Uncle Zindel

Gabriele Annan

  • The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer
    Cape, 610 pp, £10.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 224 02024 2

Isaac Singer is a man of far away and long ago. He was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1904. His father was a Hassidic rabbi from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia, a place almost untouched by the Industrial Revolution and sealed off from modern thinking, where from dawn to dusk every activity was elaborately regulated by tribal custom and religious ritual. This is where Singer’s roots are, and many of his stories exploit the exotic appeal of such an archaic background.

Even in the capital ‘the rabbi’s boy’ was set apart by the exceptionally strict observance and unworldliness of his family. ‘My mother and father lived for years in Warsaw and they never knew their way to Nalewki Street,’ he writes in his autobiographical sketch Lost in America, parts of which were published in this paper. When their father journeyed to visit the Radzymin rabbi on holidays, Isaac’s elder brother, Joshua, ‘had to escort him to the street-car and later buy his ticket and seat him in the narrow-gauge railroad running to Radzymin. In our house there hovered the fear of the outside, of gentile languages, of trains, cars, of the hustle and bustle of business, even of Jews who had dealings with lawyers, the police, could speak Russian or even Polish.’ The children were educated in Orthodox schools where nothing was taught but Hebrew and the Jewish Scriptures. If they wanted to be writers – both did, and that in itself represented an almost unimaginable breakaway – they could only be Yiddish writers. The Yiddish-speaking Warsaw intelligentsia had its own press and theatres, its literary clubs and cafés. However, by the time Isaac Singer was making his debut in its journals, ‘there was an unwritten law among the wives of the Yiddishists that their children should be raised to speak the Polish language ... Only Chasidim and the poor, especially in small towns, spoke Yiddish to their children.’ The seeds of decay were already there before the Nazis came to wipe out the whole culture.

Joshua Singer emigrated to the States, and in 1934 Isaac followed him. On the Lower East Side, he found a milieu very like the one he had left, with its own theatres, newspapers and clubs. The cafés had turned into cafeterias, but the people in them – in many cases the very same people – sat around arguing in Yiddish about Zionism, socialism and Jewishness just as they had in Warsaw. Joshua was already discouraged: ‘Try to describe this,’ he said, meaning the American scene. ‘There are hundreds of objects here for which there are no words in Yiddish. They may not even have names in English. All life in America keeps constantly changing. How can such a nation create a real literature?’ Isaac must have agreed at least up to a point with this defeatist view. Although only just 30, he chose to stick to Yiddish as his language. (The stories in this collection are translated by a number of different translators.) It meant that he could only write about Jews, and in a sense only for Jews. He is internationally read: but for the Gentile reader – as well as for emancipated Jews – there must be an element of strangeness and exoticism in his work. You could call Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick Jewish writers, but they are also American writers. Singer never attempts to present a Gentile sensibility; in this whole volume there are hardly any Gentiles and only one with more than a walk-on part.

The stories fall into three main categories, all mixed up together: Galician stories, set either in the early decades of the century or in a past which seems medieval or legendary, but actually cannot stretch back more than two hundred years; transitional stories with an autobiographical element, set in Warsaw or the West; and later stories about survivors of the Holocaust, still ‘lost in America’ after forty or fifty years. The stories were written between 1958 and 1981. Unfortunately, they are not individually dated.

