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Familial Influences on the Intellectual Development of Young Isaac Bashevis Singer

Familial Influences On The Intellectual Development Of Young Isaac Bashevis Singer

First published in the Jewish Daily Forward as a series of stories under the pseudonym Isaac Warshawsky, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s memoir and short story collection was a literary project in the tradition of belles letters. Singer claimed he had the idea for In My Father’s Court when he was very young, and that he was filled with a determination to portray a life and an environment that no longer exists and was also unique (Singer vii). The focus of the work is on the Beth Din, the Jewish court in his father’s home on working class Krochmalna Street in Warsaw in the early part of the twentieth century just before and during World War I. This rabbinical court and the Singer family were so intertwined that it was hard to decide where one ended and the other began.

The Beth Din was an ancient institution deriving its purpose from Jethro’s counsel to Moses that he must “provide out of all of the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness …and let them judge the people at all seasons….There was a direct line between the Talmudic annotators, Geonim Princes, Amoraim, Tannaim, men of the Great Synagogue and Sanhedrin” (vii). The Beth Din of Singer’s father was a blend of court law, synagogue, house of study, and psychologist’s office where people of troubled spirit could come to unburden themselves (vii). The reason why such rabbinical courts had survived among the Jews over many generations was because they were both feasible and necessary (viii). They could only exist among a people with a deep faith and humility and had reached their apex among Jews when they had no worldly power and influence (viii).

As the Rabbi, Singer’s father, said after rendering his judgement for a major Din Torah in a rare dispute involving wealthy litigants, their equally wealthy rabbis to represent them (and thousands of rubbles), all of whom had quarreled in the court of Singer’s father for hours over the course of numerous days over a disputed business transaction, “That is my decision (an equal distribution between the parties, a settlement which at first, none of the litigants approved of). I have no Cossacks at my command to enforce it” (41). The only weapon available to the Rabbi to require compliance with his decision was a handkerchief, which the litigants touched to signify their acceptance of the judgement rendered (viii). After first rejecting the decision with much loud protests and arguments, the litigants eventually saw justice in it and returned to the harmonious friendship and concordance which had characterized their business dealings before the dispute. While most of the Jews of Krochmalna Street were poor and led precarious lives of constant economic struggle (as did Singer’s own family), this submission to Singer’s father’s decision by these rare wealthy litigants and businessmen was a testament of the people’s faith in the justice and moral authority of the Beth Din, an institution having no worldly power at its command to demand compliance with its decisions.

Singer claimed that he did not idealize or endow the Beth Din in his memoir with any conditions or moods that were not part of his direct experience (viii). He acknowledged that each court was unique as they differed in every generation and were colored by the character and personality of the Rabbi (viii). “At times I think that the Beth Din is an infinitesimal example of the celestial council of justice, God’s judgement, which the Jews regard as absolute mercy” (viii).

In My Father’s Court, since it focuses so closely on Singer’s family which was intertwined with the rabbinical court, provides us with a unique opportunity to search for and discover precisely how each of Singer’s family members influenced his development as a human being and a Jew, and also as an emerging intellectual and writer with his own outlook on a range of theological and philosophical issues dealt with in his treasure trove of literature. Singer was still quite young during his early experiences of the court and Krochmalna Street depicted in the memoir. There in the book are also the not insignificant depictions of the more pastoral and rural hometown of his mother, Bilgoray. Born in 1904, Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, and he lived until 1991. Precisely because his early memories of his family and the court are so vividly and clearly depicted in In My Father’s Court, we have before us a wealth of stories, the analysis of which will enable me to shed some light on the intellectual development of young Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Singer noted that his experience of his family dynamics was consistent with a kind of Freudian drama, constantly unfolding, even before Singer or anyone else in his family had read or become familiar with Freud. In this essay I will examine the influence Singer’s family members had on his development intellectually, as these transformations from orthodoxy to skepticism and an interest in modern secularism are portrayed on the pages of In My Father’s Court. I will examine closely the influence his father, mother, older brother, and to a lesser extent his sister had on young Isaac during the time of his childhood until the verge of his adolescence as this influence is portrayed in the memoir. Another brother, who was younger than Isaac will not receive much attention in this essay since his influence was not treated or examined in the book. I will show how Singer was pulled in numerous conflicting directions: towards the mysticism and devout faith of his Hasidic father, towards the equally religious but also skeptical rationalism of his mother, and also towards the confrontation with and intense appeal of the liberating and freeing modernity of his older brother who introduced Singer to the wide secular world outside of the more narrow and traditional world of his father the Rabbi. Singer’s pious and God fearing father viewed this modern world as completely Tref (unclean and not kosher) an attitude about the modern world which Singer began to understand had much sense underlying it after the passage of many years (68). Although Singer devotes only one chapter in the memoir to his sister, I contend that this crucial chapter reveals something about how Singer would eventually, as a writer, envision and portray the women of his fiction, there being so much fodder for his fiction in his recollections of the real and unfolding drama of his own family.

