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December 23, 1983 - Image 45

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1983-12-23

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THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

Friday, December 23, 1983 45

The Brothers Singer': Preserving A World That Is No More

lo

By JOSEPH COHEN
Sitting inconspicuously
on one of my bookshelves
next to more than a dozen
titles by Isaac Bashevis
Singer is a first edition of
The Brothers Ashkenazi,"
translated from the Yiddish
by Maurice Samuel and
published in 1936. It is the
neglected masterpiece by
the Nobel Prize winner's
brother, Israel Joshua
Singer. Today, it seems that
few people remember or
know about Joshua Singer
though he was a major Yid-
dish writer, the mentor to
his now famous sibling.
Joshua Singer died in
'1944 at the age of 51. Dead
before his time, it was a
monumental loss.
Fewer people, still, know
that there were two other
siblings, Moshe, the
youngest son, who perished
with their aged mother dur-
ing the Holocaust, and the
oldest child, a daughter
Hinde Esther Kreitman,
who was also a writer, the
author of a Yiddish romance
called "Diamonds," a book
of short stories, and an au-
tobiographical novel, trans-
lated and ' published in
England years ago under
the title "Deborah." Now,
for the first time, the story
of this family of writers has
been told, and brilliantly so,
by Clive Sinclair, the rising
young British Jewish
novelist and critic, in "The
Brothers Singer" (Schoc-
ken).
Sinclair, who has re-
cently been named the
literary editor of the
London ,Jewish
Chronicle, has brought to
this study his own talents
as a story-teller — two
Award winning collec-
tions in the past four
years — the biographical
sections reading like a
novel, and hiS' considera-
ble talents as a Critic,
making connections be-
tween the siblings' pub-
lished work that both as-
tound and delight.
Most extended highly-
readable plot summaries
and critical analyses of the"
important books, including
"Steel and Iron," "Yoshe
Kalb" (a pivotal work for
the brothers Singer since its
adaptation to the Yiddish
stage made it an American
theatrical sensation which
prompted Joshua to come to
America with Bashevis
Singer following), "The
Brothers Ashkenazi," "East
of Eden" and "The Family
Carnovsky."

Both the critical analyses
and the biographical con-
tent are'rewarding reading.
For many people, the com-
pelling attraction will be
Sinclair's composite de-
scription of the family's
domestic life drawn from
the children's various fic-
tionalized autobiographical
accounts. The impact on the
children of the disparate
personalities of their par-
ents is nothing short of in-
triguing, placed as it is in
the context of early 20th
Century Polish-Jewish his-
tory with all its conflicts be-

tween ancient life-styles
and modern ways, Jews and
gentile peasants, socialists
and Communists, between
the foreboding threats of
Russia in the east and Ger-
many in the west, a time of
high drama and higher
stakes.
The parents Singer were
Pinchos Mendel, an Hasidic
rabbi, and Bathsheba, the
daughter of Reb Mordecai,
the rabbi of Bilgoray, a
shtetl which figures promi-
nently in the brother Sing-
er's novels. Pinchos Mendel
was a -dreamer, a drifter, a
dabbler , in Kabala, a
scholar, a teller of stories, a
true believer and disciple of
the Law. He believed fer-
vently in miracles and
prophesised the literal com-
ing of the Messiah at Rosh
Hashana in • 1905.
As a scholar only of
Talmud, Pinchos Mendel
had little knowledge of
the world and he was
among the • many
tzadikim who refused to
take the required state
rabbinical examinations,
with the result that he
was able to obtain posts
only in the ramshackle
shtetlakh of Leoncin and
Radzymin, securing fi-
nally. a poor-paying but
respectable pulpit in
Warsaw. Responsibility
was not his chief stock in
trade.
By contrast, Bathsheba
was "an accomplished wor-
rier, a fretter, a doubter, to-
tally devoted to reason and
logic, always thinking, pro-
bing, pondering and forese-
eing." The certain outcome
of their union was pro-
longed conflict. From their
tensions came literary
giants.

"The
Brothers
Ashkenazi,"
Sinclair
suggests, was his watershed
work in which he retroac-
tively acknowledged the
moral superiority of his
father's faith over his own
pursuit of promising but ul-
timately meaningless polit-
ical and economic dialectics.
Bashevis Singer's prob-
lem was more complex. His
guilt arose from his con-
scious exploitation of his
father's hasidic tales and
kabalistic inclinations. In •
using these materials,
Bashevis allowed no tal-
mudic restraints upon his
imaginative consideration
of the attractiveness of evil.
His emphasis upon sexual
license and corruption is
well known, and he has long
been charged by his detrac-
tors with degrading rather
than uplifting humanity.
The charge has been a
painful one to absorb, and
Bashevis Singer has sought
to ameliorate it by acknow-
ledging his guilt. This
acknowledgement is to be
found everywhere in his
work.

Singer's metaphor for him-
self, which is to say by ex
tension that Gimpel is the
metaphor for Pinchos Men-
del, the sainted father, fi-

Sinclair, in one of his
most perceptive observa-
tions, sees it demonstrated
in "Gimpel the Fool," noting
that Elka, Gimpel's out-
rageously unfaithful wife, is
nothing less than Bashevis

world. Follow in his
footsteps they did not, but
his world they did preserve,
and who is to say that is not
a miracle.

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It was inevitable that
against the historical
backdrop of their early -
years, the siblings would
find' little in their father's
world-view upon which to
build their lives. Joshua re-
belled outright when the
Messiah did not arrive as
predicted in 1905, and
Bashevis absorbed all his
father had to teach him but
turned it to his own secular
purposes. _Joshua became a
secularist on his own.
Neither would go into the
rabbinate, both would carry
the guilt for their filial re-
jection with them through-
out their lives, seeking in
novel after novel to explain
and expiate their turning
away from their father.

By the time Joshua was
in mid-career, a well
known authol- and jour-
nalist working for Ab-
raham Cahan on the
Daily Forward, he had
experienCed enough of
life to conclude that the
Enlightenment of which
he had become enamored
in his youth had not
transformed human na-
ture and made of the
world a better place. In-
deed, the Holocaust and
the rise of the totalitarian
dictatorships in Rqssia
and Germany pro-
claimed otherwise.

I

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Pinchos Mendel, the be-
liever in miracles, hoped his
sons would follow in his
footsteps and preserve his

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