The Galician tales are presented with a deliberately naive directness, which may be derived from early 19th-century anthologies of Hassidic tales, but to a Western ear sounds like the Brothers Grimm: ‘In the town of Lashnik, not far from Lublin, there lived a man and his wife.’ Singer’s Galicia is as far from modern Europe as Carlo Levi’s Lucania, but instead of an anthropological approach you get an Expressionist dream landscape: the sky is lurid with a weird and possibly apocalyptic light, like the sky in a Chagall painting; nature throbs with pantheistic energies, and ghosts and demons wander about. The Jews, though, mostly stay indoors in their dilapidated, insanitary and fire-prone houses. The place is a feminist’s nightmare. The highest calling is to study the Scriptures, an economically unsound occupation reserved to men. Marriages are arranged for girls in their mid-teens, but if given a choice by exceptionally indulgent parents they will pick the weedy, unappetising scholar rather than the stalwart carter, cobbler or carpenter: so they have to be breadwinners as well as housekeepers. The scholars and rabbis spend all day at the synagogue, endlessly going over the Scriptures; for most of the other men, too, ‘there is nothing much to do and so they hang around the study house, scratching themselves and leafing through the Talmud or else telling each other amazing stories of monsters, ghosts and werewolves.’ The female equivalent of the study house is the ritual bath, but that is visited only once a week.

At the wedding the bride’s head is shaved to make her unattractive to any man but her husband. Sex is mandatory (except when taboo during the woman’s periods). It is strictly for procreation and not for pleasure, though ‘the Law admonished a man not to copulate with a woman until he had first spoken affectionately to her ... and it was permissible to kiss and embrace a wife to whom one had been wed according to the laws.’ Singer is strong on sexual ecstasy, whether licit or illicit: but he also celebrates the joys of affection. In fact, he is a specialist on geriatric couples – Old Love is the title of a collection he published in 1981. Some of the stories in it deserve the unbelievably mawkish cover the paperback publishers have given it – some of the better ones are reprinted in the present volume.

To return to the shtetl: the young brides are soon worn out by child-bearing and the misery of seeing their sickly brood die one by one. Childlessness is a disgrace, divorce easy: a truly devoted wife will encourage her husband to seek it if she is barren, or even if she thinks he would prefer someone else. ‘In the other world I will again be his wife. I will be his footstool in Paradise.’

With obvious approval, Singer introduces bluestockings who learn Hebrew and read the Scriptures; one of them even becomes a transvestite in order to study at the yeshiva. This leads to complications that vaguely resemble the plot of Twelfth Night, but end more messily. Singer’s attitude towards women is ambivalent: the bluestocking rebels turn into patient Griseldas on marriage, and he seems to approve of that too. Meekness in women appears to turn him on (and so does its opposite, a sort of demonic gypsy sexuality). He is a very sexy writer. Compared to, say, Ian McEwen or Martin Amis he is not very outspoken: there is something prurient about the way he closes the bedroom door on his couples, a sort of blindfold voyeurism.

No doubt this springs from and reflects the claustrophobic puritanism of the society he writes about, a society, one cannot help feeling, which is only partly based on reality and is partly the exaggerated creation of Singer’s love-hatred for his antecedents. It is a society in which everyone over-reacts: the most trivial occurrence or rumour produces screams, wails, fits. And having created this hysterical world, Singer over-reacts to it with disgust, on the one hand, and, on the other, with an over-intensity of admiration and longing.

Singer’s disgust rises from the page with the smell of ‘fat, sweat, dirty underwear, urine’. Except for the aromatic products of the bakery, the food all sounds repellent: stuffed gizzard, stuffed spleen, stale stuffed fish. Singer is a vegetarian (this comes out in the semi-autobiographical stories), and his revulsion reaches its acme in a tale about a ritual slaughterer who commits suicide from occupational nausea and pity for the animals. Singer empathises with animals and never forgets that God made them. ‘Here stands a mouse,’ an old man in New York thinks, ‘a daughter of a mouse, a granddaughter of mice, a product of millions, billions of mice who once lived, suffered, reproduced, and are now gone for ever.’ Crickets and birds inspire similar reflections.

His Galician Jews, on the other hand, believe in the transmigration of souls from animals to humans and back again. Metempsychosis is only one among their many weird and occult superstitions. Demonic possession is common, especially among innocent young girls. This is one of Singer’s favourite themes. Possession focuses the fear of sex and the fear of heterodoxy in closed puritan societies, whether in 17th-century New England or Eastern Europe. Several stories are told in the first person by demons. Since Singer never allows himself to intrude into his narratives (‘genuine literature,’ the Author’s Note says, ‘tolerates commentary by others,’ but ‘it should never try to explain itself’), the demons are a useful device: they rejoice when the characters go wrong and despond when they behave well – the reader knows what he is supposed to think.