As the title would suggest, much of the focus of In My Father’s Court is on Singer’s devout and God fearing father. Early on in the book in the chapter Why the Geese Shrieked (11) we can witness the depth of the Rabbi’s belief and his dismay at the tendency of modernity and its partner reason to confront and erode the traditional and mystical faith of the Hasids. A woman visits the Singer home claiming that something supernatural has possessed two geese which she had recently purchased with the intent of, of course, cooking and eating them. When the dead geese are moved and thrown against one another, they let out a shriek, which to Singer sounds like the voice of the sacrificial heifer of the ancient Hebrews. The woman who purchased the geese is concerned that they might be possessed by an unholy spirit, but is also concerned because the purchase of them was not cheap. She, from a family of modest means, says she paid a fortune for the geese, and she wanted to know if she should cover them with burial shrouds and bury them, or cook and eat them (14). As a mystic and profoundly religious man, Singer’s father believes, along with the woman, that the geese are evidence of the existence of the supernatural influence of God on daily life. There was not only God to be feared, but also spirits, daemons, and hobgoblins among other mysterious and mystical entities.

In the Singer home talk of the spirits of the dead that possess the bodies of the living was constant. There were also souls reincarnated as animals, houses inhabited by hobgoblins, and cellars haunted by demons. Singer’s father spoke of these things, first of all because he believed in them, and also because he wanted Isaac to have a respect for the belief, from time to time, that there are still mysterious forces at work in the world. This was required to counter the forces of modernity and secularism which influenced children in a big city, who so easily go astray as they go everywhere and see everything and even read modern and profane books (11).

The Rabbi, upon witnessing the geese shriek, declares it is a miracle and evidence of the existence of God, recalling other rabbis who had performed miracles and exorcisms on possessed souls. All present were afraid that this was the work of the devil, and Isaac fell pale with a dreadful fear, afraid of the evil this represented. Singer’s mother, in contrast, from a family of rationalists, viewed the entire episode as a sceptic, which she was by nature and upbringing (12). Singer’s father remarks, “Well, can anyone still doubt there is a Creator?” (13) Singer’s mother remains skeptical as again the geese are hurled against each other and shriek. The Rabbi sees in this divine significance.

“Woe, woe, and still they blaspheme….It is written that the wicked do not repent even at the very gates of hell….They behold the truth with their own eyes and they continue to deny their maker. They are dragged into the bottomless pit and they maintain that all is nature or accident….” (14)

Shortly after this declaration of faith by Singer’s father, his wife the rationalist reaches down into the throats of the geese with bloodied hands and removes the windpipes. She does so with the wrath of the rationalist whom someone has tried to frighten in broad daylight (15). The Rabbi’s face turns white with calm and a little disappointment. This was one more case of cold logic tearing down faith again, mocking it and holding it up to ridicule and scorn (15). Singer’s mother informs the woman who brought the geese that she could go home and cook the geese, while her husband reluctantly agrees that they are kosher. Singer’s mother returns to her work in the kitchen, leaving young Isaac with his father who suddenly begins to speak to him as though he were an adult. “Your mother takes after your grandfather, the Rabbi of Bilgoray. He is a great scholar but also a cold-blooded rationalist. People warned me before our betrothal….” Then Singer’s father threw up his hands as if to say, “It is too late now to call off the wedding” (16).

All his father’s life, Singer informs us in the chapter A Gruesome Question (23), the Rabbi strove to be Hasidic Jew, and he lashed out with great vehemence against worldly pleasures when he preached to his followers (23). He extoled the joys of the pious in heaven, seated on golden chairs with crowns on their heads as the mysteries of the Torah were unraveled (23). The mysteries of Torah and life were one and the same (23). During the Sabbath, the Singer home was permeated by the spirit of God, of angels, of secrets, and filled with a special longing and yearning that defy description (24).

A desperately poor man visits the Singer home to ask the Rabbi a gruesome question. He lives in a basement apartment which was black with filth and vermin, full of rats and mice which tore at his flesh and stole his few crumbs of bread. His wife had just died, and the old man was afraid to leave the body on the floor before the burial because he believed the rats would devour and defile the body. But if the deceased woman’s body remained on the bed, the poor and desperate old man would have to sleep next to the dead, and he wanted to know if this were permitted according to the laws of ritual purity. Where should he leave the corpse until the funeral which would not take place until the next Sunday? Singer’s father’s face was full of tears, and there was a stirring among the men who had come to the Singer home to pray (25).

