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.

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