In the story ‘The Destruction of Kreshev’, Satan himself is the narrator. He converts a pious young student called Shloimele to the heresy of Sabbatai Svevi, a false Jewish messiah of the 17th century who perverted the Hassidic doctrine of ‘the descent in behalf of the ascent’ – i.e. that contact with evil is necessary for a full apprehension of God. Some of his followers believed – not unlike members of the Russian Chlysty sect – that only the most abject sinner can fully experience God’s mercy: ‘Sin is cleansing’; ‘an excess of degradation meant sanctity.’ Singer’s novel about the Sabbatai Svevi movement, Satan in Goray, enabled him to paint a whole Jewish Walpurgis night full of lecherous demons and naked witches. ‘Kreshev’ is on a smaller scale, but strong, horripilous stuff all the same. With a lot of quotation from the Cabbala Shloimele persuades his innocent and loving young wife to fornicate with her father’s coachman while he looks on. Eventually all three are publicly disgraced, the wife commits suicide, and the town where they live is destroyed by fire. Shloimele himself becomes impotent quite early on: impotence as a punishment for perverting sex is another regular subject. Sex as such is good, so long as it is spontaneous. Then it is an expression of man’s longing for God; it can even be a mystical union with Him: ‘our genitals are actually the expression of the human soul, defiant of lechery, the most ardent defenders of true love.’ (This is from Lost in America: it does not infringe the embargo on authorial comment in fiction.)

Squalor, the oppression of women, superstition, perversion are the dark side of life in the shtetl. In a society completely directed towards serving God, personal goodness also flourishes. The Law makes almost impossible demands – it is forbidden to be sad on the Sabbath, for instance – but it is also full of delicate, humane injunctions and compromises: ‘No one is subject to penalty for words uttered in agony.’ ‘To shame a person in front of the whole community is a terrible sin.’ Living in such an atmosphere develops moral fastidiousness and compassion. To be a Jew is to be pious: ‘If you wanted to be a good Jew, there was time for nothing else.’ Piety leads to asceticism, selflessness (especially in women), the abnegation of the will, and eventually to saintliness complete with penances and miracles. Singer is fascinated by saintliness: it is the subject of his novel The Magician of Lublin, in which a fabulously promiscuous circus performer repents, returns to his village, and has himself walled up in a hut where he prays and gives advice to people who flock from far and wide. Holy men or miracle rabbis were a feature of Hassidism. They acted like gurus or Medieval Christian hermits or like the Russian startsy (Father Zosima, in The Brothers Karamazov is an example) who tended to belong to way-out fundamentalist sects on or even beyond the wilder shores of Russian Orthodoxy. Hassidism, with its emphasis on individual communion with God instead of on minute interpretation of the Law, was not exactly popular with main-line Judaists. Singer wrote a life – Reaches of Heaven – of one of its most charismatic leaders, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. ‘The few “miracles” told here,’ he says in an introductory note, ‘are all ambiguous and could easily be explained in a psychological way.’ All the same, the tone of Reaches of Heaven is the tone of The Golden Legend: it can also be heard in some of the shtetl stories.

