Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer; drawing by David Levine

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,1 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 times, worshipped. A storyteller like Singer is really keeping the archives of the race lively on the tongue. And because of the ghastly destruction of the Jews, their language and culture in Poland, he has felt a passion for rescuing and playing with what he can. It is chilling to know that he is describing ghosts who cannot even haunt because their habitat has been wiped out.

What happens to the writer of tales when he moves from this communal, fable-creating art to the novel with its built-in individualism? In many ways all specifically Jewish fiction in America at present is a folk literature, whether it is traditional or modern. Singer’s longer novels are chronicles of family fortune set in Poland and the religious crisis of the nineteenth century—the crisis in which the puritanic Hassidic sect with its mystical belief in ritual gives way to skepticism and humanism. Without faith his people are shown going adrift. Reason opens the door to unreason. Gentile Europe is falling into anarchy, too, and there is a point at which the Jew becomes a symbol of modern man. (Whether this is Singer’s final view is doubtful.)

The Family Moskat is the most impressive of Singer’s nineteenth-century chronicles: it puts an immense amount of real Polish Jewish life on the page in all its domestic exclamitoriness, its sensuality, and with all the introspections of its relationship with God. And if not God, then Truth. The book ends as the bombs fall on Warsaw. The Manor2 is an interesting historical reconstruction of life after 1863 in Warsaw and the country.

The Estate, his latest novel, winds up the personal histories that began in The Manor. It is notable for the roving skill with which Singer pushes the history and development of his characters forward and yet makes their past richer. Each character is really a collection of stories that fly, like falling leaves, before the winds of Fate. Two people stand out: the greedy and reckless Clara who, in middle age, gathers the vulgar and miserable consequences of her temperament; and Ezriel, the doctor who, freeing himself from superstition, is entangled in intellectual doubts, in guilt about his emotional life, and in the growing anti-Semitism and revolutionary spirit in Poland and Western Europe. He is tortured by the problem of what kind of Jew to be. Anguish, rather monotonously, drives all the characters. The note of lamentation is strong, but the detail is vivid and the panorama wide. We see the passions “move in” on rich and poor people in their streets, bedrooms, hospitals, salons, and lodgings. The style is visual and laconic and swift. He is compassionate and sometimes very moving.


But except for their exotic density, these novels seem to me conventional and overpraised. The chronicle mechanizes the poetic storyteller. I see that Singer has been called Tolstoyan, but he lacks Tolstoy’s serene spaciousness. Singer is prosaic and yet urgent at the same time, a worthy but wearying mixture. The novels are kept alive by having caught the Slavonic gift for the inconsequent surface of life; but chronicle for chronicle, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, for example, is free of the claustrophobia which I feel in these books and is directed by a more decisive intellect.

Singer’s main moral themes get their best stimulus from Ecclesiastes or the Psalms rather than from the Book of Chronicles. He is most fertile in two complementary folkish novels: The Magician of Lublin and The Slave. He has always been concerned with two types, the gifted sinner and the virtuous man. Yasha, the Houdini type of circus player in The Magician of Lublin—he is in fact a brilliant tightrope walker by trade and in life—is a sort of genius driven by inspired daring and sexual lust. He juggles and somersaults on an emotional tightrope with women, as well as on a real one before dazzled audiences, and Singer brings to these love affairs all the tenderness, inventiveness, and realism of which he is a master. Ambitious for the highest recognition, Yasha aspires to a fashionable mistress far above the circus world, a woman called Emilia, who represents for him the key to social recognition as a greater artist than he is. Disaster occurs. His foot is injured in an accident during an intrigue, and one of his lesser mistresses commits suicide. Guilt and remorse overcome him. Horrified by his sins, he engages in a spectacular religious stunt: he has himself bricked up in a hut from which he cannot get out. He becomes a hermit in order to prevent himself from committing further crimes.

