Laughter in the Dark

Shadows on the Hudson

by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Sherman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 548 pp., $28.00

Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life

by Janet Hadda
Oxford University Press, 243 pp., $27.50

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…

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