The old man to whom being a Jew is a full-time occupation is the hero of ‘Grandfather and Grandson’. The title looks like a deliberate echo of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons: the grandson rejects Judaism, becomes a socialist, and is shot during a riot. The old man forgives the apostate and prays for him: ‘His intentions were good. He wanted to help the poor.’ This story forms a transition between the shtetl stories and those set between the outbreak of the First World War and the aftermath of the Second. They are written in a more conversational style and there is also more conversation in them. The Jews have left the shtetl and are fighting literary feuds in the Warsaw cafés. They drink, they telephone; sometimes they even dance to a victrola. The young are scattered in attics and studios all over the town, writing, painting from the nude, and sleeping together, constantly changing partners, or else not changing them but allowing them to accumulate. There is much sexual athleticism: ‘Those who have to do with women must boast.’ The older generation contains an inordinate number of sad, disoriented eccentrics; many of the young seem literally crazed – with sex, certainly, but ultimately because the problem of living with ‘the kind of secular Jewishness that defies all definition’ is too much for them. The most hectic of all these hectic stories describes a ménage à trois between a man and two beautiful, witch-like, hysterical sisters who have survived both the German and the Russian invasions of Poland. Like Shloimele, the man becomes impotent, and he finally bolts when an apparition in their Paris apartment tries to castrate him:

Brother, I know all the answers and all the psychological flimflam, but this thing before me was a person and he blocked my path ... I knew that it was nerves – nervousness had assumed substance. Einstein contends that mass is energy. I say that mass is compressed emotion. Neuroses materialise and take concrete form. Feelings put on bodies or are themselves bodies. Those are your dybbuks, the sprites, the hobgoblins.

In the last group of stories Singer takes his preoccupation with the paranormal with him to the States. The occult there has been institutionalised: there are mediums, séances, spiritualist magazines, weekend conferences on parapsychology. All this gives him an opportunity to exercise his underexploited gift for Jewish black humour. In a technically brilliant, very short story, Max Greitzer goes to the funeral of a former mistress. At the funeral parlour he is taken to see her lying in her coffin, ‘all fixed up’ by the mortician. A woman who is obviously her younger sister joins him and he introduces himself:

       ‘My name is Max Greitzer.’
       The woman stood silent and seemed to ponder
his words. Then she said: ‘You’re mistaken.’
       ‘Mistaken? You aren’t her sister Bella?’
       ‘Don’t you know that Max Greitzer died?
There was an obituary in the newspapers.’
       Max Greitzer tried to smile. ‘Probably another
Max Greitzer.’ The moment he uttered these
words, he grasped the truth: he and Liza were
both dead – the woman who spoke to him was
not Bella but Liza herself.

As it happens, his own body is lying in the same funeral parlour. He declines Liza’s invitation to go and see it but they hang around invisibly watching her committal with scornful comments: ‘The chapel is half-empty ... I’m sure for you the chapel will be packed.’ Their own disembodied condition is even more disappointing: ‘I imagined the end would be more dramatic,’ she says. And he: ‘Of all my disenchantments, immortality is the greatest.’

The European Jews in the States dabble in occultism because even after forty or fifty years they are still ‘lost in America’, no matter whether they half-starve on a daily visit to the take-away somewhere on the Upper West Side or cosset themselves in a sea-view apartment on Miami Beach. Crazier than ever, they are now lonelier than ever too. Physically they are falling apart: their false teeth don’t fit, hair sprouts on their noses, their legs are feeble, their bladders out of control; cancer and heart attacks lurk. Worst of all, not being full-time Jews any more, their occupation’s gone, and their orientation in the world with it. Instead, they have become a metaphor for humanity.

Along with the atom, the personality of Homo sapiens has been splitting. When it comes to technology, the brain still functions, but in everything else degeneration has begun. They are all insane ... This metropolis has all the symptoms of a mind gone berserk.

New York is largely a Jewish metropolis, of course, and it is surely not without significance that in the recent Levitation, a sequence of ‘five fictions’, Cynthia Ozick’s Jewish heroine, Ruth Puttermesser, works for the New York Administration. She is a generation younger than the youngest of Singer’s characters, but still rootless: ‘Poor Puttermesser has found herself without a past. Her mother was born in the din of Madison Street ... Her father is nearly a Yankee.’ So Puttermesser invents an ancestor by updating her Orthodox great-uncle Zindel, who died four years before she was born, and convincing herself that she learnt Hebrew at his knee. You could say that Singer owes some of his immense popularity in the States to the fact that he can be Uncle Zindel to every American Jew.