“Men, did you hear? Woe, woe.”

“God spare us, God spare us,” said one of his followers.

“Unheard of, unheard of,” answered another (25).

While Singer’s father was by nature a believer, the incident awakened doubts in him. He calls for the Messiah to come and come quickly, for the Jews suffer in pain from his absence.

“Dear Father in Heaven…Woe!” he cried out. “It is high time for salvation…time…high time” (28).

This incident also reveals something about Singer’s rebellion against and anger towards a God who could permit such dire poverty and desperation to exist among his people. Writing of the cellar apartment, Singer briefly reveals some of the origins of his doubts and skepticism, which both became magnified after the Holocaust and the obliteration of the community and civilization from which he had sprung, and which remained the focus and subject of so many of his literary works during his entire life as a writer.

“Can a person survive in such an abyss? Can a man confined to such a sordid place keep his sanity? I suddenly felt a tightness in my head and an icy shudder ran down my spine. Could it be the he who dwells here is himself a ghost?” (27). “Something within me cried out and asked, How can God permit this?” (27)

In the chapter, The Family Tree (43) we learn that Singer’s father was the youngest son of his family who had received all of his mother’s love and attention. She was pleased with him because he was a scholar and devoted to Jewish ways while other young men were beginning to grow worldly, dressing fashionably, and reading Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers and magazines that sometimes reached the small town of Tomaszow (44). Singer’s father, in contrast, wore traditional clothes. His childhood ambition was to be a saint and he started writing a commentary at the age of fifteen. Other boys were wary of him and his dreamy ways, his superiority and his aloofness (44). Even as a young man at the age of twenty-one he looked like an old Hasid and had only one desire, to live as a Jew entirely immersed in piety and having very little to say to anyone (45). He wanted to be so pure that he could perform miracles, and consequently he read the Gemara, Scriptures, Hasidic books, and the occasional book of the Cabala (45).

At his betrothal to the daughter of the Bilgoray Rabbi, a strict but rational leader who kept Bilgoray pious while he lived, Singer’s father,

“Said nothing to the other betrothed young men, who tried to talk to him about stores, houses, watches, travel and politics. He knew nothing but service to God, spoke no Polish or Russian, could not even write his address in the Gentile script. Outside of the Torah and payer, the world to him was full of evil spirits, demons and goblins” (47).

Singer’s mother was at first embarrassed by this man with his full red beard, but when she heard him discuss religious questions with her father, the Bilgoray Rabbi, she respected him (47). This same man, her husband, was so pious that he never looked at women and could not even recognize his own wife. He could have easily mistaken Isaac’s grandmother or one of his father’s sisters in law for his wife (51). Sometimes he was very short and curt with Isaac when he asked a young boy’s questions about the existence of God. When Isaac was very young, when his family still resided in the countryside before they moved to Warsaw, Singer experienced philosophical and theological wonderings awakened and stimulated to a great degree by his fondness for the natural and pastoral environment. His father’s response to the young boy’s inquisitiveness was often strict and stern.

“The young Rebbetzin was always giving me presents. I played in the courtyard and in an orchard nearby, among gooseberries, currants, and cherries.      Standing there I would gaze at the horizon. Was that the end of the world? What happened there and what was beyond it? What were day and night? Why did birds fly and worms crawl? I tormented my mother with questions. My Father always answered, “That’s how the Lord made it.”

“Where is He?”

“In Heaven.”

“Show me.”

“Don’t be silly. No one can see God” (57).

“Did God make clouds? Is that him?”

Singer’s father became furious.

“Idiot, that’s a cloud. It absorbs water and pours out rain….” (57).

In the chapter The Oath, a woman accused of embezzlement and other shoddy business practices during a Din Torah swears an oath over the Torah scrolls that she is telling the truth. This disturbs Singer’s father greatly as he was opposed to oaths, pledges, words of honor, or handshakes as guarantees for the fulfillment of a promise. Oaths, according to the Rabbi, conflicted with the commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord (in vain).” Heaven and earth trembled when he chastised those who violated this fundamental commandment (60). Singer’s father’s reaction to the woman’s sin is one of sadness and regret. He did not talk about this particular Din Torah with his family, as was his usual habit (62). He prayed that he would no longer have to earn his living as a rabbi.

