian duke, who in turn leases it to a pious and industrious Jew, Calman Jacoby. The manor prospers; timber is needed for railway ties, a work-force must be fed, Calman grows rich. His money gives him authority within the Jewish enclave, and also forces him into contact with the world outside.
Calman’s pieties underpin his life. He witnesses, rather than feels, the successive tidal waves that attack the coherence of Jewish life; though some of them come near to sweeping him away. His wife dies; dutiful, ailing, religious, she typified the Jewry of his beginnings. His second wife, though a Jew’s daughter, has her face turned toward the world. Her attitude to tradition is lightly skeptical. She objects, for instance, to the common ritual bath for women because it is unhygienic. “If I had my own manor and lived with a …