It is a typical irony of folk writing that this causes him to be regarded as a holy man, almost a rabbi, and certainly a wonder. He studies the Torah and is convinced that without religious discipline a man cannot survive spiritual crisis. Deism, humanism, simply drive the ego to destruction of self and others. Of course Yasha’s sense of sin is exaggerated. “The fact is,” Emilia writes to him years later, “you’ve committed no crime. You always showed a good and gentle nature. The short time I knew you was the happiest period of my life.” Yasha simply had a nature that led to excess. And excess is a subject that always stimulates Singer’s imagination: there is a horrifying story called “Blood” about a couple who have orgies of lust in a slaughterhouse.

Startling invention is also the making of The Slave, a novel where the hero is a man of Virtue who is driven from suffering to suffering. Briefly this is the strange tale of Jacob, a Jew enslaved by peasants in the brutal period following the Swedish invasion of Poland. He survives by his painful fidelity to his religion, but this is compromised by his love for a peasant girl who is drawn to his Judaism by his austerity. They become lovers. So far the sin of Jacob in consorting with a non-Jewish girl is merely theological, though, for Jacob, that is quite enough to create the conflict of religious guilt with love, whereas (for the girl) love aspires to religious enlightenment. But when the couple escape from the mountains to a Jewish community, they have to face the fact that they have also committed a crime.

Now Singer’s ingenuity increases the odds against them. The girl has the brilliant idea of posing as a deaf-mute so as to conceal her ignorance of Yiddish: this increases Jacob’s sin, for the superstitious people think she is holy and a healer. All is well so long as she is not forced, by emotion, to speak. Her first betraying cry bursts out when the local lord threatens to kill Jacob, but this passes: her words are interpreted as the cry of some spirit that possesses her. But, later on, her screams in childbirth are fatal to herself and Jacob. She dies; he will certainly be murdered unless he escapes at once with their child.


The combination of ingenuity with a powerful poetic and religious spirit in this novel indicates a master’s hand; and it is characteristic of Singer’s art that he turns the girl into a tutelary vision, a sort of spirit guide who leads Jacob toward the humanizing of a nature that was tortured by excess of guilt. For, like the saints, he knows that his tragedy has its source in disobedience of the Hassidic Law; God may never forgive but a world of evil and good spirits has been invented by man for appeasing the human imagination. This novel is lyrical, savage, cunning, and exalted. It is also notable for its sensitive response to nature. Jacob sleeps in the cowshed:

A cow stood up and turned its horned head looking over its shoulder as if curious to see how a man starts his day. The creature’s large eyes, almost all pupil, reflect the purple of the dawn.

“Good morning, Kwiatula,” Jacob said, “You had a good sleep, didn’t you?”

He had become accustomed to speak to the cows, to himself even, so as not to forget Yiddish. He threw open the barn door and saw the mountains stretching into the distance. Some of the peaks, their slopes overgrown with forests, seemed close at hand, giants with green beards. Mist rising from the woods like tenuous curls made Jacob think of Samson. The ascending sun, a heavenly lamp, cast a fiery sheen over everything. Here and there, smoke drifted upward from a summit as if the mountains were burning within. A hawk, wings outstretched, glided tranquilly with a strange slowness beyond all earthly anxieties. It appeared to Jacob that the bird had been flying without interruption since creation.

The more distant mountains were bluish and there were others, the most distant of all that were scarcely visible—unsubstantial….Wanda, Jan Bzik’s daughter, said that was where Baba Yaga lived, a witch who flew about in a huge mortar, driving her vehicle with a pestle. Baba Yaga’s broom was larger than the tallest fir tree and it was she who swept away the light of the world.

This passage opens the novel and when one looks back at it after finishing the story, one sees how precisely and subtly Singer has struck the sustaining note of his theme. Singer is not lyrically pious about nature: the violence of the Polish lord bursts on the scene. He also is a tortured man, because he is “possessed” by the violence of the time. His portrait is remarkable. Singer has a wonderful gift for peopling his tales, and these people are not folkish but are real people tormented by fear, interest, and passions that have moved in on them.