“Ah, woe is us dear father…” and sometimes he would add, “How much longer? How much longer?” (63) How much longer, he wanted to know, would the exile of the Jews and the fulfillment of the promise of redemption have to last. When the same woman who had broken down and cried as she tore the holy scroll from the holy ark and swore the oath over it, returned to reveal to the Rabbi that she had sworn falsely, Singer writes not only about his father’s horror and dismay, but also about his ability to hope and pray and believe in a compassionate God who would forgive even a sin so great as this one. Perhaps here we see the origin of the sense of compassion for the weak and the sinner who sins in his weakness that permeates much of Singer’s writings.

“O woe, woe,” Singer’s father answers after the woman confesses her sin in a confidential meeting with the Rabbi. “Woe is us – this is the end of the world, the end of all ends” (65).

“Father, I heard everything,” says the young Singer.

“What did you hear? The evil inclination is strong, very strong. For a little money, one sells one’s soul. She took an oath, an oath before the Torah….But she has repented. Despite everything she is a true Jewess. Repentance helps in every need. Even Nebuzradan, when he repented, was granted forgiveness. There is no sin that cannot be wiped out by penitence” (65).

In another chapter, Singer’s father scolds a couple who, through a Purim holiday and carnival prank, had used a product of God’s creation, food, which religious Jews view as a gift from God, in order carry out their prank for the festive holiday. “Shame!” How can anyone do such things? It is a violation of the law: ‘Ye shall not make your souls abominable…” The rabbi continued by discussing the miracle of food and how plants spring forth from seeds. All the wise men of the world together could not create stalk of wheat from a seed. “And here, instead of thinking and praising the Almighty for his bounty, men had taken this gift and used it to provoke their neighbor – had defiled what He had created” (71).

Singer tells us he was often a witness to how his father’s simple words routed pettiness, vain ambition, foolish resentment, and conceit. “A sense of shame and solemnity seemed to have overcome everyone. Out of my father’s mouth spoke the Torah, and all understood that every word was just” (71). Thinking about the quarrel between the boy and girl over the Purim prank, Isaac is filled with wonder at the power of love which stirs up a longing to understand the truths of the human condition.

“I stood on the balcony in my satin gabardine and velvet hat, and gazed about me. How vast was the world, and how rich in all kinds of people and strange happenings! And how high was the sky above the rooftops! And how deep beneath the flagstones! And why did men and women love each other? And where was God, who was constantly spoken of in our house. I was amazed, delighted, entranced. I felt I must solve this riddle, I alone with my own understanding” (72).

A suicide on Krochmalna Street of a young man whose parents refuse to allow him to marry the young woman he loved, leads the distraught mother of the suicide to curse her son’s lover. Singer’s father rebukes her and orders her not to sin by cursing on the Sabbath. Even during the week it is forbidden to curse. The mother screams that if this thing, the death of her son by suicide could happen, then there is no God (76). Singer’s father responds sternly, but also with compassion. “No man is judged in his hour of grief…When someone blasphemes in a time of great affliction, his words may not be weighed too closely” (76).

According to the Rabbi, the Sabbath was a retreat from the Gentile world and its savagery. The streets outside were full of shouting, turmoil, theft, robbery, war, injustice. There was revolution and the bombs that radicals had thrown at policemen. Jewish boys were in jail for this or working in prison camps deep in Russia. It was better to retreat from this world of the real in the quest for spiritual purity. “The King’s daughter is all glorious within. For the children of a King…it is more seemly to remain within the palace, and all Jews are the children of a great King….” (77) Enticed by his father’s words young Singer asks him if he knows the Cabala. His father responds,

“You speak like a child. Can a man empty the ocean? Every word, every letter of the Torah contains thousands upon thousands of mysteries. Even the zaddikim, the righteous sages, did not understand a thousandths part of it. Even Moses, our great teacher, did not know it all….Everyone merits understanding according to his soul, as befits his spiritual elevation. As long as the soul is imprisoned within the body, it cannot fully grasp the world above…But everything is just, everything is just. Man was created in the image of God. His soul emanates from the Throne of Glory. A second after its mortal release, the soul of a water carrier may understand more than the greatest living zaddik….” (78)

The Rabbi continues, speaking of love. “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all the soul” (78). The suicide will be forgiven by a compassionate and merciful God. Even the mud in the gutter contains divine sparks. There is a particle of the divine in everything (78).

For Singer’s father, the answer to all questions was God. However, influenced by his elder brother, Israel Joshua Singer, Isaac began to read secular and worldly books, and to question the faith his father strove to impart to him. Even when he was very young, Singer was tormented by questions of a philosophical nature which his father’s faith could not answer satisfactorily.

“Every speck of lime had an infinity of parts. But how could this be? Even before I learned to read or write I was obsessed by the paradoxes of time, space, and infinity, and more over, I was convinced that only I myself could reason out such enigmas, that no one could help me” (160).

