A Beggar in Jerusalem
The distinctive quality in the fiction by Eastern European Yiddish writers—to judge from translations—is nimbleness in the mixing of realism and fable. Style we have to take on trust. These writers are close to an oral folk tradition that has vanished from Western literature, and to a segregated underworld where history and the lives of people become myth. In this sense the ghetto has been a book, in which myth is fortified by religion (especially by its status as The Law) that has kept the people together in their tragedies and their comedies. Religion itself is a tale, and is rich in everyday conundrums, for the ways of God are tricky. In one of Isaac Singer’s Yiddish tales, a rabbi discovers that his pupil is cynically plagiarizing his writings. Shall he accuse or not accuse? The question is inexhaustible:
The whole thing was a riddle. Reb Kariel Dan called out to himself and to the world at large: “The End of the Days is at hand!” Was not this event similar to those described in the Sotah Messiah: “In the Messiah’s footsteps brazenness will grow, prices will soar, the vine will bear fruit, but wine will be dear…. Boys will mock their elders and the aged will rise before youth….”
The rabbi is in suspense:
“Who knows?” thought the rabbi. “Perhaps this is heaven’s way of preventing the publication of my works. But was this reconcilable with the free will which is granted to all men?”
The comedy begins as a riddle, turns to casuistry, and ends with a stroke of wit on the part of the Almighty: the plagiarist dies. Rabbis will have to begin all over again: other riddles often have genuinely tragic answers or have a terrible irony. At the end of his novel The Family Moskat, when Warsaw is being bombed, one of Singer’s characters remarks: “Perhaps Death is the Messiah.”
The wonders of these folk tales—appearance of spirits and demons, dybbuks, possessors of souls, dreams—link them with other Oriental tales like The Arabian Nights; but the Jewish tales have an analytical and psychological interest which is lacking in those of the Arabs, who love intrigue, deceptions, folly, and the rhapsodic. For example, in the Yiddish tales Fate is created by guilt: we have sinned, that is why It happened. One practical advantage of having a moral absolute is that it provokes paradox and meta-physical wit—both meat to the story-teller who plays upon the moral anxieties of his audience. All folk tales are lawyer-like, but the storyteller is really a poet who leaves several meanings in the mind.
It would be hard to decide how interested or disinterested Singer really is. Sometimes he seems to float above the crowded scene. He has a grave, tragic, and pitying sense, but he also thinks highly of cunning and the bizarre. Yet there is a firm aspect to this: the strong Jewish sense of history which is even, at …