Still, they are not uncritical. In the story ‘The Cafeteria’ the cafeterianiks come up to the author-narrator’s table and reproach him ‘for all kinds of literary errors: I contradicted myself, went too far in descriptions of sex, described Jews in such a way that anti-semites could use it for propaganda.’ To take the last criticism first: it strikes one that the life-style and ethos of Singer’s Galician Jews – and his own mixture of admiration and abhorrence – uncannily illustrate Nietzsche’s account of Pauline Christianity, which, according to him, was based on the values of the oppressed Jews of the Diaspora. Nietzsche speaks of ‘the warmth of the passion of “love” (resting on a basis of hot sensuality)’; of ‘the absolutely unaristocratic nature of Christianity: the constant exaggeration, the garrulity; the lack of cool intellectuality and irony; the lack of any warlike spirit in every instinct; the priestly prejudice against male pride, against sensuality, against science and art’. And then again of ‘the warmth and tenderness ... the readiness to help, the standing up for one another with the secret pride – disguised as humility – of the Chosen, the profound inner rejection – quite free from envy – of everything dominant, glamorous, powerful, the completely unpolitical and unparticipatory attitude of little people’. ‘The principle of Love,’ he says, ‘derives from the small Jewish community: the soul that glows here under the ashes of humility and poverty is a more passionate soul.’ According to Nietzsche, Christianity discovered from the Diaspora Jews ‘that the most miserable life can be made rich and immeasurably precious by raising the temperature.’ On the basis of observations such as these Nietzsche has been accused of fuelling anti-semitism. To level the same accusation against Singer (with his chronically raised temperature) is naive. Besides, it is asking him to be bland, to eliminate the tension that makes his work both disturbing and meaningful.

Leaving aside the second reproach – too sexy – we come to the most serious one: ‘that I contradicted myself.’ In his Author’s Note Singer denies that he has a message: ‘The zeal for messages has made many writers forget that storytelling is the raison d’être of artistic prose.’ But Singer’s tone tends to be vatic. His reader feels there must be a message; and in a sense to write in Yiddish in New York in the 1980s in itself conveys some kind of message. The trouble is that Singer does not so much contradict himself as jumble everything up in a mystic brew which he stirs like some slightly suspect sorcerer. You really have to keep your eye on his fingers to see what goes into the pot. The basic stock is Hassidism, a mystical religion which aims at the apprehension of God, on the one hand, through contemplation and asceticism and, on the other, through spontaneity, joy and even sex – and which therefore appears to contradict itself about the kind of life-style the believer should adopt. Hassidism contains many elements from the Cabbala, the esoteric Medieval teachings of Judaism; and the Cabbala, in its turn, was much influenced by Sufism, Neoplatonism and various Christian doctrines. It also dealt with such recondite subjects as cosmology, numerology, demonology and magic. Into this heterogeneous mixture Singer throws a little Spinoza, some Quantum Theory, a measure of Dostoevskyan Weltanschauung, psychology (Jungian, Freudian and Gestalt, at a guess), findings from parapsychological research, and much else besides.

The mixture sometimes turns out too strong. With ideas, Singer is perhaps only a sorcerer’s apprentice, after all, and lets them get the better of him. With words he is a fully qualified magician. His descriptions of landscapes and townscapes are visionary, hallucinating. He may be over-emotional, but he never overwrites in the sense of using two words where one will do. ‘My valise would not close and I had bound it with many shoelaces which I had purchased from a blind beggar’; ‘Eiserman, the dentist who had translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into Yiddish, told me that he had offered to make Yabloner a set of false teeth, but Yabloner had said to him, “There is only one step from false teeth to a false brain.” ’ Three people and something of their backgrounds emerge from these two sentences, and something of Singer’s charm, which may or may not be one’s cup of magic potion. The trouble is he is such a gripping narrator that one may swallow the stuff whether one likes it or not.