“For father the answer to all questions was God. But how did he know there was a God, since no one saw him? But if he did not exist, who had created the world, how could a thing give birth to itself? And what happened when someone died? Was there really heaven and hell? Or was a dead person no better off than a dead insect?….I do not recall a time when these questions did not torment me” (160-161).

Singer’s father preferred to ignore the commotion and tumult of city life and political strife which was transforming the Jewish as well as the Gentile world in its vain seeking of power after power, the visible turmoil of which was taking place as the secular world made inroads into the Krochmalna Street outside of his very window.

“Every morning before prayer time Father sat by a window that looked into the square, smoking his pipe and drinking innumerable glasses of tea as he studied and wrote. Before Father’s eyes thieves picked pockets, snatched bundles, and conducted their crooked lotteries. But Father never having noticed was absolutely unaware of their existence. The neighborhood teemed with Zionists, socialists, territorialists, assimilationists. Yiddish and Hebrew secular literature already existed, but to Father, all of this non-Jewishness signified nothing” (171).

The hunger and deprivation caused by World War I came to infect Krochmalna Street where now German money mixed freely with Russian rubles. Despite the attempts of the German Rabbis to introduce modern assimilationist ideas to the Hasidic community of Singer’s experience, Jews remained in gabardines and boys continued to attend heder, not attending gymnasiums in modern dress (242). The desperate Jews of Krochmalna Street could now vividly feel the pain of the High Holy Days. “Some will perish this year by the sword, and some from starvation, some by fire, and some by flood.” These words spoken every year on Yom Kippur became grimly vivid (243). The War, together with the influence of his rationalistic mother and worldly brother, led Isaac to question the need for rabbis like his father.

“The war demonstrated for me how unnecessary Rabbis were, my father among them. From all of the towns and villages, Rabbis and other ecclesiastics converged on Warsaw, dejectedly walking the street in their silk gabardines, looking for a piece of bread. Thousands of matchmakers, brokers, and small businessmen had no way of earning a living. Starving men dozed over their Talmud volumes in study houses and houses of prayer. The winter was cold and there was no fuel for the ovens” (243).

Singer’s treatment of the influence of his mother, brother, and sister is not as extensive as his intense focus on his father in the memoir. Nonetheless, these other family members influenced him profoundly, and an examination of his treatment of them in the book helps one to understand why Isaac eventually rejected the traditional Hasidic life of his father, steeped as it was in the study of holy books and the Torah, in order to embrace to a great extent the rationalism of his mother, and the secular modernity of his brother with his shaved chin and forbidden books.

The very name Isaac Bashevis Singer reveals Singer’s own acknowledgement of his intellectual debt to his mother. His middle name, Bashevis, was derived from his mother’s name, Bathsheba. The family rarely used this name when speaking about Singer’s mother because to do so went against Hasidic tradition. However, Singer tells us in several passages of the memoir, about the significant influence his mother’s rationalism, which her husband referred to as her cold blooded reason, had on Singer’s intellectual development. This rationalism and skepticism of Singer’s mother is not to be confused with any lack of faith. She remained a devout Jew and a believer in God, and the manner in which his existence required that the Jews live according to the ethical and moral imperatives derived from their religion.

In The Sacrifice, an elderly woman desires to demonstrate the depth of her boundless love for and devotion to her elderly husband by asking for a divorce in order to enable the old man to marry a younger woman. News of this bizarre request filled the women of Krochmalna Street with horror. All were in an uproar. Older women said it was the end of the world, while young women wrung their hands and felt faint. The angry ones cursed all men and said, “Well now, aren’t men worse than beasts?” (4)

In Singer’s home in the meantime, the truth came to light when the old woman spoke to Singer’s mother whose pale face was flushed with embarrassment (4). The topic of conversation was not suitable for the ears of a young boy, so Singer’s mother attempted to chase him away, but he found a way to listen anyway, afire with curiosity. In spite of the old woman’s attempts to justify her course of action with quotes from scripture (had not the matriarchs offered their maidservants as concubines to the patriarchs), Singer’s mother remains unconvinced and opposed to the plan. She believed the old woman’s request for a divorce was an affront to all of womankind. The whole idea was clearly the work of the Evil One which could only lead to an impure love. What kind of state would the world be in if all the old men started divorcing their wives and marrying young girls? (5)

While Singer’s mother remains unconvinced, his father visits the study house of his Hasids to talk over the matter with reasonable men. They concluded the divorce could be granted since both parties agreed, and no one had the right to interfere with what the elderly couple had agreed upon. Singer’s mother remains furious about the entire episode, rejecting the convoluted manner in which others in the community attempted to justify the divorce and the subsequent marriage of the old man to a young cook. She maintains her disapproval as a consequence of the fact that she is a woman, but also because of her fundamental commitment to the decency and moral rectitude which she believes are morally required, not in spite of, but as a result of her philosophical skepticism and rationalist tendencies. She rejects the position of her husband’s Hasids who find biblical quotations to justify their judgement. According to the Gemara even an elderly man is still obligated to be fruitful and multiply. “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand” (6). In Bathsheba’s view, this is pure sophistry.