The theme of “possession” is common in Slavonic literature, notably in the stories of the Russian novelist Leskov who knew the mind of the common people better than any of the other great Russians of the nineteenth century. “Possession” need not have either a religious or magical context, but can simply be an insight: the unconscious moves an image into consciousness. For the storyteller this idea offers an extension of drama. The inner life intervenes and acts out its drama before our eyes, instead of being reduced to a record—say, the stream of consciousness—or an explanation. How far Singer believes in the black and white terms of the moral conflicts of his characters (the conflict between the absolute claims of Hassidic theology and its fluid mysticism with the picaresque or openness of humanism) it is hard to say. Mystics are often artful and have a way of winning whichever way you take them. He clearly adds something personal and perhaps exploits as prolific writers do. One really has to listen to his voice rather than his arguments, for it is a wily voice; and I would say the voice expresses loneliness, despair, and, finally, deep compassion.

Elie Wiesel is several removes from the primitive Jewish storyteller; or rather the storyteller is overlaid by the sophisticated impressionist. A Beggar in Jerusalem is perilously suspended between the nouveau roman and a new Jewish Psalm. The novel has been a success in France and the French original is superior to the English translation. His tentative and questing manner at the beginning is designed to put the Six Days War into the framework of the Jewish past, and to catch the dizziness of what is the first true victory of the race. After 2,000 years one has seen a miracle. (“I went to Jerusalem because I had to go somewhere, I had to leave the present and bring it back to the past.”) The final chapters, which rapidly run through a reporter’s pictures of the war, are out of key, for Wiesel is at his best when his impulse is poetic and almost saintly, when he is snatching the spirit of the Jewish tale, in his power to move us with sharp fragments of Jewish history. His method is to move about in time from one dramatic memory to another. There is a visit to a European town, once Jewish, where the only surviving Jews are three madmen; one is mad because he sees only the ghosts of the massacred Jews:

Where are the Hasidim and their equally fanatic opponents the Mitnagdim? Where are the talkative tailors, the haughty doctors, the rich merchants and the customers, the wedding minstrels and the brides-to-be, the frenzied beggars and the secret tzaddikim, disguised as beggars? Where are the Masters of silences pregnant with meaning, and their disciples, where are they? I feel their presence nearby, they could not all have disappeared! They are here I know, though invisible and strangely wrapped in absence…. In the very depths of my despair, at the very limit of my madness, I do realize that in the final analysis the answer has to do with the dybbuk: I am possessed….

The twilight (Wiesel notes) had “etched a mark of terror on his face.”

In Jerusalem the narrator sits with a group of poor people who argue and tell tales about the victory. “You are all mad,” says an air force pilot listening to their fantasies, but each fantasy is a parable about Jewish tribulation and belief. There are stories of pogroms and Cossacks, and by bringing the whole of Jewish feeling to the flash point of this moment of the war, he has dramatized what is really a cinematic meditation on faith and courage and fear, interrupted by a chorus of strange characters.

Through this runs the account of the narrator’s relationship with Katriel who has been lost in the war. They have signed a pact that in the battle they will not lose sight of each other, for, if one is killed, the other will remain as a witness to his life and death. In fact Katriel is a man of peace and probity who fears being afraid; and who, once he has killed, does not want to be seen any more. He is horrified that this abomination has been demanded of him. A good point; but Katriel strikes me as one of Wiesel’s idealized mystifications. The narrator’s love affair with Katriel’s widow is, I am afraid, Parisian sentimentality. One could easily be oppressed by the unrelenting nature of the theme but, excepting the two incidents I have mentioned, Wiesel is a master of a variety of incident and comment. The best thing is the tale of a landowner’s wife who hides a Jew whom the peasants want to kill in order to save the village from being destroyed. It is a story of great tragic power. It gives depth to a book which elsewhere is an impressionistic feat and, in the Katriel episodes, rather fogged.

This Issue

May 7, 1970