Another chapter describes when an elderly Polish and Gentile wash woman, who is the very definition of dedication to one’s labor, visits the Singer home to pick up the dirty laundry. She looks at young Isaac in his gabardine and ear locks, and she remarks to Singer’s mother that she thinks Isaac looks like Jesus. After this Singer’s mother whispers to herself, “May her words be scattered in the wilderness” (30). The daughter of an opponent of Hasidism and its mysticism, Singer’s mother had inherited her father’s causticness. But the extreme dedication of the wash woman to her work fills her and Isaac with admiration, even while in her Jewish puritanism Singer’s mother views the body, that which is essential in physical labor, as a mere appendage to the soul (68), a belief she shares with her Hasidic husband.

Singer’s mother sometimes counsels troubled women who were too embarrassed to discuss deeply private matters with a man. Isaac could overhear her words of wisdom and compassion spoken in the kitchen, and even though she attempts to shoo him away, Isaac discovers that his mother speaks like a scholar and knows the bible better than his father. She had read and was familiar with difficult books such as The Duties of the Heart and the Path of the Righteous in the original Hebrew, not in Yiddish translation. “She knew a veritable ocean of law and could recite hundreds of rabbinic sayings and homiletic parables. Her words carried weight” (96). She wanted her son to grow up as a devout Jew.

After hearing a complicated confession of a woman who had given birth to a son who she had to give up for adoption, and, the distraught woman feared, was probably being raised as a Gentile, young Singer is lead to ask questions about his own identity and the purpose of life. An exchange of words between the inquisitive son and the pious mother reveals her attitude about the importance of study for a Jewish boy. Singer would be required to receive a religious education in order to grow up as a civilized and decent human being. In the Singer home, learning was looked upon as the greatest wealth (118). “Mama, am I really your son?” Singer’s mother opened her eyes wide and responded. “God have mercy, have you gone crazy….We will have to send you back to the heder. You are growing up like a wild animal! (101). On another occasion she lectures her son about the importance of study. “How does one become a scholar like that (learned man)?” she argued. “By studying, not by being idle. But instead of studying, you read foolish story books, about things that never were and never will be” (119).

Singer’s older brother, even while still dressed as a Hasid, started to spend time painting and reading worldly books, and debated at length with his mother questions of philosophy. Isaac overheard these debates, leading him to also examine philosophical questions. Singer’s mother had read Copernicus, Darwin, and Newton in Hebrew translation, and she had a predilection for philosophy, countering Israel Joshua’s views with all kinds of arguments religious philosophers still use (160). At the same time she knew how to endure poverty and material need with dignity during the German occupation of Warsaw during World War I. The clothes worn by the Singer family during these years made their poverty apparent, but Singer’s mother could wear a dress for a year, taking such good care of it that it still looked new (201).

Israel Joshua strove to be emancipated and modern in his outlook, consequently finding it difficult to speak with his father. “Unbeliever! Enemy of Judaism!” his father would claim. His mother was more tolerant, and she engaged in long talks with Isaac’s brother while also tolerating Isaac’s presence during such discussions. “And how long do you think Europe will stand for this clump of Asia in its midst?” Israel Joshua asked (207). According to him the Jews were, “Stooped, despondent, living in filth. Watch them drag their feet as they walk” (207). “Gentiles have always hated Jews,” the mother said. “Even if a Jew wore a top hat, he’d be hated because he stands for the truth” (208). Speaking more of the anti-Semitism of the Gentile world, a central theme in Singer’s writing and focus of his works influenced by the Holocaust, Singer’s mother says,

“Who cares? They’re all beasts. A cow, to them is a god. The Chinese, on the other hand, throw away their extra daughters. We Jews alone believe in One God; all the others worship trees, snakes, crocodiles, everything you can think of…They’re all wicked. Even while they say ‘Turn the other cheek,’ they murder each other and go on sinning. You want to compare them to us?” (208)

Speaking of the comparatively more assimilated reform German rabbis who used powder to shave their beards, she says, “Are they ashamed of beards because they want to look like Gentiles? If their rabbis are like that, I can imagine what the rest of them are like” (210).

Isaac’s brother, Israel Joshua, inherited his mother’s philosophical skepticism, but carried it one step further away from tradition, reading secular works and forbidden books, as well as becoming a writer for the Yiddish newspapers, a translator of important texts into Yiddish, and a writer of literature of some repute in Poland. Unsuccessful as a painter, he experienced more success as a writer, and he introduced Isaac to Russian grammar textbooks and Yiddish books of literature. He spoke of worldly events he had read of in the Yiddish newspapers. In Palestine, Jews were plowing the earth and herding sheep as in King David’s time. Russian revolutionaries planned to overthrow the Tsar and abolish money. In America there were millionaires richer than the Rothschilds, while European leaders and monarchs were required to guard themselves against criminals called The Black Hand (154-155) who had assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia, the pivotal event leading into World War.

Singer’s sister, Hinde Ester, in contrast to Israel Joshua, inherited the Hasid inspiration, love of humanity, and eccentric nature of her father’s side of the family. Had she lived in another era, she might have become a female saint, or like the Baal Shem’s daughter Hodel, who danced with the Hasidim (151). “Hers was a life of holidays, hymns, hope, and exultation. She was a Hasid in skirts; but she suffered from hysteria and had mild attacks of epilepsy. At times she seemed possessed by a dibbuk” (151). Singer’s father ignored Hinde Ester because she was a girl, while her mother, who only wanted the silence of thought and contemplation, could not understand her extremes of sadness, joy, praise, and condemnation (152). Hinde Ester complained that her family simply wanted to get rid of her by marrying her off to a diamond merchant in Antwerp, Belgium. “You’re sending me away because you hate me!” she claimed (155). Her letters to her betrothed were evidence of the first literary sparks in the family (154). They were long, intelligent, even humorous letters of which Singer’s father was not aware, but which had amazed Singer’s mother who could not understand how her daughter had acquired such a command of words since she had only a little while before arrived from the unworldly outposts of Leoncin and Radzymin (154).

The wedding took place in Berlin, a city about which the Singers were astonished to learn there were Jews, beyond the frontier, who lived in Paris and Berlin with rabbis who could speak French. The relocation of his sister to a part of Europe where there were modern, assimilationist Jews in great numbers, along with the influence of his brother Israel Joshua, created a worldly excitement which swept through the Singer household (155). Isaac too began to be influenced by modern ideas, and he commenced writing in his own fashion. He took sheets of paper from his father’s drawer and covered them with scribbles and freakish sketches. He was so eager to indulge in this infantile writing that he could hardly wait for the end of the Sabbath so he could get back to it (155). His mother observing him would say “What do you think you’re doing? Normal children don’t act that way” (155).

With his emancipated views, Singer’s brother found it to be difficult to communicate with his father, and eventually he had to leave the Singer home and live on his own. After the war began, the Russians instituted the draft, and in an attempt to avoid being conscripted in to military service, Israel Joshua was driven to return home to hide in safety. The punishment for draft dodgers was execution by the Russian military authorities, so the situation was quite serious. Singer’s father advised Israel Joshua to maim himself in order to make himself unsuitable for military conscription. “Haven’t we enough cripples already?” Israel Joshua replied. “The whole body of Jews is one big hunchback.” He was influenced by socialism, but at the same time too skeptical to have that much faith in humanity. He had deserted the old, but there was nothing new he could call his own (232).

After the Germans pushed the Russians out and occupied Warsaw, Israel Joshua had more freedom of movement about the city, and he began to pursue his artistic and literary activities with less fear of being arrested and with more ambition and determination to make a name for himself while helping humankind to develop towards a state of more justice and freedom. Speaking of the paradox of so much injustice existing in the world created by a beneficent God, the forward looking young man and his father had numerous heated arguments.

“Then according to you, Father, God is wicked.”

“Enemy of Israel. God loves man, but when man defiles himself, he must be cleansed.”

“How can you expect a Chinaman to know the Torah?” (210)

“What’s a Chinaman to you? It’s just as necessary for a Gentile to exist as for birds or fish. When I open a holy book, I sometimes see a mite smaller than a pin point walking about. It too is a wonder of God. Can all the professors in the world get together and create one mite?” (211)

Singer concedes that although he, later in life, read a great deal of philosophy, he never found more compelling arguments than those that came up in his own kitchen (211).

“My thoughts, which were not the thoughts of other boys made me both proud and lonely. And always there was the final question: What was right? What must I do? Why did God remain silent in the Seventh Heaven? Once a man came up to me and asked, ‘What’s the matter? Why do you think so hard? Are you afraid the sky will fall on you?” (212).

The reality of World War I became salient to the Singer family. At one time it had been possible for the Singer family to forget that there were such things as police, soldiers, and the laws of the Gentiles, but no longer was this the case (235). Isaac read the Yiddish papers while his brother was in hiding. There were pious and impious stories side by side in the Yiddish press. Singer’s mother reprimanded him for reading newspapers. “All they want is your pennies.” Well, thought Singer, what did the Tsar’s uncle want, or Kaiser Wilhelm and Franz Joseph? Digging further and deeper he asked what did the Emperor of everything, the Creator of Heaven and Earth require? Did God want to continue watching soldiers fight and die on Europe’s battlefields? “The Lord is good to all and his mercies are over all His works…” Was this so, the boy wanted to know, or did he mouth a lie two times a day when he recited the relevant prayer? “I must find an answer, and I must do so before the time of my bar mitzvah…” (236).

Perhaps the most revealing chapter concerning Isaacs’s movement away from the orthodoxy of his father to the worldliness and modernity of his brother is The Studio. Singer’s brother, with a false passport, moved into the artists’ studio of the famous sculptor, Ostrzego, on No. 1 Twarda Street. Singer’s mother sent Isaac there sometimes with bundles of food for Isaac’s brother. Singer describes the studio as a fantastic hall with a large skylight, landscapes, portraits, nude paintings, and statues covered with moistened sacks, all of which reminded Singer of a greenhouse or a Gentile cemetery. Israel Joshua enthusiastically greets his brother, speaking both Yiddish and Polish in the midst of other young men and women, seeming to somehow to be related not to Isaac, but to the student Raskolnikov, about whom Isaac had been reading in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (238). Feeling embarrassed in his gabardine and side locks in such surroundings, Isaac was surprised that his brother did not seem discomfited by them. Ostrzego questioned him about the Talmud and could still recite sections from memory. Isaac found it odd to hear sacred words coming from the lips of a hatless man (238).

The artists begin to draw sketches of the boy, making him feel important as he had once before in a clinic where several doctors had poked his belly, back, and ribs (238). Singer began to realize that there was more to a boy than the ability to study. Among these intellectuals and artists the body was respected. Surrounded by statues and paintings of nudes, and the sight of naked breasts, he was astonished by the figures of young and pretty girls. He had assumed that breasts were solely the property of slovenly women who nursed babies in public, and he had been brought to believe that only a lecher observed such things. In the studio however, he came to realize that artists looked at women and their bodies differently (239).

Later, Singer would come to know these artists and intellectuals and speak to them as an equal, but at the time of his first visits to the studio, the intelligentsia appeared to be beings from a superior world – so witty, intelligent, wise, and with “worldly eyes” (239). The ways of the intelligentsia became more familiar to him. They neither prayed not studied from holy books, nor did they make benedictions. They also ate meat with milk, broke other holy laws, and the girls posed nude with no more shame than they would have about undressing in their own bedrooms (239). “In fact it was like the Garden of Eden there, before Adam and Eve had partaken of the tree of knowledge. Although they spoke Yiddish, these young people acted as freely as Gentiles” (240). This new environment for Isaac was quite a change from the environment of his father’s home. However, both places together help to establish what would later become a pattern inherent in his writing. “Even in my stories it is just one step from the study house to sexuality and back again. Both phases of existence have continued to interest me” (240).

Singer eventually adopted the manners of his brother and the Yiddish intelligentsia, reading great secular literature, philosophy (in particular was his great interest in Spinoza) and shedding his Hasidic dress and ear locks. It would seem that the rationalism and philosophical skepticism of his mother and brother eventually emerged victorious over the traditional piety and mysticism of his father. Nonetheless, as is evident from the study of Singer’s numerous writings, the subject matter of the greater part of his literature remained focused on the traditional world of his father’s Hasidism. Now, even over two decades after his death, his literature remains a great portal through which we can examine and study a kind of life and civilization which, due to the Nazi crimes of the Holocaust, was obliterated and no longer exists in Poland, even while it continues to live on the pages of Singer’s stories and books.

 

References

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. In My Father’s Court. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966.

Andrew Lawrence CrownAndrew Lawrence Crown

Andrew Lawrence Crown

Andrew Lawrence Crown is a Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Political Science and Economics. He also holds a Master of Arts in political science from The University of Chicago, and he has been teaching English, history, political science, law, writing, education, and other subjects at both the high school and college levels for twenty-six years. Andrew is currently based in Busan, South Korea where he resides with his family, and you may view and read his online short fiction collection, Adoration of the Korean: Expatriate Tales Made in Korea, at: http://www.andycrown.net/

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